“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer” F. Scott Fitzgerald
I started reflecting on summers as a teenager early this July when the weight of this fact hit me: my students were about to begin a third week of voluntary work sessions at school to research, write, and conference about their thesis projects. This year begins my sixth involved with the Thesis program, and I finally recognized just how much I admire the way our students embody Episcopal’s mission even when, especially when, we’re apart.
Cliche sitcoms and sentimental marketing might lead you to believe that summer for teenagers is a wasteland of video games, sleeping the day away, and luxuriously unstructured time that is listless and aimless. But from my view, that trope doesn’t tell the full story. When I really think back on my own summers as a teenager, I know there was much more activity than my immediate memory recalls. Still, even between summer jobs, music camps, and devouring books, I know for certain that I did not pursue the sorts of opportunities and passions as fervently as Episcopal students.
Leisure time was once the marker of true wealth and advantage, though this recent article in The Atlantic describes a new American “status symbol”: busyness. Silvia Bellezza, Columbia Business School professor and researcher explains this phenomena she has been studying, noting that neither extreme, constant leisure or incessant working, makes for a healthy person or society. Instead, according to Bellezza, a balance of work and play is desirable, though often tough to negotiate in reality.
But, what I’ve noticed from my students, especially this summer, is the way many of them have seemed to naturally broker a pretty healthy arrangement. There is certainly active effort and learning involved in many of these experiences, be it reading or camp or internships, thesis writing or college visits or a language immersion experience abroad. But what energizes me is that I notice a joyful attitude toward these opportunities and toward the work itself: it is meaningful and fulfilling because it comes from a place of choice and intention.
Take these eight caffeinated kids sitting around the seminar table. Each of them is pursuing an area of research that taps into a curiosity and passion they can’t get out of their mind. There is focus, sometimes frustration, and serious contemplation, to be sure. But, there are plenty markers of play and community, too. I hear hearty belly-laughs as someone refills a cup of cold brew and throws a friend a granola bar and genuine inquiries about how each person’s project is coming along.
Before this week, some of them unplugged entirely at camp, taking a much needed break from the often punishingly perpetual stream of snapchat stories. And before that, some of them were at Girls or Boys State, passing bills that reveal innovative solutions to many of our challenges. Whatever the activity may be, this break from the barreling-forward school schedule gives older teenagers some independence to structure their time with a bit more autonomy. There is important developmental work happening here when these adolescents are given the chance to pursue their own agenda just a bit more.
Of course, I hope that there is time, too, for sleep and swimming and the gloriously idyllic pictures of summer that will become romanticized in their memories. But, I’m heartened that the busy days are filled with welcomed “work” that might further help our students uncover more about who they are in the pursuit of our mission’s ultimate goal: purposeful lives.
Katie Sutcliffe is beginning her seventh year at Episcopal and has served in many capacities involving writing and service learning. Currently, she directs the Thesis Program, teaching both Seminar juniors and Thesis seniors, and is the co-creator of LAUNCH, Episcopal’s annual TEDx-style student-planned and executed showcase of ideas and projects. Katie’s own history involves this blend of service and writing: after graduating from a small liberal arts college in Indiana with an English degree, she moved to the Deep South with Teach For America where she taught middle school English and worked passionately on issues of educational inequity. She later earned an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from the University of Pittsburgh and returned to Baton Rouge where she has continued freelance writing. Katie infuses social justice initiatives into her curricula and seeks to help her students make meaningful connections with those living a different experience within our larger community. She’s passionate about character education and project-based learning, as well as research and writing that have practical implications for understanding and addressing real world challenges.