In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, "I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people's interests. The library was open, unending, free" (48). I immediately thought of Twain's famous line, "I never let my schooling interfere with my education. Also, perhaps because school is shortly to resume--teachers come back Tuesday--the line made me think about the joys of summer.
I've always worked through the summer*, especially now that I lead a school. But it's a very different kind of pace and energy. The hours shift, and while there is plenty to do, the tugs are not as urgent or multi-directional. Basically, summer provides a gift of time. Time to read, to reflect, to dream. It's restorative. It creates space for moments of serendipity, of random connections. The professional and the personal no longer feel in frantic competition. Instead, they sometimes feed each other symbiotically. I had one such moment this summer on our family vacation. We had hiked to Inspiration Point in the Grand Tetons. As we gazed across Jenny Lake towards the distant horizon, suddenly a puzzle I'd been struggling with at school came together for me.
Coates' reference to the library suggest another way summer benefits me so much: I have the chance to read even more voraciously than usual. Beyond that, consider the way I go at it. I have a running list of books I hope to read. It's rather esoteric, built as I see different things I find at all interesting. During the school year, I choose from it quite pointedly, picking books I see as a priority for work. But during the summer I choose more randomly, checking the public library's database to see what's available. When I go to pick up my selections, I usually end up with something unplanned. In fact, two of my favorite books from this summer (McKeown's Essentialism and Seelig's Insight Out) were ones I discovered near something else I was getting.
When I enjoy such moments that feed my autodidactic self, I wonder why school can't be more that way. Why we can't allow students to set more of the agenda, to pursue their own interests, to make it all more personal. And I think we can...to a degree. While school should be about kids, it can't be all kid driven for one simple reason. Kids don't know. Or, more accurately, they don't know enough. Just as I rely on mentors and experts to steer my learning to a certain degree, kids need that even more. As with most of life, the challenge lies in finding that sweet spot between structure and freedom, between the individual and the collective. In various forms it has vexed philosophers for millennia.
And it's all wonderful, important reverie, the likes of which educators really only have time for in the summer. Then we jump back into the reality of doing the work. And this is not a lament. Quite the opposite, actually. As Coates reminds us, engaging in in the work of life immerses us in "the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope" (71). Life is not a thought experiment. It's the hands-on, make-a-mess, clean-it-up, learn-and-do-better work of helping young people make a life. What work could have more meaning and purpose? So no matter how many joys fill the summer, one of the greatest always comes when it ends.
*Contrary to what it seems the general public thinks, I've never known any good teachers who don't work on school stuff in some form or fashion during the summer.