From the head's desk: 21 February 2020

Sarah Warner

Dear parents

It will be a whole week since Valentine’s Day when you read this – a whole week since I discussed with the girls in Friday morning’s assembly what filled my heart with joy: among other things, our winning the closely contested Night Gala at St Stithians College on Thursday evening; the invitation to Grade 11 Gibson Pillay Learning Academy pupil Sinoyolo Qumba “to help edit Ramaphosa’s 2020 State of the Nation Address”; and the announcement that Johannesburg architects Sumayya Vally, Sarah de Villiers and Amina Kaskar have been commissioned to design the Serpentine Pavilion at Kensington Gardens – the all-women, Johannesburg-based practice, Counterspace, is the youngest-ever team to be commissioned and they will construct their pavilion, the tenth to be constructed since 2000, using sustainable materials.

I am glad we had an opportunity to discuss such seemingly unrelated good news on a day when we traditionally celebrate love. It was a beautiful day, made more beautiful by the girls’ exuberance as they walked around the campus dressed in red, white and pink (and black), exchanged chocolates and trinkets and cards, and played outside in the sunshine. We were delighted, also, to welcome Little Saints to the Junior School amphitheatre for their Valentine’s Day picnic.

The truth is, though, I had planned to speak to the girls about something else in assembly. I changed my mind at the last minute. I had planned to speak to them about a topic that has been occupying my thoughts for the past fortnight, ever since I began reading Matthew Walker’s bestselling book on the recommendation of one of our Junior Primary fathers: I planned to speak to them about sleep. On a day dedicated to love of the romantic variety, I was going to open with the following quote from Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams:

Personally, I should note that I am in love with sleep (not just my own, though I do give myself a non-negotiable eight-hour sleep opportunity every night). I am in love with everything sleep is and does. I am in love with discovering all that remains unknown about it. I am in love with communicating the astonishing brilliance of it to the public. I am in love with finding any and all methods for reuniting humanity with the sleep it so desperately needs.

Part of the reason I am writing about Walker’s research here first is to enlist your support in reuniting our daughters with the sleep they so desperately need or, in some cases, to urge you to continue with the wonderful, health-enhancing sleep routines you have put in place in your home. The casual and limited research I have conducted with the Grade 7 girls over the last few weeks suggests that many of our girls are not getting enough sleep – neither are we, which is equally concerning – and that their sleep deprivation derives from a demanding co-curricular programme (which has a knock-on effect with homework), over-stimulated brains from late-night exposure to screens, tidying their rooms late at night, and using their beds as a work surface. All of this results in a confused mix of anxiety and apathy and their struggling to fall asleep. A few of them still read; most are too tired.

The picture I have so far is not encouraging. Walker’s thesis, that the more we know about sleep, the more we will value it, is one I am willing to test. Join me, please, in reminding your daughters of the remarkable benefits of sleep. To paraphrase Walker: sleep enriches our ability to learn, memorize, and make logical decisions and choices, and it recalibrates our emotional brain circuits, allowing us to navigate social and psychological challenges; dreaming mollifies painful memories and gives us a virtual reality space in which the brain melds past and present knowledge, inspiring creativity. Not to mention what sleep does for our immune system.

Walker’s research makes clear that we have a shared responsibility, not only to look after our daughters, but also to look after ourselves by modelling more sensible behaviour in relation to sleep and breaking bad, wakeful habits. Of course, it’s not easy, especially if, like me, you are a night owl in a world that favours morning larks – but that is another story…

Dr Sarah Warner
Headmistress: Junior School

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