For me, the most interesting teachers are the ones who get up to something dynamically different once the school year ends, defying all the navel-gazing stereotypes. For most of my life, what teachers did with their summers mystified me, much as it does the still-sceptical public. I imagined them falling asleep in backyard hammocks, a cheap paperback folded across their stomach, snoozing away the poppied days dreaming of autumn’s lesson plans.
My father, a farmer, always said: “Zachary, you’ll never be truly happy unless you stick your hands in the dirt.” Of course, he was right, though at the time I suspected his observation was intended as a not-so-veiled dig at the kind of clean-handed scholar he feared I might become.
And yet it took a year of profound angst as a first-year professor teaching at a small liberal arts college before I could attribute my creeping sense of depression and displacement to the lack of dirt in my life. Thankfully, a good friend came to town for Sunday brunch one late spring morning and, after listening to me lament the desk-bound life of colleagues that appeared to be my certain fate, he demanded that I go forth and write my way toward an answer. The result was my first book, Black Earth and Ivory: Essays from Farm and Classroom.
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Compiling it, I found a community of fellow teachers, writers and scholars around the globe who part-time farmed, or superintended farms, or who worked on conservation acres or ecological set-asides, as I do. By-and-by, I came to understand the truth in the proverb “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”, as well as an important corollary: work could also be play, with the right attitude and under the right set of circumstances.
Praise the second lives of teachers, then, whatever they may be – praise the three months in which we live out our fantasies, indulge the long-repressed and procrastinated or work toward filling the most conspicuous gaps in our bucket list. I’ve known teachers who spent their summers painting houses, or traveling to music festivals, or volunteering on Native American reservations. I’ve had colleagues who retreated to second homes, vacation homes or Airbnbs, taking up hobbies to help their hands keep pace with their minds.
The more fortunate among them travel to the high desert, ocean or lake, like Charlotte’s Web author E. B. White. “Summertime, oh summertime,” White wrote in praise of his own seasonal sojourn to Maine, “pattern of life indelible, the fade proof lake, the woods unshatterable…fern and the juniper forever and ever.”
In summer we travel to more extreme or far-flung corners than it’s possible to know during the routine school year; to places that awaken our senses, steepen our learning curve and open our eyes to compositions far grander than a five-paragraph essay. In a way, even the most high-flying summer travels bring the teacher back down to earth, to the elemental things that undergird all learning, such things as make us feel like students again, humbled before an impossibly complex lesson. “Art is long”, a former teacher of mine used to say each May, “and life is short.”
For me, what makes a teacher interesting in the classroom is proportional to what interests them outside it. I don’t care a whit how trendy their YouTube clips are, how tight their Powerpoint is, how shiny and newly minted their degree or how well they wield today’s age-defying Twitter lingo. The nine months from August to June may be their text, but what fascinates me most is the cool or roiling waters surging underneath – their subtext. It’s the teacher’s second life, where the shadow lives, that commands my attention. That’s their second track, a marker of a life lived large and in stereo. And when that regular life strikes the second life, as if rubbed against flint, that, for me, is when the best, most combustible teaching begins.
Practice-minded pedagogues would have us mine the richness of our second life for interesting instructional metaphors – and that’s useful advice, to a point. But if we do so too much, we risk turning ourselves into caricatures, reducing the uncanny discoveries of summer into a series of eye-rolling “teachable moments”.
Like love, or longing, there’s an aspect of doing what we love that wilts or withers under too much self-consciousness and that resists being leveraged for professional expediency. Instead, let’s embrace the opportunity summer presents for personal growth free of the burden of immediate pedagogical payoffs; let’s pursue the calls of the season confident that others, including the students we return to in the fall, will respond to depth with a depth all their own.
Zachary Michael Jack is professor of English at North Central College in the US and author, most recently, of the writing guide Special Effects: Short Takes on Stylish Prose.
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