A few years ago, Kieran Healy identified the syndrome of Summer Vertigo that I, and many other educators, experience: “At the beginning of the Summer break, teaching is done and it seems like there’s a bunch of free time open for you to tackle, oh, well just about any number of projects.”
The potential to get so much done that always takes the back seat when we are teaching can generate a feeling of hope that quickly turns to dizziness. Just the other day I made a spreadsheet that detailed the ways that I would finally get in shape. Of course, I’ve got the list of what I want to read and write, along with some minor household chores (completely cleaning out the junk in our cave, the delightful French word for unfinished cellar).
Unlike what I had assumed, vertigo is rarely caused by height – the metaphorically towering lists of things to do – but more often by infections of the inner ear. The Mayo Clinic tells us that “Vertigo is the false sense that your surroundings are spinning or moving. With inner ear disorders, your brain receives signals from the inner ear that aren’t consistent with what your eyes and sensory nerves are receiving. Vertigo is what results as your brain works to sort out the confusion.”
In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit suggests that it’s possible to experience vastness without the confusing fear of falling into it. She talks about a story she wanted to write called ‘Slip’ based of the character Midge in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. In the final scene of her unwritten story, the characters climb Mount Whitney. What will happen when they reach the summit? Solnit tells us from her own experience climbing the mountain that “Mountaineering is always spoken of as though summiting is conquest, but as you get higher, the world gets bigger, and you feel smaller in proportion to it, overwhelmed and liberated by how much space is around you, how much room to wander, how much unknown.”
Solnit argues that we can move into the vastness without falling or tragedy. I hang a lot of hope on her argument.
As of 5pm on a hot Sunday in Brussles, I finished writing my final report cards, using ibuprofen and an ice pack on my right hand as needed. Some cold beer waited for me, rather impatiently I must say, at the end of a work-filled weekend. And now, my thoughts turn to summer even though I have a week that still needs to play itself out. The temperature will be around 30 Celsius, or perfect weather to read outside with my students in the shade.
I really amplify the value of taking up reading as a lifelong pleasure as I take my students to the library. Often I mention the Oxford study that links reading at the age of 16 to “to a more prestigious career” because I want to instill some long-term thinking, even though I also tell my kids that they shouldn’t always (ever) aspire to do what someone else has labeled ‘prestigious’.
Just as I was about to settle into writing reports today I heard from a former student who spoke warmly about how reading had opened up new worlds for her in ways completely unrelated to ever finding a job. And this summer, I intend to open up some new worlds for myself by attending the Digital Pedagogy institute in Vancouver, where words like critical and caring serve as better adjectives for the kinds of careers we should strive for.
Even though I want my students to have a care-free summer (which only really exist when you are young and come from a relatively privileged background), I encourage them to make the kinds of lists that I am making. To plan some challenge for themselves. But I am not so worried that they will measure themselves by those plans.
So, I suggest that a cure to Summer Vertigo lies not in refusing to make lists or opening ourselves to the vast possibilities of some time to ourselves, but in not trying to conquer the vastness, in not measuring how our summers went by how much we check off. Part of being open to the vastness should mean indulging in what strikes us as most important on any morning, since that pleasure itself is what makes summer worth it’s name.
Header by Tim Trad