Beating Campus Doldrums

Stock up on kindness to confront perils of winter, Maria Shine Stewart suggests.

January 27, 2012
"One must have a mind of winter / To regard the frost and the boughs / Of the pine-trees crusted with snow..."                                      --Wallace Stevens, "The Snow Man"


Winter is tough in cloudy Cleveland -- and, I trust, elsewhere. After the sparkle of Christmas and the gleam of Hannukah, the power of Kwanzaa and the exultation of New Year’s, arrive the boot-covered days, the tissue-wielding days, the carbohydrate-crunching days, the why-can’t-humans-hibernate days, and the hasn’t-that-person-ever-driven-in-snow-before days. (Yes, sometimes those all converge on the same day.)

There is a lot to grouse about as January freezes into February which then skids into March in my neck of the woods, and perhaps yours, too. And there are physiological reasons for the emotional deceleration that echoes the blank sky. It took me years to truly acknowledge that lack of light dims my mood. But now I know that definitively – I have felt the correlation and know that it’s cause and effect, too.

I strive to remember that any cloud above is just a natural formation and not a complete indictment of life down here. And as far as inner clouds go, one might keep an eye on them and watch their ever-changing shapes. Prone to S.A.D., I seek out tips to feel better as you might … and maybe I linger in the lamp store to feel a spark before returning to my cave -- I mean house -- and the solace of my wolf – I mean dog.

Luckily, classrooms are well-lit; I perk up in them. There are mood experts whose research can be consulted. And I keep an eye on students and colleagues.

It’s ok to care, not coddle.

Winter blahs are not blues and not necessarily full-blown clinical depression. But they can be confounded and may have a pivot point. As well as having S.A.D., I have skidded into major depression a few times. Aligned with most teachers, I am enough of a performer to set aside a dark mood in service of subject matter and classroom processes. I have a video of my teaching for a community group over several weeks – then months -- post-partum, and am astounded that I could perform. No one could tell … But I am not Hercules, and having hit the wall of depression several times, I feel that the only silver lining is that I can sometimes sense it in others. And like other walls, it might be toppled with the right interventions and even turned sideways into a bridge of empathy.

One semester a student arrived consistently late to second-semester English class; I suspected from her bearing and tangled hair that she was not “just” oversleeping but teetering at the edge of a very dark mood. Her major projects were submitted on time – all but one, the first. When that did not come in, I reminded her that there had been no formal extension granted; she made no excuses. When her absences mounted, I called her to remind her of the attendance policy. When she eventually asked to talk to me privately, I sensed it would be a disclosure.

That winter day was unseasonably warm -- and sunny -- so I suggested we sit outside. We all project a persona of capability, but I knew this could be one time when something along the lines of I get it might help to destigmatize, at least for a moment. As she shared that she thought she was depressed, I made suggestions from my own experience (as in break reading and writing down into small installments) and made the most critical suggestion of all: Please fold in your physician and/or the campus counseling center.

I lost a friend to suicide in January 1976. She was under psychiatric care and home, indefinitely, from a first-rate college. I know from this heartache, and reading books and studies, that the first episode of major depression may strike in the freshman or sophomore year for social, biochemical or psychological reasons, or all three. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention advises those who can to strive to “prevent suicide through early recognition and treatment of depression and other psychiatric illnesses.”

Remember how you coped with winters gone by…

Winters of my own discontent include transferring to a large state school, Cleveland State University, during a dreary winter, and suddenly. I had been visiting one sister in Cincinnati, and she drove in a blinding fog to get me to the Greyhound so I could make it to a mandatory new student orientation in time later that day. It was an epic, dangerous ride and I over-worried about the decision to transfer (over-worrying is a curse I wish I could disperse with my magic wand for today’s students).

It was a steep learning curve, but I made it through that semester; these days, I ask if there are transfer students in my classes and suggest that returning students consider getting to know them. Away from family ties. Achieving independence. Questioning, probing, worrying, wondering. Irregular sleep patterns, nutritional shifts, and possible drinking or substance use/abuse, even spiritual dislocation. First-year blues.

Improvise when the going gets tougher

My favorite impromptu adaptation in a chilly classroom is to project a cozy fireplace scene behind me. I am oblivious to a wide range of temperatures when teaching, but students are not (they are sitting while I am moving as much as I want). Such a distracting scene – perhaps in a lodge or an advertisement for fireplaces -- offers gentle consolation until the problem can actually be solved. I have also projected cups of hot chocolate and coffee in early-morning classes. Vicarious but effective.

Recognize that (genuine) colds and flus may slow one down …

Varying the old phrase, an inch of prevention is worth a yard of cure, so perhaps eat even a few inches of fresh produce, find time for relaxation and clear a few inches off your desk to make room for a family photo or a vacation shot or something else that lifts your spirits. The carrot that will serve as the snowman’s nose, for example, is the type of thing that might make an excellent snack. Grab an extra as you prepare to romp in the snow or, more likely, rush to campus.

There is research (Nichol, Heilly, Ehlinger 2005) on the impact of colds and influenza on student health, academic and work performance, and health care use. Don’t underestimate what a break in immunity may do to yourself or your colleagues either. Many may recall the study some years ago that the stress of studying for upcoming tests might lead to more susceptibility to colds; extreme cold itself is a significant stressor, of course. Hats off (no, on) to campus workers who brave the cold. No one should run on adrenaline all semester only to get sick on spring break; I’ve done that, too.

Be smarter.

Savor the beauty of nature

One of the most beautiful images I’ve seen on two campuses is a group of robins clustered in the branches of a tree as snow falls. Vivid, unexpected. And have you noticed that most people look pretty good in hats and scarves? Kids get those ruddy cheeks and superhuman energy in the snow, as does my dog. Did you know that canine foot pads keep them from freezing -- even as my own boots leak from stepping in salty puddles in the parking lot, and trouper that I am, I have taught more than once with numbing toes? Which reminds me …

Please be kind in the parking lot

Park between the lines; don’t hog two spaces. Clean off your windows before rushing out. Look both ways before backing up: don’t trust your intuition on that one.

Know when to slow down.

In 2003, two years after my neck and shoulders were hurt in an auto accident and while still handicap-permit-bearing, I had an experience so jarring that it led me to write a detailed letter to the editor to one campus newspaper. It was published -- but had I been any more able, I would have plastered it on everyone’s windshield in every campus in the city. Now I am sharing just a sliver of this drama to 900,000 site visitors. It’s an example of a huge risk taken by a driver. Don’t take such a chance.

I was signaling to turn left into a handicapped parking space before my 11 a.m. class while slow-walking pedestrians slipped and slid around me in the parking lot. I paused to let them pass (no longer than 10 or 15 seconds, I estimate) when another driver (student? staff? faculty? daredevil?) zipped by me on the left just as I was about to make my left turn into the space. He/she was eager to park a few spots away, I guess. I hit the brake. Disaster averted.

Stay warm in every sense

Winter might be a good time to ponder the warmth of the human heart – neighbors who bring their snow blower over, people generous with smiles, safety forces who work overtime. And if all else fails in combating winter blues or blahs, start counting the days toward spring.


“Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust and hostility to evaporate.”

--Albert Schweitzer


For my mom.


Maria Shine Stewart teaches and writes in South Euclid, Ohio.


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