194. TO ANNA D. B. MONTAGU; 18 July 1825 (Excerpt): Thomas Carlyle

Summer ends in two days.

Of course, I mean that in-service begins, not that the equinox approaches–that’s a month away.

The cliche is that students nationwide will settle in and be assigned a “What did you do on summer vacation?” essay on their first day back. I have never been asked to write, nor asked anyone to write, such a letter, but it remains a staple of shows and cartoons. It has been used in movies and television as a conceit to begin a narration, leading to an extended flashback that contains the main story. At times, the reader (the teacher) doesn’t believe the tale, while other times he or she is flabbergasted that so much has happened to a young child, during the innocence of summer.

That innocence is childhood, and it is summer. As adults, we lose it (except for teachers). At contract time, I wonder if the ire teachers receive–“AND THEY HAVE SUMMERS OFF!!!”–is as much a longing for that childlike innocence of youth as an issue of pay? Probably not.

We are at war with idle. We are a nation of efficiency, our legacy of the industrial revolution. Ford. Time-motion studies. Read “Cheaper by the Dozen”.

And we extend it to school. Anyone who’s seen the opening theme to “Phineas and Ferb” knows that the catalyst for every episode is that there is nothing to do (except to sit around and watch television shows like “Phineas and Ferb”). I’ve argued elsewhere that boredom is the friend to reading, as it forces one to do the act long enough to get hooked. That, again, is efficiency.

But we are uncomfortable with idle. Recess is disappearing. After school is scheduled. Summer is shrinking, both in days and an allowance of nothing to do.

In this letter, Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish philosopher, is holed up in a hospital. There, he writes a letter explaining his “existence”, which is really doing a lot of nothing. It is his summer vacation.

In this paragraph, he focuses on the idea of doing nothing. Here is a great man of letters and energy, trying to come to grips with being idle.

What to do with it.

First, let me apologize–this is not a poem. The coming Common Core is very text heavy, so this might be a nice challenge for your students, but starting the first day with a bit of Victorian writing might be a bit much for your class as a “get to know you” exercise. And you’ve come to this site for poetry ideas, not essay. Still, a giant block of text is a great exercise in reading for detail.

Okay, the text. A great approach is to ask students about their “productive” summer. A great entry thought is the difference between the expectation of the parent (“Read! Work!”) and the student (“More video!”). What is “good for them” against the “point” of summer–to slag off? Here, a nice Venn diagram might be in order.

Then, ask them about goals. I am a huge believer in the use of “hopes and dreams” to drive both academics and behavior. Everything in school really can be justified by their own, generated “hopes and dreams”. (As an aside, if you haven’t taken a class in Responsive Classroom–it’s called Developmental Design for middle school–I’d highly recommend it from Origins.) Every kid wants to do well. They want to succeed.

Why? Because they are the hero of their own story. They have dreams. Baseball hero. Astronaut. Ballet star.

And middle school is when they realize those dreams might not be realistic (which is why they begin to image themselves as a kind of anti-hero; it’s at least a hero to someone). Or require work. They need an adult to recalibrate their path–not change their dream, but give them the concrete steps that will lead to their goal. Movie scouts don’t show up and offer contracts–you gotta have a plan.

But I look at the end of this paragraph. What is life? Toil? I hope not. An epic. Again, I hope not; too exhausting for me. So then what? That’s the question for your students. A major league scout will not show up at the Little League game and offer a contract. So what is life? And how do we achieve our hopes and dreams?

And what do we do with our idle time? Enjoy it?

And, if life is neither Idyll or Epic, why do books and movies and stories portray it as such? What is the purpose of life? What, you ask, are their favorite stories and why?

Now that’s how you start the year; not with a reflection, but with hopes and dreams. Discuss.

Thomas Carlyle
To Anna D. B. Montagu
Hoddam Hill, Ecclefechan, 18th July, 1825.

I promised you some sketch of my manner of existence here, of what I did and meant to do; a beggarly account of empty boxes is all I have to give you. Beyond the great fundamental problem of existing, I can properly be said to have accomplished nothing since I removed hither. Yet I am happy, perhaps too happy, happier than I have been for many a year. I say to myself: “Am I not a Patient? Is not this place my Hospital, why should I fret at being idle? Yes, my sick-bed is the amphitheatre of these everlasting mountains, and its curtains are the blue winds with their fringes of many-coloured cloud, and my sick-nurses are the kind Dreams which come to me from the vallies and the rushing waters and the pomp of Summer. Let me enjoy it while I can, and gather strength against the evil day, the day of drudgery and care, which follows close behind me!”— Thus can I sing myself a lullaby, and live as passively as if I were a brother of these beeches that screen me from the noon-day Sun. Ambition seems dead within me, or fallen into a deep sleep: I feel content to play no part at all in the drama of the world, to be a nothing in the vast Creation, so I might but be left to look on its magnificence, and sail on the wings of the Imagination through its bright immensities. Am I twenty years younger than I counted; again a little heedless boy, that I can so live from one hour to the other? Time no longer hurries past me like a mountain flood, the channel of which is soon to lie dead and empty: it spreads around me like a placid sea, the shores are hidden by fantastic shapes, and of its ebbs and flows I take no thought. Alas! Alas! it is rolling onwards notwithstanding; onwards to the rocks of wor[l]dly difficulty and distress; onwards to the dark unsounded Straits of the Grave! I am a fool, and no philosopher: Life cannot be an Idyll any more than it can be an Epic; it is a despicable system of Book-keeping by Double Entry, and he who does not walk by Cocker’s Arithmetic3 will never get it balanced.


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