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School days, dog days of summer

“It’s time to do away with school summer vacations.” This is how I started a column that I wrote in August, 2010. To support this unpopular suggestion, I cited research at Duke University and a separate study conducted at Johns Hopkins University that concluded, “While students made similar progress during the school year, regardless of economic status, the (economically) better-off kids held steady or continued to make progress during the summer -- but disadvantaged students fell back.”

I attempted to show why this gap between the two student groups occurs. My example involved a train ride from Milan to Lake Como in Italy that summer. The railroad conductor, who may have been trained by Mussolini, sat me with a family of three from Philadelphia, while my travel companion was placed in a row by herself. There were eight passengers in a coach that had 68 seats. Although I am of Italian heritage, I could not figure out the logic of the seating arrangement.

Europe and Euripides The people with whom I shared the ride were obviously of upper-middle-class standing. Father had flown to Milan after completing some business in the states, while Mother and Daughter had been touring Rome, Florence, and the Amalfi Coast. As the conveyance glided along almost seamless track, Daughter, who had just completed 11th grade, was reading “The Bacchae” by Euripides.

I mentioned to the young girl that I’d taught college for 36 years and probably knew fewer than ten students who had ever heard of Euripides, let alone read one of his works. She told me that it was one of the books on her summer reading list, assigned by her expensive private school. Not only was this youngster continuing with her academic education, she was also acquiring the kind of learning that only comes through travel, especially to foreign countries.

Perhaps the message that school children lose basic skills so dramatically during the long summer break has finally gotten across to our decision-makers. This year, classes in the Madera Unified School District resume this coming week, on August 11, to be exact.

School in August! When I was a kid, this would have seemed like the equivalent of capital punishment. We are still in the dog days of summer, for crying out loud. The tires on school buses could melt. Our dams could be drained from the attempt to keep students and teachers hydrated. Text books could burst into flames. But, perhaps students could pick up approximately where they left off in June. And that might make suffering through the heat worthwhile. Hot times and good times It should be noted that children would still spend only 180 days in school. However, they receive a week off in November (“Thanksgiving Break,” formerly known as Thanksgiving weekend — 2 days), three weeks off in December (“Winter Recess,” formerly known as Christmas vacation — perhaps two weeks, depending on the day on which Christmas was celebrated), and a week in April (“Spring Recess,” formerly known as Easter vacation). In addition, there are national holidays and “Board Declared Holidays.”

From a scholastic viewpoint, I find this arrangement to be superior to the three-month summer vacation. But, from a kid’s point of view, those three summer months (June, July, and August) were essential to the maintenance of mental health. Summer was a carefree period of fun and leisure.

The antics of Tom Sawyer and his friends all took place during summer. In Harper Lee’s award-winning novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Scout and her companions attempted to get Boo Radley to come out of seclusion one hot summer in Mississippi. And there are many more examples because the only memorable times in the lives of kids occur during those school-free months. Laurence Harbor When my brother and I reminisce about our childhood, all bad things seem to be associated with St. Francis of Assisi School in Brooklyn, where the good Sisters and Brothers routinely subjected us to corporal punishment, injustice, and embarrassment. But, when we talk about pleasurable experiences, we inevitably wind up talking about Laurence Harbor.

Laurence Harbor is a small, working-class city on the Raritan Bay in New Jersey. When we were kids, there was a bungalow colony on the beach. Bungalows rented for $300 a year, and were habitable only during the summer months because they had no heating, ceilings, interior walls, bathrooms, and other niceties. Communal bathrooms and showers were located across the road that ran in back of the colony. Food was kept in an ice box, and there was a hole in the floor where the water from melted ice could drain below the tiny houses, all of which were built on stilts.

Although it was extremely primitive, it was a children’s paradise, almost devoid of parents. For the most part, only mothers were in residence because virtually all fathers worked at jobs elsewhere in New Jersey or New York. And mothers hardly ever ventured outside the little bungalows. By contrast, kids were only found in bungalows during mealtime and late at night.

My brother and I would usually make a bunch of PBJ sandwiches in the morning and take them with us when we left, thus eliminating the necessity of going home for lunch. Other kids must have done the same. Of course, being on our own led to lots of dangerous activities, but in the decade or so that we spent summers in Laurence Harbor there were no serious injuries. There were also no books, unless one counts comic books.

The end of the halcyon days was always marked by a huge Labor Day bonfire. This was the only time that parents and children could be found together, participating in the same activity. Kids would scour the small forest behind the back road for days, looking for firewood. Then we’d venture into the swamps at one end of the colony in search of “punks,” otherwise known as Cattails. These would be dried, set afire, and then blown out so that the smoldering plant would continue to produce smoke that was supposed to repel mosquitoes.

When the last of the hot dogs and marshmallows had been roasted and toasted over the bonfire, the mood became quite somber. We knew that in just a few days it would be time to go back to school. But, at least it was the second week of September. Not August, for goodness sake!


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