Franke: What happened to summer vacation?

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Mark Franke

Most of the public and parochial schools in my area started back up this week. So what, one might ask, until one looks at the calendar and realizes it is the second week of August. What happened to summer vacation?

No one of my acquaintance thinks this is a good idea, a handful of totally exasperated parents excluded. It isn’t just we geezers who think summer runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day. There is something yin-and-yangish about having these holiday bookends on either end of the best time of year for school children.

I admit to being cloyingly nostalgic at times, but summers were essential to our maturation process. Despite what the professional educators may have thought, our educational development advanced apace during these three months. We had all day to figure out how to spend our time in mostly safe and creative ways. Whatever structure defined the day, we determined it ourselves. Our mothers’ calling us to come home for lunch was the only adult supervision we needed.

There were a few adult-organized activities such as youth baseball and vacation Bible school, but these were the exceptions. Now, it seems kids’ entire days and weeks are subsumed with specialty summer camps, 12-month travel sports teams and other expensive activities under close adult supervision. Kids aren’t kids anymore, just harried little adults.

Then there was the summer family vacation ritual. Load up us kids into the sedan or station wagon and head off along a route carefully planned by our parents. We didn’t have video players or iPads to entertain us. We would count dairy cows on our side of the car in cutthroat competition with our siblings on the other side. When stopped at a railroad crossing, we counted boxcars. Maybe that’s why our generation’s math skills are superior to those of each succeeding generation, or so we tell ourselves.

Yes, it was a different time. Moms for the most part didn’t work outside the home so we actually had more adult supervision than we cared to admit. Whoever’s yard we were playing in, their mom was the boss. I feel sorry for today’s kids who can’t run next door to play with the neighbor kids without their parents worried for their safety.

There is something to be said for unstructured, non-programmed play. Children can’t be creative anymore. It boggles the mind what we could pretend to be given whatever sticks, rocks and our dad[s garden tools were to hand. Imagination is a wonderful, liberating thing; I fear we are robbing our children and grandchildren from developing theirs.

So where did we go wrong? It is easy to cast blame on politicians, teacher unions, school boards and any of the other usual bands of suspects. As much as I would like to do that, the real culprit is air conditioning.

During my childhood in the idyllic 1950s, air conditioning was something we heard about but hardly ever experienced. Our automobiles, homes and, yes, our schools operated quite effectively without and we survived. That’s what basements were for; we headed down there when the temperatures got too high.

My family was fortunate to live on a wooded street with plenty of shade. Later we moved into the country, the term we used for the agricultural areas of the county. There was always plenty of breeze to enjoy and, of course, a lot of shade trees near the house. If you were never in air conditioning, you didn’t feel overheated when you left it.

Air conditioning has a lot to answer for. Not only has it stolen nearly a month from kids’ summer, it also allows Congress and all those Washington agencies to function all year long. The cynic in me is convinced that has not made things better for our nation.

In addition to being a cynic, I also plead guilty to being a hypocrite. I am writing this in an air-conditioned lounge, having driven here in my air-conditioned truck. When I finish, I will drive back to my air-conditioned home. Yes, I’m spoiled now so I need to find something else to blame. And I did.

The real culprit is the Anglo-Saxon calendar that was followed by our cultural forebears in the early Middle Ages. Their summer ran from approximately May 7 to Aug. 7 when the harvest began. The summer solstice, June 21 or thereabouts, was the middle of summer and is still celebrated as the Midsummer festival across northern Europe.

So the next time I hear people complain about school starting in early August, I will tell them we are just being faithful to our Anglo-Saxon cultural heritage. They can blame Beowulf or Alfred the Great or King Arthur and the knights of his roundtable.

But I still don’t like it.

Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

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