'My summer holiday is written in the stars'

Forget the moon landing. Stephen Petty's summer holiday has a more meteoric rise and fall

two people, watching perseid meteor shower

It feels wrong to admit this, but I get slightly bored with all this talk of space and of the lunar landing of 50 years ago

The clue is in that word “space”, surely? There’s really not much going on out there, not much afoot. And, while walking on the Moon was plainly a stunning human achievement, I just zone out when I see that grainy film footage or hear replays of those muffled, incomprehensible exchanges between astronauts and Houston control. 

Even Neil Armstrong’s famous pronouncement has lost some of its resonance, thanks to a couple of comic boys in my Year 10 class. This year, their rural Oxfordshire, pseudo-street act has seen them use the word “man” a considerable number of times – as in, “Man is wondering whether we are having a fun final lesson, Mr Petty?” and “Man isn’t happy that you have set homework for the holiday.” So, when I now hear “One small step for man,” it’s as if Armstrong is just trying to get in with Tom and Alfie’s crew. 

Shooting stars

That said, space isn’t entirely useless. Far from it. The annual Perseid meteor shower in July and August is one of the genuine highlights of my summer – of my life, even. Those shooting stars may only be tiny fragments of rock, but I feel a special, almost spiritual bond between those morsels and me as a teacher. A bit odd, yes, but fellow fans of the Perseids may partly know what I mean. 

The shower bears an uncanny similarity to me during the summer holiday. Just as Halley’s comet heralded the Battle of Hastings, my first sighting of the Perseids in mid-July always tells me each year that the end of term is nigh. (I obviously haven't given it a thought until then.) Then, exactly in line with that meteor shower, it takes a little while for me to pick up. Everything is a little dull and anti-climactic at the start of the holidays.

After two or three weeks, however, it’s a wholly different story. By then, flaming torches regularly flash across the night sky, completely reflecting my own now liberated, carefree and slightly random state. I am truly away from it all. The holiday doesn’t feel any better than this. 

Chilling eclipse

From mid-August, the shooting stars start to fade, the horizon darkens and we have the slightly chilling eclipse of A-level and GCSE results days. But I view those two blessed days as just passing, orbiting matters, to be forgotten about for the remainder of the holiday. For, rest assured, those results will be orbiting back into view in early September. 

The Perseids have also given me countless great memories of holiday nights spent lying back and looking up at that show, and all the silliness and stupidity that generally accompanies such an evening. The viewing party is usually in varying states of sobriety, whether we are on sand, sunloungers or camping in a field of mystified sheep. Someone occasionally exclaims: “There’s one!” Others repeatedly curse: “Missed it AGAIN!” 

Eventually, the vigil gets abandoned and people opt instead for alternative distractions: all-night dance-offs, blind man's boules on a beach, midnight lilo-races in the pool, the odd disastrous attempt at seduction under that starry, starry night. 

I would recommend all teachers to get into that Perseid meteor shower this summer. It is one of the few things that we can depend on, the one constant every summer, the one thing in life that will never let us down, the one summer romance that never ends in tears. Provided it doesn’t rain, of course.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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