It’s around the seven-week mark of term when conversations start veering towards the holidays. ‘Got any plans?’ Immediately you’re positioned in one of two camps: the goers or the stayers. The former proudly and loudly answer with a destination, often accompanied with a reason, as if requested.
‘Bali, for a wedding.’
‘Byron, to go surfing.’
‘Ireland, for a Game of Thrones set tour.’
‘Ooh,’ others dutifully undulate in chorus, followed by the requisite, ‘lucky you!’
But the truth is, those who identify as stayers aren’t envious of their counterparts’ trips – not even a bit. I know this because, over the past holidays, I was one such stayer. After a taxing term, the mere idea of travelling exhausted me. The hassle of last- minute packing, cramped seats on no-frills flights that nevertheless cost a fortune in peak season, the hazards of food poisoning and/or encounters with White Walkers.
I didn’t need to be an economics teacher to perform a quick cost-benefit analysis: I knew that going away would be more effort than it was worth. Which is why I smiled smugly on the last Friday of school as others madly sought currency, organised insurance and dashed off for vaccinations.
It was the prospect of doing nothing that had sustained me through the last few weeks of term. Empty, glorious nothing. If I wanted to do something, I reasoned, I may choose to read breezily in a hammock at home, or potter around the garden. If energised, I might take a stroll in a park, engaging in the Japanese shinrin-yoku practice of ‘forest bathing’. I imagined that time would slow right down, along with my pulse. For two weeks, I would be a master of Zen.
20 years of teaching can change a person. With every hour accounted for and every year partitioned into smaller portions of time, it’s easy to become fond of frameworks. Even my body clock is now synched with the school schedule.
But by day two, I’d remembered the inconvenient truth: I am not a natural stayer. For one, I have no hammock and, even if I did, I’d have trouble sinking into it. My sitting-still skills are more akin to a Labrador puppy’s than a Buddhist monk’s. And I’d become suddenly aware of all the things I’d been neglecting for 10 weeks. Medical appointments to make. DIY to attempt. A garden to rescue. A social life to resurrect.To-do lists proliferated like weeds, first as scrawled post-it-notes, then as spreadsheets on my laptop.
Rather than letting time wend its way through my holidays as an idyllic, free-flowing stream, I found myself plotting it, Tetris-like, into satisfying stacks of quantifiable units: hour upon hour; task after task. Non-teaching friends – who assumed I’d be swanning about the house in a sarong – emerged with requests for catch-ups and coffees. (Why must they always be running late? Then boast about not owning a watch?!)
I wasn’t always like this – I’m 80% sure of it. Hadn’t I once scoffed at clocks? Slept in till mid-morning? Drifted aimlessly through the days like I had all the time in the world? But 20 years of teaching can change a person. With every hour accounted for and every year partitioned into smaller portions of time, it’s easy to become fond of frameworks. Even my body clock is now synched with the school schedule.
I take pride in my time-keeping efficiency. I’ve come to learn, for example, that a lot can be achieved in two minutes: a cup of tea can be made, its bag left in to infuse on the walk to the next class; an email replied to on my smartphone; an essay marked – though, granted, only a bad one. (I don’t want to brag or anything but, on a good day, I can do all three at once.)
So, it’s not easy to simply switch this off during the holidays. It requires real effort to relax, mindfulness to be mindless. It takes me at least five days to step away from the spreadsheets. Another five to desist with the lists, replacing them with one instruction. Relax. If feeling audacious, I might even slip off my watch. Only then does time start feeling less like Tetris blocks and more like playdough: heavy, pliable and willing. Only then do I remember my motivation for being a stayer, and stress less about the time-wasting implications of nothing. That’s when I finally stop, look up, and marvel at the shape-shifting clouds, wishing there were more days like this.
Make no mistake, though: I’ll be a goer next holidays. It’ll be easier that way.