Narcolepsy and Evolution: How to Deal With a Student Sleeping in Class

July 18th, 2012By Category: Culture, Teaching in Japan

Our curriculum at a university in Tokyo requires us to have at least fifteen minutes of silent reading every class. As such it should not be surprising that often students will open their books during this fifteen minutes, place them on their desks and fall asleep. Some students, it seems, have gained a talent and mastered the art of sleeping with their eyes open. Instead of leaning on the desk they just stare blankly into space without so much as turning to the first page, grasping the closed book in their hands as though it is evidence that they are in fact doing what they are supposed to be doing.

I can’t blame them for being tired. Every day that they have English they have it in three-hour sessions, which is a terrible yoko meshi experience. On top of that, Japanese college students tend to spend many of their nights out at karaoke or drinking into the wee hours of the morning; so it’s no wonder they’re exhausted and reading a small book in English isn’t exactly the caffeine kick they might need. Whether I agree with the fifteen minutes of silent reading requirement or not, my job is my job and while I feel sympathetic for these poor narcoleptics (narcs?) I do my best to seduce them to actually stay awake and read, baby, read.

Yesterday during reading time two of my students were obviously asleep. One of the two just doesn’t care about his grade, the other had his I’m-sleeping-but-actually-reading set up on his desk. It’s really amazing what students think teachers don’t notice. This student is particularly obvious because he was sitting in the front row.

Normally I just let them enjoy their naps and make a note of who sleeps, but yesterday, for whatever reason, I felt like doing something different. So while he was sleeping I took his watch from him and I put it on my wrist. It was a very nice watch, so I was sure he would miss it. Then I ended the boring reading session by telling everyone to put their books away and wake up. I proceeded to give the students a lecture reminding them of why we do silent reading, what percentage of their final grade is a result of silent reading, etc. All this time my student is frantically searching for his watch and I couldn’t help but smile. Truth be told I was probably unconsciously giggling throughout my lecture as I am the type of person who has a hard time controlling his laughter. I really did have to suppress my urge because this guy was just shuffling through everything he owned like he had just lost his precious, and all he had to do was look at his teacher to find it.

Toward the end of my brief lecture I talked about sleeping during the silent reading period. I explained that reading time is not nap time and I reminded them that I keep a record of everyone who sleeps in class and that affects their grade. I then asked the two students who were sleeping whether sleeping was allowed. The kid who doesn’t give a shit about his grade was just like, no. But the kid whose watch I took immediately defended himself, without even answering my question.

“I wasn’t sleeping. I was reading. I was just resting my head on the desk.”

“You weren’t sleeping?”


“Then what are you looking for?”

I am now talking to him directly, wearing his watch, even intentionally putting my wrist right in front of him. Half the class saw me take the watch and they’re giggling which makes it harder to control my cruel self.

“I’m not looking for anything.”

He lies and stops looking for anything.

“So where’s your watch?”

I ask him, tapping on it. He starts searching for it again. I repeat it again and point to it on my wrist and he still doesn’t get it, instead he looks at both of his wrists. I give up, take the watch off and hand it to him.

“So you weren’t sleeping? How did I get your watch?”

And he still denies it, but he knows I know the truth, he knows that everyone knows the truth.

This phenomenon of lying is pretty common in the classroom world. Not only are students constantly lying about the obvious, but they come up with the most ridiculous excuses when they are caught doing something wrong, or they just say nothing at all. But one thing they almost never do is to admit they did something wrong when they get caught:

Me: Hey, you know the rules, no texting in class. Your phone please.

Student: Huh? Class started?

Really, that’s your excuse? Or how about this one from a fellow teacher: he caught his student with an open book out during a test. The teacher picks up the book and confronts the student:

Student: What? I didn’t know that was there! I’ve been looking for that book!

The list goes on and on.

