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Letters from James Alexander (1804-1859)
to his younger brother, on the virtues and
vices, the duties and dangers of youth.



My dear brother,
I well remember how much I used to think of vacations when I was a boy. But it pains me to consider how much of this precious time was altogether wasted. But you will say, "Must we study all the time? May we never play?"

Surely, I do not mean this. No one can be a greater friend to recreation than I. I consider recreation not only harmless—but absolutely necessary. But what I mean is that even in play one should not be foolish or unreasonable. There is such a thing as being profitably employed, at the same time that one is entertained. And there is a certain way of spending vacations so as to get neither profit nor recreation.

Gustavus was a schoolmate of mine, and a more idle lad I never knew. Half his time seemed to be spent in lounging over his books, yawning, stretching, and wishing that the play-hour had come. But how did he use this time of recreation when it came? I think I see him even now. When the Saturday afternoon, or any of the regular vacations came, Gustavus seemed as much at a loss as when he was at his desk in the schoolroom. He had no plan laid out, no arrangements made for his sports or exercise. Now, I like a boy to have some method—even in his play. Gustavus used to saunter along the road on his way homeward, as if he scarcely knew what to do with himself. Then he would put away his books, and come out again. What he was going to do next, he could not tell. Sometimes he would lie under the trees, or hang upon the gate, or lounge in the lanes, waiting for some of the other boys to come along. Gustavus was thus more uncomfortable than if he had been at his books. And at the end of a vacation, he used to feel more exhausted and worn out, than his younger brother who had been working in the field. There is no profit in such vacations as these—they encourage idleness and irresolution.

Take another picture of another boy. Matthew went to the same school. While he was at his desk he was always employed, and scarcely ever looked away from his lesson. His whole soul was engaged in it. But when school was out, and books put away, there was not a livelier fellow in the whole school than Matthew—vacations were full of pleasure to him, and full of profit, too. He always had something planned beforehand. Sometimes he had formed a group to climb the neighboring mountains, or to build a fort in the edge of the woods, or to visit some of the villages. Sometimes he used to work for hours with the carpenter's tools which his uncle had given him; and thus he received exercise as well as amusement. But what he chiefly loved was to go with his father to walk in the woods, and gather flowers, and learn the names of trees, plants, and minerals.

You will now be able to understand me, when I say, do not waste your vacations. One of the most important ways of spending them is in taking active exercise—a wholesome game at ball, or an hour's ride on a good horse, will fit you for studying so much the better when you return to your lessons. It is a duty for us to take care of our health. Many people ruin their health in youth; and then it is almost impossible to live either comfortably or usefully.

Visits to your friends may also be paid in your vacations. It is a good sign for boys to be fond of accompanying their mothers and sisters in their visits. Thus they learn good manners, and escape that clownishness which is apt to grow upon students. When I see a boy ready to sneak out of the room, I naturally conclude that he will never be a well-bred man. And this is more important than you might think at first; for when young men grow up, they need and desire some society. And if they have become so foolishly bashful, or disgracefully awkward, as to shrink from the society of their mothers and sisters, they will be very apt to go out into bad company.

Lastly, whatever you do, do it upon principle, do it conscientiously, and you will never regret it.

Your affectionate brother,

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