Sunday, September 3, 2017

Yellow Leaves and Buses

I saw the strangest thing on my street on Thursday: a teenager. (See last blog about iGens.) What’s more, not 500 feet away was another one. Astonishing.

I live in a cluster of four cul-de-sacs that share a common entrance with the main road. (“Main” may give a misleading impression of the winding 20-foot wide road.) In my cluster there are 36 houses. Most of them contain at least one person of school-age. Based on the passengers of school buses and soccer vans that whiz up and down the street in mornings and afternoons on school days, I’d guesstimate there are no fewer than 30 students that attend elementary, middle, and high school – maybe more than 40. Yet during summer vacation I NEVER see them: not on bikes, not in yards, not walking, not anything. I don’t even hear them even though kids aren’t known for being quiet when swimming and half the houses in the neighborhood have pools.

The local high school
So what accounted for the dual apparition on Thursday? Apparently, a few schools these days start the school year (or at least some school activities) the last week of August. The teens were waiting to be picked up for school. Their noses were in their phones, of course, which might give a hint about how they spent their time when they vanished for the summer.

Contrary to popular legend, summer vacation is a not holdover from agriculturally dominant days when kids needed to work on the farm. Summer is the wrong time of the year for one thing. CUNY historian Kenneth Gold explains that summer vacation is an urban invention. 19th century educational reformist Amariah Brigham, among others, successfully argued that school in the summer was a factor in “a growing tide of insanity” among urban young people. Well, we can’t have that.

My sister and I, not at school but in 1957
I was one of those weird kids who actually liked school and looked forward to September. It occurs to me, by the way, that today is the anniversary of my very first day of it: September 3, 1957. (We didn’t do pre-school back then.) I remember it. I helped make the day memorable by getting on the wrong bus afterward to come home. Somehow in those pre-cellphone days the bus driver knew where I lived; after making his regular run he drove right up my driveway to drop me off. (Was getting on the wrong bus a common enough occurrence that he had a clipboard with all student addresses? To this day, I don’t know.) It wasn’t my last mistake in school-related matters, and it was far from the worst one. Still, though I mostly enjoyed school, I can’t say I miss it. Most kids don’t like it in the first place, and their position is not unreasonable. By and large school has been made a tedious and joyless place from which any fun that might be had from learning is carefully excised.

This may change as schooling increasingly moves online. This was foreseen long ago by sci-fi author Isaac Asimov. In 1951, almost 30 years before the first home computers, Asimov describes them as home teaching machines for children in his short story The Fun They Had. In his tale, two children in the 22nd century discover an old paper-and-ink school textbook in the attic. They are astonished to learn that large numbers of children once attended “classes” together led by live human teachers. The story concludes, “Margie was thinking about how the kids must have loved it in the old days. She was thinking about the fun they had.”

The story was and still is widely anthologized in school books, largely because educators almost always miss Asimov’s point. In his eclectic book The Roving Mind, Asimov complains that those school anthologies “together with certain letters I get, often make it clear that the story is interpreted non-ironically as a boost for contemporary education.” His true point is that the future kids on their machines, able to proceed at their own pace and to break for play on their own schedules, are learning better and (though they don’t know it) are having a much better time. As for the social aspects of school (many of them awful, really), they can be had much more cheaply and pleasantly in non-school settings.

For now, however, the appearance of students at school bus stops are akin to the first hint of yellow in the leaves: a prelude to autumn. The two teens will be joined by others Tuesday when most schools open their doors. Tomorrow, after all, is Labor Day, the “unofficial end of summer.”

I don’t care much for unofficial beginnings and endings, however, so in my book it’s still summer until the equinox, which is September 22 this year. I’ll likely have one more BBQ the weekend of the equinox to celebrate it. Until then, despite unseasonably cold weather I’ll stubbornly start each morning with a dive in the unheated pool – even if the water numbs.

The Donnas - I Don't Wanna Go To School


  1. I can't say I miss school either really. I got to enjoy two cities and it's funny how they contrasted each other. I was thinking about this yesterday as I began to mow the lawn. East Texas schooling was weird, and this may have been more a sign of the times, but it reminded me more of the 50s--Elvis, pompadour hair, a little bit more hazing of the younger students, kind of rural, redneck, and a bit of Back to the Future, not that great an experience really.

    The move to West Texas everyone was basically friendly that I ran into. This was 1966 so everything was entering the age of Aquarius, so maybe that whole scene had something to do with it, but I don't think that was the total reason. Oddly in West Texas it seemed more Californian--more open, do what you want lifestyle, there was an Air Force base and a lot of people from different areas of the world. Frankly I was glad we moved. When I think of a happier teenage experience I think of there. For my childhood up to around Junior high that was okay in East Tx too.

    I can see that home school would be okay too, particularly if you had a good instructor to oversee it. Getting ready to fly to the UK for a bit. Looking forward to it. Fly into Edinburgh first and gradually make our way down. Cheerio.

    1. Have fun in the UK. It’s probably a good time to go: travel prices are down a bit from summer peak and the weather is still OK.

      The times and geography do make a difference. The culture shifted dramatically in a very few years in the mid-60s, and that showed up in student culture at school. Simply getting older made difference as well: when I grew too big to be stuffed into a locker life got easier.