As a former public school teacher, I found that when June rolled around, my heart began to beat an ambivalent tune. Certainly I desperately wanted some time off, not only from the intensity of interacting with 130+ teenagers, but also from the grading of reams of paper. Still, after 180 days of channeling the “teacher” me, I saw even more clearly how much more my students needed. Summer seemed like an interruption of a fragile process.
For my part, precious vacations are fully booked with trips to long trips Morocco, France, Turkey, or more domestic jaunts to visit family and friends, perhaps in Florida or way up in Washington State.
My bag for either is packed well in advance of departure. Tucked safely within my one carry-on is a small selection of books I’m determined to read over the summer. Further down in the suitcase, like a layer of silk underwear were I lucky enough to have such, lies a manuscript, work from a friend on some esoteric topic like herbalism or Nicaraguan poetry, ready for me to proof and edit. Summers are a time for indulgence, new vistas, and a certain amount of intellectual challenge. They are a time for a different type of learning. And so they should be.
When I was young, vacations meant camping, hiking, swimming, and rock hunting. From the high deserts of Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico, to the crystal clear rivers of the Pacific Northwest, my Dad would drive (between necessary rest stops) hour after hour along good roads and bad in a 1956 bright red Chevrolet station wagon, its roof laden with a heavy green canvas tent, a Coleman stove, and seven sleeping bags.
Wherever we ended up, Mom would unload the ice chest, and a loaf of slightly squished Langendorf white bread. By the time the children had swept the area chosen for the tent with tree boughs, removing big rocks and twigs by hand, and the camp site was thoroughly set up, she’d have made bologna and cheese sandwiches for everyone, opened a packet of cookies, and pulled a carton of warm pop (currently know as “soda”) from behind the back seat. Most places provided a picnic table, and we’d line up, the seven of us, on either side, jockeying and shoving in order to sit near Mom and Dad, or the potato chips. Summers were the time I learned about fast running streams, crystals, geodes, thunder eggs, jasper, agates, palm wood, petrified wood, red hawks, state license plates, changes in terrain, using a compass, peeing off a log, building a campfire, checking for ticks, and singing dozens of old time songs.
None of the lessons were formal, though “safety first” issues were dealt with firmly, and all of them would have received applause from that renowned educator, John Dewey. Much of what I know about the natural world, I learned between June and September, either on trips with my family or at camp. It was as though the knowledge, complex and varied, was warmed by the summer sun on its way to me, and so I carry it still.
If I were to make a list of the transferable skills I gained during summer vacation, it would be impressive in length and wide in application. I am still, for example, an avid map reader and bird watcher. Where friends, and some family members, find maps a querulous tool at best, I remain fascinated by the the vast amount of information available on a single sheet of paper.
A summer well spent is rather like a map; it contains so much information that one needs a lifetime to appreciate it.
- How to dig and cover a potty pit.
- How to stake and raise a tent.
- How to tell direction without a compass.
- How to tell direction with a compass.
- What the stars look like when there isn’t any competition.
- How to roll a sleeping bag.
- How to look and identify animal tracks.
- How to look for beak, head, wingspan, coloration, and identifying marks on birds.
- How to spell all the states.
- How to spot licenses from different states.
- How to read a map and determine distance.
- How to tell which cities on a map are the largest.
- How to fish.
- How to safely descend a steep incline.
- How to sweep a campsite and make it flat with branches.
- How to store perishables, keeping them safe from bears and animals.
- How to check for ticks and chiggers.
- How to tell the difference between a geode and a thunder egg.
- How to test a rock for color and quality.
- How to tell carnelian from jasper, agate from petrified wood.
- How to identify dozens of birds and animals and know their habits.
These are tales and skills I share with students, perhaps to inspire or prod them to take on an informal June to August learning project. Most often they admit to wanting to learn to drive, play the guitar, or work, all worthy projects for the warm, seemingly endless days of summer.