And Summers Off

A few years ago the teachers of my school district came close to going on strike. Instead, though, the union decided that we should ‘work to the rule,’ meaning that we would only do what was in our current (expired) contract. Our hours would be 7:30 am to 3:00 pm each day, not a moment longer; nor were we supposed to take any work home. We were not to make any non-reimbursable expenditures, attend any games or activities, give up our lunches or conference periods.

My first reaction to all of this was, “How will I get anything done?” Though I have a free period each day for grading and planning, I used to do most of my work before and after school. Everyone knows that the worst thing a teacher can do is walk into the classroom without a plan.

But ‘working to the rule’ didn’t go as badly as I feared. Most of the papers got graded, and if they didn’t, nobody complained. Having in mind what I needed to do each day, I didn’t need written plans most of the time. I learned to be more flexible and spontaneous. In fact, though I had less time, I got more done.

And I learned something else: Any task will condense or expand to fill whatever time you give it. The work that used to fill several hours before and after school now got done during my planning period, or not at all.

When I first became a teacher, people would sometimes point out to me what a sweet deal teachers have: we only work until three each day, have two weeks vacation at Christmas and a week at Easter — and summers off.

Summers off — without pay. Like most teachers, I have my salary stretched out over twelve months, but I only get paid for the days I work. And I don’t get paid to give up my lunch, to come in early, or to bring work home.

Summer is a nice break, a chance to go places and work on projects that get ignored during the school year. My main project is always writing. Last summer I intended to write for eight hours a day, finish two novels and start a third.

What actually happened was that I spent eight hours with my laptop open, and one novel got half written. Nothing else. The basement didn’t get cleaned, the garden didn’t get weeded, and the spare bedroom was still piled high with unfinished projects.

The world did not end because my basement was still a mess. Nobody minded except for me. But I was trying to discipline myself to write for eight hours, and exhausted from the effort of staring at my unfinished manuscript. I had more time; why wasn’t I writing more?

At the end of the summer I realized that the writing (and trying to write) had filled the time I gave it. I could have given it two to three hours each day, then gone to the beach or cleaned the basement.

Maybe I have only two hours of writing in me each day.

In November I wrote a novel for NaNoWriMo — 50,000 words in nineteen days. I wrote for approximately two hours each day, more on the weekends. It wasn’t very good writing, but I got a pretty good start out of it.

And I reasoned: If I didn’t have to go to work each day, I could put out a novel every two weeks!

But I know that wouldn’t happen. Writing will fill every moment I give it, but it requires much more than sitting at a keyboard; ideas require thought, and thought requires time.

This summer I’m trying not to spend as much time staring at the screen. But I’m always writing.

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