As a public school student, I recall dreading the first day back after the summer vacation long before that fateful day arrived. Its shadow loomed large and ever increasingly ominous over the last few weeks, tainting my prolonged nocturnal fiction book reading marathons. The sight of back-to-school sales were enough to make my stomach recoil. I imagine that this is how soldiers preparing to storm a certain beach in Normandy would have felt, readying themselves to plunge into an uncertain future that contained at the most death, and at the least, certain horror — though I suppose mixed in there is that unique elated excitement born from the headlong rush into a danger that you know will change you irrevocably.
As a public school teacher, the feeling as the first day of school draws nigh is disturbingly similar. It’s different, of course, because now I am an adult, and I am the teacher, and I am much more in control of certain variables of myself and my situation than I was as a hormonally charged and overly sensitive adolescent desperately scrounging for social and emotional currency. So there’s a bit more of a positive edge to this adrenaline coursed pulsing of nausea that edges and nips at my stomach as I think ahead to that swiftly approaching D-Day, but otherwise it feels more or less the same. It’s not exactly something I relish, as you can probably tell.
It seems to me that there is something odd about some of the traditions and rituals that we cling to in our society. One of them being this prolonged summer vacation between different grades (another being our adherence to daylight savings time). Most of us are aware that disadvantaged students lose a significant portion of their academic gains in learning over the summer. The students that I have been working with, whom are not only disadvantaged socio-economically speaking, but furthermore cognitively speaking, lose nearly all of their learning if they are not practicing their acquired skills during the summer. Which was pretty far back (2-4 grade levels behind) to begin with.
This has been the first summer since I began teaching that I’ve fully enjoyed, as the last two I’ve spent most of taking trainings, exams and classes. And therefore I can state that having extended vacations — during which I am still getting paid — is a very nice thing indeed. But I can also say that I think it’s just a tad overlong. Since coming back from my honeymoon, I’ve been trying to get back into the swing of things: waking up early, staying on top of my Twitter and news feeds, responding to emails, putting together to-do lists and checking off items. But it’s really bloody hard when you’ve just completely gone off the whole map of what it means to be in a structured schedule and environment.
I’m not whining. I’m bringing this up to make the point that I don’t think having prolonged summer breaks is good for either students nor adults. Both students and adults may say that we enjoy 2-3 month long summer breaks on principle, but the fact is that even students — except for those sent away to posh summer camps — begin to flounder in the over abundance of free time and get just a little bit, well, bored. Or perhaps just a bit directionless. We all need to have some kind of structure in our lives to help keep us developing and healthy. During the long summer, that structure, unless maintained by strict parenting (on the part of students) or self-discipline (on the part of teachers), tends to fall to the wayside. And much that had been built during the school year is therefore left to fester.
I would much prefer to have more plentiful but shorter vacations, as Kathleen Porter-Magee suggests in this Room for Debate post from a while back. Something on the scale of 2 weeks, as opposed to 2 months. Just long enough to really enjoy it and ease up the pace and tension, but not so long that I’ve forgotten what it means to work entirely. But more importantly, this would much reduce the severity of that adrenaline inducing sense of nausea that the first day of school brings after an overlong summer vacation.
Part of the reason for the fear and nervousness that accompanies the first day of school is not only that summer is ending — it is because you know that you are about to be plunged head-first into a long and seemingly never-ending tunnel of frenzied efforts to stay on top of a pile of emotionally and cognitively and physically demanding tasks during 70 hour work-weeks that never stops piling up in front of you, with only the occasional 3-day weekend or stray “winter recess” or “spring break” to keep you functionally sane and from developing scurvy. If we had more vacations in lieu of a long summer break, these could help keep both the students and adults capable of functioning in a somewhat rational and civilized manner and from developing strange growths in their necks and holes in their stomach linings.
Sigh. Well, yes, I’ve rather been enjoying this summer. Lots of beer (and subsequent belly distending, which I attempt to counterbalance with running) and wine, hanging out with beautiful and wonderful friends and family, savoring fresh pineapple, papaya and coconut. Learning how to cook again. Reveling in my new marriage and amazing catch of a wife. I’ve even been reading fiction books! That have nothing to do with education! Just for the fun of it! (Can you tell that I feel vaguely guilty?)
And as that first day draws ever nearer, I attempt to fight back the eddying fear of the unknown by beginning to prepare in whatever way I can. But here’s the thing, folks. In the world of public education, you can never be fully prepared. So you are just left with that nauseous, sinking, fluttery feeling every morning until suddenly you wake up several weeks after the school year has hit you, and you’ve become fully immersed in your professional self once again . . .