Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Vacation Really is an Odd Word

One of the odd aspects of teaching where I do is how contractual leave doesn't really fit in with the school year. The summer holiday, which I really can't complain about, is seven weeks, and that's in addition to the two weeks of leave I get in the winter. In any other job I have ever had, two weeks was my yearly allotment, and in most of those places, even with the highest levels of seniority and years of service, that might top out at five weeks, max. So I really cannot complain in that regard. That said, even if you can't really complain, you can still comment.

My official holiday doesn't start until July 5th. But today, June 4th, marks the last day I will see a student around these parts until next September. This, of course, means that the next month is a strange period time where I get up every morning to go to "work," and scan my fingerprint in by 7:30am, only to sit at my desk for a good six and a half hours before I head off to the gym to sweat a little bit before lining up to scan my fingerprints out at 4:00pm.

During this strange period of work-less work, there are, of course, any number of things I can do to fill my time and better myself both professionally and personally. There are books and articles I have time to read each day, TV series I can catch up on, or I can watch movies I had missed during the year. There is ample time for writing, and for organizing materials for the next year, including preparing new materials or re-working old materials.

Last year I collected the reading texts of every IELTS test in the Cambridge Practice Tests for IELTS series (Books 1 - 6), typed them out by hand into a 350 odd page document, and then ran a concordance analysis of those texts (both right and left sorted), ending up with a massive pile of pages that I now use to create authentic exercises where lexis is used "in context" (the way it is used in the real world) instead of just making up silly sentences that would only ever exist in an ESL text. I also went through 1,000 odd pages of material I had typed out or collected over the year, organizing it, throwing away the trash, keeping what I felt was good, and finding areas I needed to fill with material. All very useful, which saved untold hours of effort during the school year, but which only ever felt like busywork in the end.

As useful as the time is, professionally, during this lengthy interregnum, where the days pass so very slowly, I can't help but thinking how much I'd rather be at home, sitting on a chair, getting pummeled by two very active little girls, were it not for this contractual arrangement.

The way I see it, teachers really only a need a week after the exams to wind things down, and a week before the new school year to get everything in order. The rest of the time in between would best be spent elsewhere. In the case of many colleagues, that means traveling about the world. In my case, that means being at home. Yet were this to happen, it would mean I would have twelve weeks of paid vacation per year, an amount that even the French would be embarrassed about. I thought their six weeks a year was ridiculously generous a few years ago, and yet today my yearly amount of paid vacation half again longer than even that extraordinary amount.

On the other hand, is what I feel so very wrong? Vacation, the word, derived from the word "vacatio" which is traced back to the mid 14th century, literally means "freedom from something" or "to get away." Which is perverse, when you think about it, because what are you getting away from? Life? Work? As one who does not equate work with life, my job with who I am or how I wish to live, I find it strange to see a vacation as "getting away," when for myself it means "getting back." By that, I refer to getting back to life, to real life, the life with family, friends, filled with choices and possibilities.

Remember that old saying - work to live, don't live to work? I spent a year in a land that invented a word to describe being worked to death (karoshi), where I met with men daily who freely admitted that they did not really know their children, and I met children who described their fathers as someone they saw on Sundays every second week, as they were asleep before their fathers came home, and when they awoke, their fathers were already at work. Something about that experience, and the bleakness these people communicated to me, struck me deeply. Back then I never saw an overtime shift that I didn't like, and weekends and evenings were time where I could work more jobs and earn more money. But sometime in between then, and getting married and having children, something changed.

Most of a decade or so ago, I met woman named Ann Vanderhoof, and interviewed her about her book An Embarrassment of Mangoes: A Caribbean Interlude. In the book, Ann described how she, along with her husband, had created a plan, worked for several years to save up the funds, then sold their house, their possessions, bought a boat, and lived in the Caribbean for a while. They pretty much retired from the craziness of urban life, and experienced a form of living that seems as alien to the modern world as hunting and gathering.

These days I wish I was in the same position as Ann. With a family to support, however, that sort of dream is far off. But the dream is still there, ready and waiting for the time when that dream can become a reality.

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