No more pencils, no more books…
I’ve always heard that a school of piranha can skeletonize a cow in mere minutes, a trivial tidbit that came to mind as I watched the students in my classroom remove everything attached to the walls in preparation for summer break. Dozens of educational elements, from large wall posters to tiny “word wall” words, were ravenously detached in a frenzy of activity. What had taken me hours to put up was taken down in minutes, and my students stepped back and surveyed the bare bones of our room with sighs of satisfaction.
For the kids, there is an almost painfully sweet quality to the approaching end of a school year. Each emptied desk and vacant bulletin board is a sure sign that freedom is tantalizingly near, yet the final dismissal seems ever-receding, like a desert mirage. This frustrating combination of heightened anticipation and delayed gratification is largely responsible for the June madness that tries the souls of students and teachers alike. You can’t blame the children: when you’re only nine or ten years old, a summer off is one long vacation.
I remember the pure joy with which I greeted the arrival of every summer break as a child. Leaving school on that last day was like emerging from a drab, sepia-tone existence into the bedazzling technicolor splendor of Oz. The door slammed shut on yet another academic year, moving everyone closer toward magical adulthood and all of its unimaginable liberties. In the meantime, a glorious stretch of warm weather and general irresponsibility beckoned.
Curiously, the sensation wasn’t all that different at the conclusion of my first year of teaching. I believe that most teachers would agree with me that one’s rookie year is a trial by fire, when the stark realities of day-to-day teaching make it painfully obvious that there is far more to educating than writing wonderful lesson plans. That first year is about survival, willing oneself to learn quickly from the inevitably numerous mistakes, and coming out on the other side of it with a contract for the following year is a great feeling of accomplishment. My first summer off felt like a fantastic indulgence, though far from suffering any guilt over it, I truly felt that I had earned it.
Now, having taught for nearly a decade, I experience the end of a school year quite differently. A little older and wiser, I have become attuned to the rhythm that runs from August to June, and by the time the last day arrives, it all seems to have gone by very quickly. It’s the annual repetition that does it. When I think about particular lessons and projects from last fall, I realize that a good chunk of time has elapsed. But each year has elements in common with its predecessors, making every subsequent year seem just a little shorter.
“It went by in a flash, didn’t it?” I observed as a colleague and I walked the halls yesterday after our students had left for the summer.
“Oh, I know,” he replied. “It seems like we were doing the same thing only a couple months ago.”
Returning to my empty classroom, I felt none of the exhilaration that I experienced after my first year of teaching. In its place was a combination of subtler emotions. There was the contentment that comes from having completed another academic year to the best of my ability. A little voice in my head reminded me that just as every school year passes quicker than the last, so shall the forthcoming summer go by with unprecedented speed. Better make the best of it. Accompanying this was a sense of simple relief, the knowledge that I need not concern myself with the multitude of details involved in another day’s teaching until August.
Overriding all of these thoughts was the constant hum of my mind as it considered the challenges that await in the next academic year. How will I arrange all of the desks, materials, and technology to the best advantage in my new room assignment? How might I streamline everything to become more efficient? What parts of the curriculum warrant the most attention for planning? What improvements should I make to beginning-of-year procedures? How am I going to make it all work? That hum will continue for the next couple weeks, sometimes surfacing even in my dreams, until I at last relax and enter summer mode. It will start again when the first “Back to School Sale” fliers appear near the end of July.
Above all, as this latest summer break begins, I am grateful for the downtime. Not that it won’t be busy enough in our household, what with our eldest daughter learning to drive and both of our girls needing to be chauffeured to daily athletic practices. There will be various projects to tackle, enough to absorb my ample leisure time if I allow it. But even if I were to fill every waking hour with productive labor, it would still be qualitatively different from the mentally and physically exhaustive work of educating children. I will enjoy the break from being responsible for the academic progress and overall well-being of a group of young children.
And what will I enjoy the most about my freedom from such awesome responsibility? Not talking. Yes, I will enjoy not talking. During the typical school day, I talk a lot. Some of it is instruction, but the bulk of it is a never-ceasing stream of directions, corrections, interventions, questions, and conversations. I talk so much in my occupation that it is physically taxing to my vocal apparatus every August, and I usually become hoarse or lose my voice in September as my body tries to adjust to the excessive vocalizing. But in the summer, minutes and sometimes even hours go by during which I say…nothing! As someone who appreciates the restorative powers of solitude, not having to talk so much is a welcome gift.
Yes, school’s out — for now. Our students will be enjoying whatever freedoms are afforded to them over summer break. I’ll be doing quite a lot of silent reading, and I hope to have the discipline to engage in more writing than my school year schedule permits. Come August, the kids will return, some lamenting the end of summer while others will be eager to come back. As for me, I’ll be ready to teach them again, knowing from day one that the new school year will fly by even faster than the last.