Since around the middle of July I've started seeing Back to School signs in the stores, and my daughter sort of cringed every time I pointed to one and reminded her about the inevitable. It seems kind of cruel on my part, and it reminds me of that old Staples commercial. Some of you may remember it: a father happily throws all the school supplies in the shopping cart as his kids look very sad while Andy Williams sings "It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." Oddly enough, I know my daughter is going back to school in about a week and I don’t feel all that happy.
I remember my own childhood summers as blissful times. My parents had a beach house in a place called Breezy Point, and it was so close to the city and yet seemed to be a zillion miles away. It was a safe little enclave where people didn’t lock doors, children ran barefoot all summer long, and the smell of barbecues filled the air every evening from June until September.
I can recall looking at the calendar on the wall in the kitchen as my Mom worked around the room, and I kept smiling and she’d ask why, and it was because "July" was in big letters at the top and that meant two months of no school. I was even happy when the page was turned to August, but like every kid I dreaded when Mom turned it again and I saw "September" splashed across the top. The funny thing was, Mom never seemed happy about us going back to school, and I always appreciated that.
My daughter now faces a similar situation. After a summer of freedom, she has no desire to return to school. I hate to see her go back because she has been such a great companion. Now eight years old, she can help us with the baby (eight months old) and also do little chores around the house. She also fancies herself a writer and has been writing "books" all summer. These books involve little girls, most of whom resemble all her friends, but the names have been changed to protect the innocent.
Sometimes I hear calls for an extended school day and school year, and this usually comes from politicians who wish to appease their constituents who are working parents. They want to see the day go from 7 AM until 6 PM or sometimes even later. They would also like to see the school year extend until the end of August, effectively meaning twelve months of school. They jabber about competing with other nations like Japan or South Korea, but what they are really saying is that schools should provide year-round childcare.
I am not looking at this just as a parent but as someone who has been an educator for the last 26 years. I have taught in elementary, middle, and high schools as well in a college setting. For ten years I was a school principal for grades N-8. I have no doubt that many of these politicians are well-intentioned, but I also know that this call for more school denies the basic needs of children to have unstructured time, to be away from the classroom, and basically to have a chance to be kids.
I do advocate academic work during the summer. This is a golden opportunity for parents or older siblings to work with children on math, reading, and other things. This summer my daughter and I have done numerous projects involving science activities and art. These are wonderful times that we have shared and that she will always remember. I also make her practice her times tables and read every day from grade-appropriate books. The mind is like a muscle and, if unused, it becomes pretty ineffectual. This keeps me involved in her education and shows her I do care about what she is learning.
If parents are unable to work with their kids this way during the summer, there are programs (half and full day) in which children can keep sharp, but these classes are usually given in a different place than the school the kids attend all year, and this is important because the students need a change of pace. We may be guilty of underestimating just how much children need and deserve a break from routine, but it is a fact and we must accept and understand it.
As an educator I know too that, if I am doing my job right, I will go home exhausted every day. Good teaching involves so much energy and depletes the educator mentally and physically. This is why that after ten months of school, most teachers have put in more than twelve months' worth of work and deserve that summer vacation that the rest of the adult world seems to resent so much.
As both my daughter and I face her going back to school, I think we have pretty much accepted that it must happen. There is always that trepidation about the first day, the new students in different classes, the new teachers who have come in since last year. Usually after the first week she will be okay, back with her friends and getting into the routine, but the memories of summer will linger at least until we start getting ready for Halloween.
I think many parents probably feel the same as I do now, but even those who may be happy to see kids go back to school must realize the benefits of a summer vacation. Kids get to feel a little freedom, stay up a little later, and sleep a little later too. They get to run barefoot through the grass, drink ice cold lemonade, and lie on their backs and watch the clouds go by. They need this time to run, play, swim, and scream their little heads off. The importance of unstructured time is crucial because, despite the seemingly haphazard schedule, students are actually learning vital skills to cope with the individuality and responsibility that will be required in later years.
So parents and children, we all know about the back-to-school blues, but enjoy these last few days of summer. Watch the sun rise or the sun set, cook a few marshmallows over that lingering fire, take deep breaths of the summer air, and listen to the soothing refrain of the crickets in the night. Enjoy being with your kids and maybe, just maybe, be a kid again yourself, if only for a little while.