Boredom and Storytelling


T. S. Sullivant, cartoon, “The Infectious Yawn” early 1900s
T. S. Sullivant, cartoon, “The Infectious Yawn” early 1900s

When I was a beginning teacher, part of my mentorship required visits to the classrooms of older, career teachers in order to pick up tips, and also (presumably) to hone my own teaching persona by applying my own critical faculties to the teaching practices of others.

One formidable teacher managed her classes by developing a particularly fearsome persona. First, she would turn up at least a quarter hour late to each class, which would impress upon everybody how important her own time was in relation to that of everyone else. She would make sure to arrive puffing. I never saw her enter a room without puffing and panting.

Second, she would routinely plonk her backside upon the desks of various students, even if it meant sitting upon their books and stationery. (I wonder if anyone was tempted to come to class armed with thumb tacks.)

Most of all, this teacher was manic-vigilant, pouncing upon any student staring out the window or fiddling with their pen. One day when I was in attendance, a student made the grave mistake of yawning unself-consciously. It wasn’t a loud yawn, and the hapless girl wasn’t even making a statement. But the teacher decided to take this as a grave personal insult, interpreting a yawn as only one emotion: boredom, and boredom not just with the subject matter but with the teacher herself. The girl got into a lot of strife for daring to yawn.

I think of this incident whenever our Border collie yawns, because the funny thing about many dogs is that dogs yawn not out of boredom but due to excitement. “Walk!” I’ll say enthusiastically, and this will have him trotting to the door, stretching his front legs and yawning uncontrollably. He shakes his head afterwards. You may have seen dogs do it. This sort of yawn is not due to someone sitting at the front of a classroom droning on about spelling rules.

Humans are not dogs, but I’m sure this mammalian reflex indicates something slightly more complicated than one hundred percent boredom. In fact, we should never assume to know too much from a person’s body language, even if the likes of Alan Pease would like to consider everything in binaries and absolutes.

In some contexts, yawning simply means ‘gaping’ or ‘open wide’.

Don Ivan Punchatz’s 1974 cover art for Night’s Yawning Peal, edited by August Derleth
Don Ivan Punchatz’s 1974 cover art for Night’s Yawning Peal, edited by August Derleth
Night’s Yawning Peal (Consul, 1965- originally published in the USA by Pellegrini & Cudahy, 1952)
Walter Richard Sickert Ennui c.1914
Ennui c.1914 Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942)

Header illustration: “Baseball Player Mowing the Lawn,” Stevan Dohanos, Saturday Evening Post, July 20, 1946.