August 6, 2017

Making the most of time off in the summer

Time off from work is a great way to grow personally and enhance life skills that benefit the whole world.
            As an English teacher and journalism teacher for much of my working life, I always had summers off to do whatever I wanted. Some teachers used to say that June, July and August were the best months of the year.
            And there is something to that. It gives teachers time to recharge and prepare for a new school year. During the summers off, I’ve taken courses for a master’s degree, attended a writing workshop and combined it with a vacation, hooked up a travel trailer and taken my family on a 30-day trip around the country to tour national parks, visit friends and do whatever else of interest that came up along the way.
            I even taught history in summer school one year. Another summer I strapped on a backpack, tent, sleeping bag and canteen and hitchhiked on a 30-day trip from Illinois to Washington, D.C., down to Florida, across the South and Southwest to Southern California, up to San Francisco, and back to the Chicago suburbs. I camped sometimes, stayed with friends or people I met along the road and occasionally stayed in a motel. I turned down rides just like people turned me down when I stuck out my thumb. But I met some people on that trip years ago who are still good friends to this day.
            Another summer, I went to Australia for two weeks for the filming of The Thin Red Line movie of the James Jones novel about the Guadalcanal campaign in World War II. During other summers, I’ve taken students for eight-day tours throughout historical sites in Europe with the American Council for International Studies or taken them and my own kids camping on my father’s farm in Southern Illinois.
            Those summers were fun, memorable and probably made me a better teacher. I always came back to the classroom refreshed, had a new perspective about life and looked forward to meeting my new students each year. I always told them the first day that I was glad to be back for one of the second most important jobs a person could have. A student would often say he or she thought teachers believed their jobs were the most important. I would answer that parenting was the most important job in the world because if the parents did their job, my job was much easier. Those were the parents who always came to conferences to see how their student was doing and how they might help.
            A parent who apparently wasn’t doing the best job once came to a conference, and I was telling him about the progress of his student and how he might help.
            “You mean you want me to do your job?” the man asked.
            “No,” I said. “I want you to do your job.”
            But I digress.
            When one of my daughters was quite young, she was surprised after talking to one of her friends about a trip we’d taken that not everybody’s parents had summers off. She thought they should. I understand her perspective. And while I don’t think it would work out for everybody to have summers off, I’ve always thought vacations most people have are a little skimpy and the country would benefit if everybody had a little more time off to do what they wanted, although I hadn’t thought through how that might work with most American companies’ profit motives.
            Then the first of this year, my college sophomore daughter participated in an improvisational workshop at The Second City Theatre in Chicago. So the rest of the family went along for a few days vacation in the city for a little improv of our own. It was my turn to be surprised when Caitlin came back to the hotel after the first day.
            “There are two women in my improv workshop who work for a reinsurance company headquartered in Switzerland,” she told us at dinner that evening. “Most everybody else is my age, in their ’20s. I really like these two women. They aren’t really old, probably in their ’40s, but I just didn’t think there’d be anyone that age here. One of them has kids that are 6 and older.”
            I thought it was an interesting way for the women to spend a week of vacation.
            “It’s not vacation,” Caitlin said. “Their company gives employees a week off each year to do an activity of their choosing for personal development, whatever they want to do. They said people have gone skydiving, traveled to Italy to learn to make pasta, or done whatever else they want to do for a week.
            “One of them lives in Indiana, and the other lives in Connecticut. They met each other through work and work-related trips and decided to come here. I know one of them is keeping a journal and is recording different improv exercises and warm ups to show or maybe try with her coworkers.”
            I’d never heard of any companies doing that. It’s not the summers off that teachers have, but what a great idea.