Idle Theory Free Time in the School Day

I first began to highly value free time - idle time - while I was at Douai school during my early teens. And I came to value it because I had very little of it. Something that had seemed to be abundantly available in my earlier childhood was suddenly in short supply. The memory of those days is still vivid enough for me to remember, fairly accurately, how the hours of the day passed.

The day began with being woken shortly before 8 am (earlier, if one wished to attend mass, which I never did), and having a brief wash, before having a communal breakfast in the school refectory. Breakfast lasted about 20 minutes, ending at 8.30 am, and was followed by the first break of the day - 20 minutes - or so before the 10 minute school assembly at 8.50 am. Lessons then started at 9 am, and continued without pause until 11 am, when there was another 30 minute break. After this, classes resumed for another hour and a half until lunch in the refectory at 1 pm. After this half hour lunch there was another break. If there were compulsory games of some sort, as there usually were, this break would last 30 or 40 minutes, before I'd have to go and get togged up for whatever game was being played. The games lasted for about an hour and a half, followed by trudge back to locker room, shower, and putting on school uniform again. The whole process took about 2 hours, and would be over by about 4.30 pm. There followed another break of about 20 minutes, and a mug of tea, before the afternoon study periods began. These periods, mostly devoted to reading textbooks and writing essays, lasted from 5 pm to 7 pm. At which time dinner was served, lasting another 20 minutes or so. There followed another break of 30 minutes or so, and then it was time for bed. After about a half hour of quiet reading in bed, it was lights out, and sleep.

Busy and idle periods during school day

Over this waking period of about 12.5 hours, there were thus about 140 minutes of break time in total scattered throughout it. And I would proceed through the day from one break to the next, as if trudging from one desert water hole to the next, there to quench a raging thirst. Or as if swimming under ice from one air hole to the next, there to fill my bursting lungs with air.

Most of the activities between these breaks were characterised by intensive activity of one sort or other. Classes required the fullest attention throughout, and even the supervised study periods allowed little slacking. Games also required constant attention to varieties of flying or moving balls. Dinner times were perforce largely given over to eating. Religious services, when they occurred, would require choreographed singing, standing, sitting, and kneeling.All of these were busy times. They were all, as far as I was concerned, varieties of work. In addition no talking was allowed during classes, games, church services, or in bed at night. Additional rules included no running, no hands in pockets. Infractions of rules could result in punishments such as writing essays, or for more serious offences, beatings with a cane. It was only in the break periods that I could do, within limits, as I pleased. Read a book, talk to friends, daydream, stroll around. These were the idle times. And what I would now call my idleness, over these waking hours, worked out at about 18%. And over the intensive series of morning classes, it was about 12%.

Not all days were like this. Wednesdays and Saturdays were half days, with no study periods in the afternoons. But very often compulsory games lasting much of the afternoon. There were no classes on Sundays, but instead religious services of one sort or another to occupy up to 2 hours over the day.

And every night there was sleep, blessed sleep, which was my favourite period of the day, and which I classed as free time, and a complete break from school life.

Most school 'work' - classes, exercises, games, meals, etc - required close attention. But this did not mean they were necessarily unpleasant. In classes we were quite often taught things which were new and interesting. Occasionally, I would listen with rapt attention. But for the most part study involved absorbing or memorising disconnected lumps of knowledge. English history, as I studied it, began abruptly in 1485 AD, and ended in 1720, and consisted of a sequence of kings and queens, wars and peace treaties, plots and trials, whose names and dates had to be remembered. Mathematics entailed learning obscure ways of solving mysterious equations. When questions passed unanswered, interest - never strong - soon died. Sodium hydroxide and rift valleys, gunpowder plots and Latin conjugations, all merged into an undifferentiated slurry of things to to be memorized, from which the occasional gold nugget gleamed. I had been wonderfully interested in all knowledge before I started school, but soon lost interest once subjected to an unending succession of classes, exercises, tests and examinations. It became a cross country run in which I had no interest in the scenery, and in which I aimed to just make it to the finishing line.

And the finishing line was the end of term, and going home, and four weeks of school holidays, in which almost all day every day was pure, undiluted free time, to be spent lost in imagination, or play, or books.

The relief that came with the free time of school breaks was to be able to think, to take stock, get a perspective. It was to be able to do what I wanted to do, rather than what I had to do. It was also to be able to talk. I was simply too busy in classes, at meal times, and during compulsory games, to think about anything other than what I had to do - pay attention, eat, run.

I did not theorize during my school days. I simply experienced the passage of time over the school day, always feeling a sense of relief when the next break began. It is in retrospect that I can see that free time was all the more precious and sweet the less there was of it. The most precious few minutes in the school day was the half hour break at 11 am, between two long periods of gruelling classes. And in the holidays, idle time again became something taken for granted, the datum of life. I did not spend my school holidays longing for the next interlude of free time, because the holiday was all free time.

People perhaps only really know the value of anything when they have little of it. In our civilised society, where water is plentiful, hardly anybody drinks pure water. They drink wine or beer or lemonade. But the thirsty traveller on a desert dreams of water, pure crystal clear water. And when he tastes it on his lips and tongue, it is the very water of life, the most exquisite and intoxicating aqua vitae.

So also with idle time. Nobody is much interested in it, who has it in sufficiency. But when there is hardly any, it comes as much as a relief as a glass of cold water to a thirsty traveller. And my school days could have been far worse. What if class had followed class in unremitting succession, without any break between, all week, without half-day Wednesdays and Saturdays? Then how sweet Sunday would have seemed. What a glorious and happy day. Would I not have sung my head off in those church services, instead of mumbling the words? At least one of the meanings of the sabbath day, the day of rest, has been lost. The faithful who once gathered in their churches after six days of unrelenting, hard, physical work were perhaps joyfully giving thanks as they sank down onto their knees within it. They perhaps wept with joy to be there on that day, and hugged and kissed one another. But as the centuries passed, and work got easier, Sundays ceased to be occasions for such rejoicing. They became instead a day much like any other day.

The intense experience of school life left its mark on me. After that, free time was always precious to me. And I could never get enough. And whenever I dreamed of wealth, it was never of houses or gardens or cars. It was of endless days of free time. It was to take another 10 or 15 years, after I had left school, that I was to consciously realise - as a Ph. D. student who had seemingly been given 3 years of free time - that what I prized above everything else was idle time, and began to piece together Idle Theory.  

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: March 2008