Such incidents remind me of a German word I learned a while back: Dickkopf. Dickkopf by a dictionary standard means a stubborn person or a blockhead, but as it was explained to me in high school it can also refer to a person who argues even though they know they are wrong. Okay, that makes sense, I remember thinking, that sounds German, but that also sounds like the students in my class. It is obvious that they know they are wrong. They know they are in the wrong, everyone knows they are in the wrong, and yet they continue to spin the same tale like a dirty politician. Why? Wouldn’t it make more sense to come out clean?

The more I thought about it the more I realized the classroom is hardly isolated from the real world. While I was chatting with a friend online we both realized that actually this phenomenon seems to be something that defines us as humans, whether we’re students, office workers, or grandmas. We are all Dickköpfe. We are well aware of what is right and wrong and when we do something that we know is universally accepted as wrong (philosophers out there, please just read on, don’t argue with me about the term universally) we deny it, or we just pretend like it didn’t happen. Personally I think the most common reflex is to deny it straight away and come up with highly implausible the-dog-ate-my-homework excuses.

Now, I would love to give you personal examples, but unfortunately I am such an outstanding citizen and flawless human specimen who does everything he is supposed to do for God, country and humanity that I have never been caught doing anything wrong, but I will give you some examples of those who are less obedient.

When my friend went out to a bar, he was asked to show his ID. At the time he was under 21 and in his mind when carded he was probably thinking, “Oh crap!” But what came out of his mouth was: I left it in the parking lot. This of course was followed by an extremely awkward pause by the bar tender and was not accepted as a legitimate form of identification. That is completely justifiable since it is a terrible excuse. You left your ID in the parking lot. Why? Why don’t you go and get it? In fact, my friend knew that it was an absurd statement on so many levels. He knew that it wouldn’t work. He doesn’t even remember why he said it. He didn’t even want to say it, but something in him made him blurt it out, some unconscious impulse. I left it in the parking lot (for the record this bar didn’t even have a parking lot, and my friend doesn’t have a car). But he was caught and something inside him immediately came to his defense.

Or how about this one (this is my favorite): Officials arrested a man in Florida for downloading hundreds of files of child pornography. When he was caught he blamed his cat for having a bad habit of playing with his keyboard. Really? I mean…just, really? The cat did it…Even if his cat did have a “Kiddy fetish” (I apologize immediately for that pun) why wouldn’t he just delete the files? Did he really think that excuse would fly? Why would he say that?

Of course, I can only speculate as to why we seem to say these things, but that impulse my friend had at the bar seems to be some part of us that makes us human. If Ricky Gervais is right, and lying is an evolutionary trait, perhaps this is connected to our knee-jerk reactions of denying the obvious and our Dickkopf tendencies.

If this is a part of human nature then maybe we shouldn’t be so upset when an anti-gay politician denies asking for homosexual favors through a glory hole, or when a cheating husband gets caught nailing the maid because he was really just “helping her clean up a nasty spot.” Instead, maybe we should accept it and celebrate the fact that these liars are actually human beings, not monsters. After all, we all do things we’re not supposed to (except me) and we all lie (again, excluding your beloved narrator). Perhaps the people you really have to watch out for are the ones who don’t deny a thing. Perhaps they are the real mutants.

Photo by: circle1720 via Flickr Creative Commons


Author of this article

Peter Edmondson

Peter Edmondson is currently an Assistant Professor at some University in Japan. He likes food, happiness, and food. Recently he is very interested in blues music. Thanks for reading!

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  • steve ward says:

    well that true and like you said most likely a reflex but yea 3 hours of English would drive me crazy and im pretty good with English.

  • leslie nguyen says:

    Interesting read here. It reminds me of when my Japanese teacher caught me in Japanese language class and I immediately did the most common reflex of denying it straight away. I refused to admit my guilt and I knew this! I think it is so hard to admit guilt for most human beings. My fault for sure and I don’t want to go through that again. In the end, it goes to show that NO ONE is perfect. Love your last sentence in the article by the way.

  • Aswin Ara says:

    Don’t you mean dumkopf instead of sickkopf??


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