There’s a tale by Charles Dickens called “A Christmas Carol.” For those of you who haven’t encountered it, I’ll summarize: A crotchety old man is visited by his dead lending partner and three other ghosts who teach him the true meaning of Christmas. With spring break here, with my students itching for far-off shores and the soft sheets of home, and feeling myself sufficiently old and crotchety, let me detail my visitation by the four ghosts of spring breaks past.

My freshman year, I went home. Instead of staying in Los Angeles and exploring my new city, instead of taking up new friends on their offers of Mexico or Arizona or northern California, I went home to Colorado. I judged a high-school speech and debate tournament I’d won the year before. I knew everything and everyone — I was the returning champion. I was the guy who came home and expected everyone to marvel at his collegiate life. My high school had always been small, and I expected it to be that much smaller for all I’d grown. My sister, two years behind me, was still on the team, but she was busy with her friends. My coaches had new students to instruct. The tournament crowned a champion as I sat in the back of the auditorium.

My freshman ghost reminds me of all the chances I missed and teaches me that comfort has its place, but it needs to know its place too.

My sophomore year, I went on a service trip to the Navajo Nation. No more going home, but none of that drunken beach debauchery for me. I was above all that. I was a pampered college student and I needed to give back. I drove 11 hours with two-dozen likeminded students to Montezuma Creek, Utah to paint houses and work with local students. I slept on the floor of the high school. I woke up at six every morning and ate ham sandwiches for a week. I did a sweat lodge beside a freezing river. I learned a little Navajo. I dripped paint. I wept during a ceremonial dance.

My sophomore ghost says I got plenty, but I don’t think I gave much back.

My junior year, studying abroad in London, I used the break to travel around Italy. We took a gondola in Venice, hiked to the top of the Duomo in Florence and danced in a street carnival in Milan. We saw Oscar-winner Roberto Benigni at an Ethiopian restaurant and art that filled cities. I got a new girlfriend, and we slept in the same hostel bunk bed, and in the morning our backs did not hurt. We threw coins in the Trevi Fountain and knew, distantly, that we would not live forever, but we promised that we would come back and that we wouldn’t ever forget.

My junior year ghost wonders when I will be back and how much cannot be brought back.

My senior year, I finally made it up to northern California. The girlfriend was still with me, having flown out from New York. We toured San Francisco and stayed at a bed and breakfast in Mendocino. We were told that “Murder, She Wrote,” was filmed there, and we laughed — a perfect retirement town for ancient Angela Lansbury to haunt. We slept in. We ate breakfast in bed. We read the complimentary USA Today. We were adults. We wished we had jobs after graduation. We talked about if we would “make it” together, without knowing what that meant. We agreed that long distance was hard, but that we couldn’t imagine being apart. We wished we had jobs. We felt both old and immature. At the end of the week, her flight to New York was delayed a day and it felt like a miracle — one more day that was not the future.

My senior year ghost knows that this was only a temporary reprieve. The ghost of the future points silently ahead, knowing that time is the hardest distance.

I won’t wake up on any of these cold early March mornings with my life changed. My time for that has passed. But every year I remember those four entirely different escapes, alike only in their enduring ability to define me. There’s plenty of mythic pressure put on spring break, on “making memories,” on letting loose and walking as close to the edge of reason as possible. Much of it is unwarranted, absurd and, not infrequently, dangerous. But spring breaks matter because we are the choices we’ve made. We are adventures we’ve had and the chances we’ve missed. We are the people we’ve wanted to help and the lovers we’ve left behind. We are who we decide to be when we are told we can do anything.

Joseph Horton can be reached at

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