Early Birds and Night Owls

A gender parable

Summer has just started, and it’s your first time going to summer camp, and you’re pretty excited. (For those of you who haven’t been to summer camp, imagine high school with less supervision, more cliques, and fewer actual important things to learn) You arrive at camp and everyone stands around in front to find out where they’re going to be staying and what they’re going to be doing all summer. The counselors, who are veteran campers themselves, full of experience and enthusiasm, get up and start explaining to everyone how camp is going to work.

“The way we divide people into cabins at this camp is by sleep patterns. This just makes the most sense, because we have busy days scheduled for you all and we have it worked out so you can be rested and alert at the right times. It also helps us schedule the right activities for you. For instance, early risers like breakfast, so we’ll teach them to cook. By contrast, late-risers like to party, so they’ll have dancing classes. You’ll be doing stuff together too but we’re sure this way of breaking things up is accurate and ideal for everyone. We’ve already talked to your families and worked out who will do best getting up early, and who will do best staying up late. So we’ll call off all the names and sort you into Early Bird cabin and Night Owl cabin.”

You watch as everyone around you is divided up into one cabin or the other and they all seem satisfied, settling out into two clear groups, folks in one line are planning where to watch the sun rise, and some in the other are excitedly talking about going out stargazing. Finally they call your name, and you’re sorted into the Early Bird cabin. That basically makes sense to you, you’ve always had to get up early to go to school because you live pretty far away and you’ve never really had a problem with that. Early Bird cabin sounds fine, so you head off there with everyone else.

At first, everything seems okay. Counselors wake you up early, you’re used to that, and you’re doing fine. But you start looking around and you realize that most of your cabinmates are really into this whole Early Bird thing. They’re up all on their own even before the wake up call and going on dawn hikes. They’re loving every bit of every Early Bird activity and looking at the Night Owls across the way, murmuring sometimes about how lazy they all must be and saying how glad they are that they don’t have to do that stuff. They call all this ‘Cabin Spirit’ and you’re just not feeling it. You’re looking at everything and thinking sometimes it might be nice to get a bit more rest in the morning, and maybe see about those dancing classes. But you shrug it off, you’re an Early Bird, you’ve always woken up early, and the sorting system is supposed to be perfectly accurate, right?

A little while later, one of your fellow Early Birds, Alex, goes to talk to the counselors. Alex is sure xe was put in the wrong group. Xe has trouble getting to sleep every night, and has to drag xemself out of bed every morning and is miserable about it for most of the day. The counselors grill xem about it and say how strange it is, and make Alex try to hold a Night Owl schedule while still being in the Early Bird cabin, to ‘prove it’. Finally, they give Alex the go-ahead to move in with the Night Owls, and as far as you can tell, xe’s much happier there. But now you have this knowledge that the sorting process isn’t infallible, and people can in fact move from one cabin to the other. You’re not happy with how things are in your cabin either, most of the folks there seem more different from you than you expected, and you’re pretty tired in the morning a lot too. Then again, Alex has talked a lot about xyr experiences trying to fit in, and you’re sure you’re not feeling as out-of-place and sleep-deprived as xe was.

Still, now that the thought is in your head, you start taking a closer look at the Night Owls, hanging out with them as much as your schedule allows, even sneaking out when the Early Birds are all asleep to spend some nights in their cabin. There’s a lot you like there, but things don’t go perfect. Some of the classes are great, but others aren’t as fun as they looked, and it feels great to sit around the campfire and gaze at the stars, but it turns out that their idea of late nights are usually a lot later than you expected. And what’s more, you see just as much of that silly Cabin Spirit as the Early Birds had, and you can’t really connect with it here either. Being a Night Owl feels a bit better than being an Early Bird, but it still doens’t feel entirely comfortable. Sometimes you just want to get some sleep when everyone’s talking late into the night, and sometimes you wake up in the morning, feeling lonely and awkward with everyone else still asleep.

One night, as you’re trying to quietly sneak back into Early Bird cabin, you notice there’s some other folks out; not asleep like the Early Birds, not out doing Night Owl things, but gathering together in the forest between the two. You recognize some of them from each cabin, and when you get to talking, they explain that they don’t really feel at home in either one. At first, this seams great, it’s just what you needed, and you’re happy to spend time with them rather than the gung-ho Cabin Spirit folks. They show you the best ways to get into whatever activities you want, and they find other places to sleep that aren’t bound by the cabin schedules. Mostly this means little tents in the forest, because the counselors really don’t like this group of folks much at all.

This complicated in-between life gives you all a lot of reason to talk about why you’re all out of the cabins, and everyone’s different views on camp life. And that’s when you start to feel like you’ve found a third place where you don’t fit in. You talk about how you tried out both cabins, disliked some things a lot, liked some things a little, want to stay up late but maybe not that late, and mostly you get a lot of blank stares. What you hear from other people are different stories: Some of the others have a philosophical problem with the categorization system in the first place (and you tend to agree with them on that) but otherwise still keep to schedules that look a lot like Early Birds or Night Owls. Others work on avoiding sleep all together, or take a bunch of small naps all through the day. This all seems to work out well for them, everyone seems happy or at least fulfilled and confident in their cabinless state, but they’re all so different, from each other, and from you.

But you’re staying with the tent folks for now, because it’s easiest to do whatever you need to when everyone around you is just doing their own thing too. At this point you’ve learned how to sneak into whatever classes you want, and you get to work out your own schedule, you usually sleep in later than the Early Birds but go to bed sooner than the Night Owls, though sometimes you’re up earlier or later based on what there is to do or how you’re feeling. It works out pretty well. But sometimes you find yourself sitting in your tent, having trouble sleeping because everyone’s on a different schedule, and you look at those cabins full of people who seem to know what they want, who have other friends around them who are sleeping when they are and awake when they are, and you just wish there was one where you could actually get a good night’s sleep.

(Original image here, used under CC-SA 3.0)