Monday, June 17, 2013

School's out for the summer

The Grape is one day into week two of summer vacation, that traditional break in the school year also known in our house as the three months during which Mamma gets close to no work done. Today he asked when he could go back to school.

The novelty of leaving the three-year-old room for good has worn off. He's ready to see his friends and resume his routine. "If we're not going on vacation, why do I have vacation?" he asked at breakfast today.

"So you can enjoy the summer, and the good weather."

"But are we going somewhere or not?"

Evidently the beautiful Italian concept of dolce far niente is lost on the Grape.

I will note that last week, on the beaches and in the kiddie pools of Bermuda, the Grape registered no complaints. Indeed he burst into loud tears of bitter grief when I told him we had to check out of the hotel. He sobbed in my arms in that way-too-warm kiddie pool for the better part of a half hour (which is a long time in kid time). The father of a much bigger child who was also playing in the pool came running towards us with alarm, apparently ready to throttle his own son for injuring the Grape—because any child crying so hard must be physically hurt.

Basically the Grape takes an active view of vacations. The way he sees it: If we aren't vacationing, shouldn't he be in school?

I admit, with no small amount of shame, that the question has crossed my mind.

I'm embarrassed to tiptoe into such territory, because I was a kid who loved summer, largely because my family was in a position to make sure my summer breaks were idyllic. I remember long days swimming at the beach (we lived near the shore), riding bikes (and later, horses) on rural roads with friends, eating strawberries until my stomach hurt, staying out with friends from early morning until sunset.

I remember my parents putting my brother and me in the car and taking us to Pizza Hut on the hottest nights, not because they enjoyed the food, but because that restaurant had by far the coldest air conditioning of any establishment in our town. Back then, during the early eighties, we had one rattling window unit in our house, installed inexplicably in an upstairs study where nobody slept but the dog.

I want the Grape to have that. Maybe not the meat locker Pizza Hut or the rattling window unit, but the rest of it. To have the feeling that the summer stretches forever, one lazy unscheduled day melting into another, the freedom to just be a kid.

As I look back with smiling nostalgia on sunburns and Noxema, swimming lessons and fireflies, fast melting ice cream treats and roasted marshmallows, I realize that those memories don't date as far back as my preschool years.

More importantly, now that I understand how privileged my friends and I were, I wonder whether lower income city kids, or poor rural kids sweating the dog days out in the middle of nowhere, feel as warm and sunny about summer vacations gone by.

Still, I see two separate questions:

First: Should kids too young to appreciate a three-month summer vacation get a three-month summer vacation? Why not keep the little people on their regular routine? It's pre-school, not medical school: If you want to pull your kid out for a few weeks in the summer to do whatever you traditionally do, it won't matter from an educational perspective. Why rock the routine just because the big kids are on break?

Second: Should any kids get the three month break my friends and I enjoyed? Many school districts nationwide are considering year-round public school, because some, though not all, studies show that most kids forget a lot of material during the summer months and the problem could be moderated with a longer school year.

I'm skeptical that year-round school alone would do much to close the achievement gap. Most, if not all, other developed nations give their students a long seasonal break. How we Americans spend on education, not which days the kids sit in class, seems to be the key to the achievement gap.

But consider: Summer vacation is a total logistical nightmare for many working parents. For now, I resign myself to working very little during school breaks, because writing doesn't bring in enough dollars to justify paying for seasonal childcare (yet).

I know I'm one of the lucky minority of parents who has a choice. I'm only hurting/slowing my own career by slowing down for the whole summer; I'm not depriving my family of any necessity.

Before you email me to say writers need distance and time, let me say that I believe fervently in the value of downtime and vacation and taking a step back. I think the Europeans have the right idea on vacation time. I wish more Americans could take multiple vacations every year. I just don't think twelve consecutive weeks away from my desk is in my professional best interest.

I think the call for year round school to ease parental scheduling is a red herring. Shouldn't we instead be working towards universal child care for all parents? After all, lack of affordable, high quality care for small kids keeps talented women out of the workforce.

I know many moms who frantically cobble together a series of camps, day care stints and semi-willing elderly relatives to cover their childcare needs during working and commuting hours for the months of June, July and August. Many camps fill up early; some of this planning happens as far as a year in advance of the last day of school.  It might be easier for working parents to manage a series of shorter vacations spread throughout the year. Or not. But certainly, it's a question worthy of discussion.

I'm not ready to come out in favor of year-round school for all. Mostly for nostalgic reasons, and for the desire to let the Grape stay a carefree, innocent kid for as long as possible. I think a non-structured summer helps serve that goal.

One last point to consider: The long summer vacation attracts a good number people to teaching. That huge perk makes up, partly and imperfectly, for the lack of pay and prestige afforded to teachers in this country.

How about it? Are you for or against year-round school and why?