Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Underrated Full Stop: Why We All Need A Real Break

Full Stop Version:
“I’d rather be a comma than a full stop.” (Coldplay, Every Teardrop is a Waterfall)
Yes, I want to be a comma in life’s long story.
But, we all need to stop sometimes. Even kids.
We should not assign homework on breaks.
“Slow-ow-ow-ow it down/Through chaos as it swirls/It’s us against the world.” (Coldplay, “Us Against the World”)

Comma Version:
Coldplay is my favorite band, and their recently released Mylo Xyloto was on repeat for all of my wanderings during spring break. I didn’t have a vacation planned as my own children were in school while my school was on break. I’m sure I could have been highly productive and spent more time blogging (or any time for that matter), tweeting, reading (though I did enjoy a couple great books), planning, or grading papers which were stacked in my electronic Google Docs collections waiting for my less-than-motivated “pen”. Yet instead, I found myself wandering the city without any planned destination each day, reflecting on life, finding new places to love, happening upon events I had no idea were planned on any particular day at any particular time. I kept listening to the same songs over and over, wandering aimlessly, doing nothing really...and loving every minute of it.

One sound bite from my all-Coldplay-all-the-time playlist formed both the seed of inspiration during my un-journey and the antithesis of my experience. In the song “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall,” Chris Martin sings with metaphorical wisdom, “I’d rather be a comma than a full stop.” Perhaps it’s just the English teacher in me who found it so clever, but the line “struck a chord” with me, stuck with me, and charged me with great purpose. No, I did not want to be a full stop! In fact, as my readers have realized by now, I am all but incapable of concluding a sentence after only one thought, and in life, I am almost incapable of doing one thing at one time at any given moment. I like continuation, connectivity, progress, legacy, adventure...all things which a comma implies. I decided as I listened that I would not be a full stop in life--even better, that I would work during my life so that even at the ultimate full stop of death, my epitaph could be a comma instead with a legacy behind it.

But I digress. (I’d like credit for that short, full-stop punctuated, stylistic fragment, even if it is hackneyed.) The reason I had to write this is because at the very moment of inspiration, I was enjoying a full stop. I had hit exhaustion point, and even though I didn’t realize it, I was sapped of my inspiration, and instead of my taking a vacation, my motivation had run away to a distant land for an adventure of its own. When I realized this, that my pen had stopped writing and that my brain had stopped planning or at least producing anything, I embraced it and declared a "full stop week." At the end of it, I came back revitalized and motivated, fresh with new favorite spots in the city and memories of stumbling on new experiences.

As my own true break came to an end, my children were starting theirs. I was dismayed to find that both came home with homework, and even worse, that some of it was test prep, which should really be declared the sin of all sins in assigning homework over a vacation. I concede that homework does have its place when assigned with purpose, and I can see where reading may fit into a vacation homework plan, but depriving children of rest time and time off of book learning (for certainly all kinds of other learning takes place on breaks from school) is no way to instill a love of learning or allow for impromptu discovery. I am not singing a new song, I realize, but attention must be paid to such a cause as it is not enough to use “you better get used to it because it will be even worse later in life” as an excuse to deprive students of a full stop break. Despite all the logical arguments out there which inform us against this practice, we still continue to engage in it. 

Some may claim that students are lazy and create enough time off on their own, but this argument is fallacious as nature mandates we take time to rest, and without allocated time, we will all be forced to steal it from the time allotted for other purposes. Others are perhaps genuinely worried about our children falling behind on the global landscape, or America falling behind and subsequently needing resuscitation from the youth of the nation (now that’s a lot of pressure!). They look to educators to produce “highly motivated self-starters” eager to take on the grueling demands of the American workforce. The practice of working ourselves raw to produce arguably mediocre results is the current American way. My husband has two weeks' vacation, none of which he can ever fully take, while European colleagues of his are encouraged to take their full holidays. At business dinners with him, I often overhear jokes about family vacations interrupted by endless conference calls, how this partner was almost locked inside the Louvre on a call when security found her and told her the museum was closing; how that one was so determined to work during a long call on a cruise, he stayed on a call for the whole day despite intense illness and family plans, he alternating between vomiting and closing the deal. At dinners with other parents, I hear the same stories, but of kids sitting out of activities to get their work done (the "good students") or of parents having to argue and nag their way through vacations to stay on top of homework (the "lazy students").

Simply put, we are all tired. We need breaks, and not just those with a slower pace or a break from the schedule of waking up and entering a building to complete work assigned to us in a scheduled block of time, but a real chance to unplug from expectations. When we fail to respect our students’ need to rest and their right to vacation the way they want to with their families, we align ourselves with the chaos instead of being what we should be, their partners in facing it. My other favorite line from my spring break playlist, “Slow-ow-ow-ow it down/Through chaos as it swirls/It’s us against the world” (Coldplay, “Us Against the World”).