I just returned from a little family trip out West. It felt like a real vacation: deep snow, my kids’ grandparents, a touch of air travel mayhem (canceled flight, two-day delay getting home, nihilists at the ticket counter).
Only technically, it wasn’t vacation. At least not for my daughter. She’s in preschool now, and her school’s winter break doesn’t start until next week. Despite the fact that her academic responsibilities mostly involve playing with blocks and not biting her teachers, the school calendar, as I was told when we first enrolled her, is inviolable. (More on DadWagon.com: Is it Legal to Leave Your Toddler Asleep in Your Apartment?)
So was I wrong to take her out of school? The truth is, we couldn’t have afforded to go skiing next week. We stayed with family and used frequent flier tickets that have blackout dates around the holidays. My wife, who is the newest hire at her work, doesn’t have enough seniority to get those prime Christmas weeks off. As for me, I quit my job and started freelancing last year, which has left a dent in the wallet. And in Colorado, everything, from lift tickets to that much-needed afternoon beer, is cheaper during the slow weeks of early December. Not that the right to a ski week is enshrined in the Constitution, but I have a feeling a lot of families these days are looking at the same choice: in order to take the same vacation they might have a few years ago, they’ll have to go earlier, or later, than the crowds.
I know why my daughter’s teachers take this seriously, though: preschool is in a dress rehearsal for the next dozen years or so of heavier responsibility. What seems like slow season now will be a whirlwind of late-semester projects and presentations, not to mention the stack of winter social events. It will only get more difficult to take her out of school. (More on DadWagon.com: Being Imprisoned by Your Kid’s Schedule)
I’m also sympathetic to teachers’ frustrations that classrooms would be hugely disrupted if half the class decided to take a week off earlier because it’s cheaper. Following the academic calender is the social-health equivalent of vaccinating your kid: you do it for your kid’s sake, but also because it helps the community function better. Remember that village that’s raising your child? If half the village is trying to score an early-winter lift ticket, you’ve got a real problem.
But there’s something about the tyranny of the schedule that I still can’t abide. Standing in a mile-long line at the airport on the first day of Official Vacation makes me feel less like a free spirit and more like a holiday turkey headed to slaughter. (More on DadWagon.com: The Intricate Rules of Vacationing Post-Divorce)
If all else fails, though, there is this: on the way to the airport to head back home (on a Tuesday!) we drove past a red shack, not far from Highway 70, tucked into the mountains: windows shot out, sloping floor, steel girder on the roof to keep the wind from blowing it off. With a little TLC, it could be the perfect place to live off the grid, hoard canned goods, and swear off formal education forever. Not even the ATF could tell us when to ski.
Nathan Thornburgh is a contributing writer at TIME. He co-founded the parenting blog DadWagon.com in 2009 to help explore the many ways he may be damaging his kids — Dalia, 4, and Nico, 2.
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