John Taylor Gatto devoted 30 years of his life to teaching. When he resigned, he ploughed his energy into writing books about modern education; books that weren’t always complimentary about the ideology, history, and consequences of western teaching practices. I’m not going to get into all that, but today, as many children break up for summer, I do want to draw on some of Gatto’s writing, for I think it sets us up well for the holidays ahead. You might be lucky enough to be going abroad for a holiday; if so, that’s great. But if yours is a stay at home holiday, a simple, improvised (and cheap) ‘make-it-up-as-you-go-along’ holiday, well, that will work just as well too. The school schedule is dropped, the strictures and structures of the classroom are abandoned (for now), and the empty weeks are there to be lightly filled. It’s time to let loose! Gatto helpfully speaks of that place: “where meaning is genuinely to be found – in families, in friends, in the passage of seasons, in nature, in simple ceremonies and rituals, in curiosity, generosity, compassion, and service to others, in a decent independence and privacy, in all the free and inexpensive things out of which real families, real friends, and real communities are built.”
It makes me think about the simple ceremonies and rituals we had as children and that my family now re-enact with their own children. There are beach trips – regardless of the weather, tents in the garden, picnics by rock-pools, lost shoes, interminable washing, towel shortages, coin-flipping for beds (then reneging on the coin’s last word), bubble making kits whose magic ingredients scorch the grass, gooseberry picking, endless raspberry jam on wheaten bread, bowls of new potatoes with butter, fish being gutted in the yard when the boys come home with a plastic bag filled with mackerel from spinning at the back of Ramore Head. There is staying up late, sleeping long, making pancakes, rooms filled with glue and paint and glitter. There are falling outs, electronic devices being banned, then hidden, cries of ‘they’ve gone without me!’, and moments of skulking off to find a corner in a empty room for desperately needed quiet time. There are funfairs and amusement arcades, which were out of bounds for us as kids. Thirty years ago (even more) M. and I would sneak in to where the slot machines were. Two tiny wet mice, dripping from the beach, all straggly, sandy hair, but with nimble forefingers whose practiced flicks could, in a split second, check the reject slots for forgotten 2p coins. On a good day we might make ten pence between us, stopping at Wilson’s shop on the way home to choose from ‘the tray’ – an assortment of halfpenny, 1p and 2p sweets. Enterprising! Until we were caught. I will never forget the threatening growl, “I know who your father is, don’t be back or I’ll be telling him what you’re doing!” I didn’t go back until 2008.
Yesterday I got an email from M. in Dundalk. South of the border school doors had already closed, and he was telling me of the simple pleasure in hanging out with his son in an Irish border town, as he put it: “Just chillin’, feeling the peace of the deep blue sky, the warm air and the golden sunshine. Watching the little ones running in and out of the fountains and shrieking with delight.” I was right there with him. It reminded me of the very same day I’d had with my husband a few summers ago, sitting on a bench in Derry’s Guildhall Square, eating ice-cream and watching children running in and out of water fountains, those ones that come straight out of the pavement – high, higher, highest – boys and girls soaked through in their shorts and tee-shirts and thrilled to be alive. And I remembered too, going back further in time, arriving to the family summer gathering in Donegal after a long drive from Dublin and jumping off Culdaff pier fully clothed because I was so pleased to be there and summer had begun.
School’s out for summer. Enjoy all of what lies ahead, especially if you are making it up as you go along.