I want to remind you, because it matters to me. I want to remind myself because thankfully, I am worlds away from where I was once, and sometimes, even I too forget what it can be like.
Students, teachers and parents/carers, bound by the rhythm of the academic year, all know the feeling leading up to the summer holidays. The absolute, bone-aching, itchy-eyed crawl through the end of year obligations and celebrations, the various milestones and rites of passage, the last logistics and then the deafening silence that ensues when it’s finally here and we can kick into a different gear for the greater part of six weeks.
“Have a great summer!” we say as we wave goodbye to the school gates, the students and staff members. Forgetting that for many, the summer is protracted period of chaos, uncertainty, hunger, vulnerability, emotional upheaval and even physical wounds. It is the wrenching away from a number of guaranteed hours of structure, predictability and protection that the school day can provide.
I’m sitting beside a river, looking at my own children, as we horse about in the south of France, where we have been for nearly two weeks. This year, we let them bring a friend each, since they are 12 and 15, knowing this would make it even more fun an experience. We’ve done a home-swap and took the train here, so the costs are pretty modest all in all. They have little idea how lucky they are. I keep thinking back to my own experience of summer holidays at their age.
Please do note while reading this post, that I am aware that there are of course two (and more) sides to every story. My parents made the decisions they did with the resources, understanding and urgency of their situations at the time. Neither of them acted out of malice or any intention to do other than what they felt they could given the circumstances. My father was forced to live abroad after his marriage to my mother broke down, he lost his job and wanted to provide what he could for his family. What I outline here, is from my child’s-eye view of what it felt like at the time. I spell it out in such viceral detail because I want you, as teachers, working with young people and colleagues, to know that some of your students and fellow teachers might be indeed spending their summer having similar experiences and the associated feelings and behaviour that might stem from this later.
My dad saw us once a year, for two weeks, during the summer holidays. He would come over from America, rent a cottage in Dorset where he had research interests and some sense of community, and which would give him a little company and structure to the days – he probably wasn’t aware that this left us feeling completely exposed, pulled away from our friends and familiar surroundings and unsure of what the rules and expectations were from an authority figure we hardly knew. We were getting to know “Uncle Dad” as I used to think of him. If you added up all the two-week slots I had spent with him by the time I was 12, it amounts to just under six months. Seeing my dad once a year was meant to be a treat, and in a way it was because we got away from London and from our mum during that time, but it also was a painful experience. This short two-week window was a chance for the three of us children to be reminded of several things:
- His lifestyle in America was completely different to ours. He had a new wife, no kids, a great job, ate out, had what seemed to us a massive circle of friends and colleagues. He even had hobbies and leisure time – we were on free school meals, my mum constantly worried about running out of money. She had no support network, social life or love life other than what could be packed into those two weeks and around her job as a teacher. She lived like a battalion commander under constant enemy fire
- It felt like he disapproved of us. His visit inevitably began with the ritual end of year report reading and I felt like I always got a talking to from my dad. (He tells me now that this talking to, was really him saying, ‘get everything you can from your education and you will be set up for life’, but at the time, it felt like I was being berated as I found the whole experience of school torturously difficult). While away with him, we children squabbled, acting out the angst and frustration from our fraught home life, which he knew nothing of. He must have thought we were argumentative and violent kids that needed better boundaries. We had a short window of time to prove ourselves worthy of his love and the experience was humiliating, like an annual two-week Sisyphean mountain
- We believed we were not lovable – if we were, the child’s-eye logic said he wouldn’t have gone so far away and moved abroad, right? If we were, he wouldn’t spend time with us once a year and then hand us back to cope alone with the horrors of our daily lives, board the plane home and not see us again for another 351 days
During the summer holidays, my mum was more stressed about money than usual. She was often on part-time or contract work which didn’t include payment in the summer holidays. This meant that we were left to our own devices much of the time while she went into a sort of exhausted, low-cost limbo. It being the 70s and early 80s, over-scheduling, playschemes and expensive childcare weren’t really a thing yet. Playing in the streets and roaming were. That was fun and exciting and there was a whole pack of us neighbourhood kids that would play for hours on end or go off on our bikes to the parks and the heath. Smoking fags, trespassing, dodging weirdos and paedophiles was just a part of life and looking back now I see that we were in real peril many, many times.
My mum was lonely, isolated, struggling with mental illness and a complete lack of interest, imagination, or support from those around her. She was prone to violent outbursts and we would bear the brunt of these with vicious beatings, afterwards, being locked in our rooms for sometimes a whole day and overnight, howling to be released. Or if we ran away from her grasping hands, having the contents of our rooms emptied onto the floor and ripped and trampled underfoot, being denied food, affection, an apology or even acknowledgement that that had just happened.
Term-time gave some day-time reprieve from the enemy at home (even if it was also pretty miserable for me, being in detention, in the corridor or in disgrace a lot of the school day). The summer meant always being in a cortisol-fuelled state of high alert. I remember feeling exhausted at the end of August, and a sort of soul-deep, secret, soiled state of being. No-one knew what we endured. Not even our friends, their parents, teachers – or our own dad. The long school-shirt sleeves and knee-high socks of the autumn term covered the bruises.
“Write about what you did in your summer holidays” was always the task we started the year with. Or “write down your resolutions for the new academic year”. Every year, I composed a jolly recollection of the time we did brass rubbings in the village church or a walk we went on all together, with my dad. Every year, I could almost taste the feeling of hope and thought I could turn over a new leaf, knuckle down, be a better me. I would last a few weeks and then succumb to the deeply ingrained sense that I was the vile, unworthy, rotten-to-the-core child that had been drilled into me over the course of the year by school and my mum and finished off over the summer by my dad in his own unconscious way. The cycle began again and I couldn’t sit still, I couldn’t hold my tongue, the gap widened and I didn’t understand the work and had no-one at home to work through it with me.
When I was a teacher, I made sure I was sensitive to the possibility that this sort of experience was the case for some of my students, some of their parents, some of my colleagues. I knew that at least a proportion of them would be struggling over the summer and that their return to school wouldn’t be with a glow of bronzed skin, relaxed shoulders and tales of exotic climes. I knew that they would hunker down and brace themselves for the self-satisfied tales of trips with the family and the inevitable setting of assignments and declarations of what their well-rested and re-charged selves could achieve in the year ahead.
My plea to you as teachers, as parents, as people, is to remember this. Be sensitive. Think of a way to reach out and hold tight those for whom it was summer time and the living ain’t easy.