My little cousin in Fort Worth has just finished up her "summer break" after her first year of teaching school.
OK, I probably shouldn't refer to her as my "little cousin." She's all grown up and married now and taller than I am. But her mother and I are first cousins and have always been close. And since I was the first-born cousin in the family, they'll both always be my little cousins to me.
But I digress, as usual.
As I said, she's already heading back for her second year as a middle school teacher, after having about a minute and a half of vacation time. And even though I know the faculty always return to class a week or so before the student body, it still seems like her summer vacation was terribly, almost tragically SHORT.
Whatever happened to those long, long, long, three-month breaks with a seemingly infinite amount of unconstructed time stretching out into the sunny, sultry distance? I guess those days are gone, for teachers and students alike. I know that where I live in Virginia, the summer vacation for most school districts is only a few weeks long, and they're talking about the real possibility of year-round classes in the near future.
Which makes me wonder – when do today's school kids (and their teachers) do their summer reading? Especially now with all the schools issuing lists of required summer reading – when do kids get a chance to explore new authors and new ideas and new literary experiences of their own choosing, at their own pace?
For me, that used to be one of the most marvelous things about summer vacation – the chance to vegetate in the sun or the shade with a stack of books that I could read just because I wanted to. Or not read, if they didn't hold my interest. No book reports due. No gold stars to earn. No reading comprehension tests at story's end.
Just me and the Brothers Grimm. Or the Happy Hollisters. Or Louisa May Alcott. Or J.D. Salinger.
Summer vacation is when I discovered Tom Sawyer and Stephen Dedalus and H.G. Wells and Agatha Christie. Summer is when I read Gone With the Wind and The Turn of the Screw and To Kill a Mockingbird (that was before it was assigned as a text in every school in the land). Browsing at the library one day, I picked up The Once and Future King by T.H. White and that led to a whole summer spent exploring the legends of King Arthur and his court, which in turn whetted my appetite for medieval literature and history.
During one particularly industrious summer, Nancy Drew and I discovered: the hidden staircase; clues in the diary, the crumbling wall, the old album, and the jewel box; secrets of Red Gate Farm, the old clock, and the wooden lady; as well as the ghost of Blackwood Hall, the whispering statue, the message in the hollow oak, and the password to Larkspur Lane. We were exhausted but triumphant at summer's end.
And even more exciting than actually doing the reading every summer were the long Saturday afternoons spent at our local library, choosing the books – especially after I finally reached the lofty age of 12 and graduated to an adult's borrowing privileges. After that, I could wander through all the rooms, sampling anything that tickled my fancy. One summer I found Marjorie Morningstar during one of those browses. It was really too advanced for me and took me all summer to wade through. But it started my addiction to the BIG summer novel – a work offering a brand new world I didn't know existed that I can really explore and spend some time in. An addiction I've never been able to shake, to this day.
Well, I know times change and kids these days are very different beings from the Boomers I grew up with. Today's 12 year old would, I'm sure, much rather play computer games, or watch daytime TV, or just hang out at the mall. Summer reading is probably not even on the agenda. So maybe it's not such a tragedy after all, that long summer breaks are gone with the 20th century wind.
Fortunately, I'm still enjoying MY "summer break," and it's time I got back to my reading.