Harrison Elementary School, Roselle, New Jersey. I’m 8, 9, 10 years old and watching the clock nudge its snail’s pace toward 3 o’clock. One final click, the liberty bell of freedom rings and I spring from my seat, run downstairs, burst out the double doors and leap off the steps straight into the arms of summer. Every year the same ritual, that glorious moment of release and promises of long days following my curiosity instead of squeezing it into textbooks and schedules. Wandering through Warinanco Park, pick-up baseball, the summer playground with its nok-hockey, tetherball and ping-pong possibilities. Sitting on the front stoop, cat on lap, greeting the passing neighbors while waiting for the fireflies to come out. Tinkering on the piano, watching Million Dollar Movie at night, reading The Wind in the Willows while listening to my scratchy recording of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Mole, Rat and Toad inexorably linked with certain musical motifs. Running to Uncle Louie, the ice-cream man, piling in the car to drive down the Garden State Parkway to nearby Sandy Hook Beach or far-away Asbury Park, with its magical boardwalk and games of ski-ball.
Ah, summer! Whatever evil madman thought up mandatory schooling is somewhat excused by giving us the 10-week summer vacation. Though it’s threatened by year-round schools, the sly shift to beginning in late August, the idea of following Europe’s six-week model, I am loyal to the 10-week summer. As a teacher, I know my students lose lots of momentum—the difference between the music the kids can make in September and June is measurable in light years. But still. I’ve had the long summer break just about my whole life and I love it, even as it has made many of my non-teacher friends insanely jealous. (But they have their revenge when I’m putting together Holiday Shows and Spring Concerts while they’re clocking 9 to 5 and come home without their work.)
Of course, these days, summer is not exactly long, lazy days where the main event is buttering corn and salting tomatoes. I always allow a week or so at the family Lake Michigan retreat to keep in touch with “real summer” and it’s lovely. But generally, I’m teaching Orff courses and weirdly, often in places with dubious summer weather. Last year was Brazil, where it was winter, in Salzburg it rains often and Madrid is hot, but without the beach. And then three weeks in San Francisco where the out-of-towners are at first charmed and then quickly fed-up with fog, fog and then—more fog. “What’s the point of walking the beach in blue jeans and sweatshirts?” they ask and I can only agree. But hey, it’s summer! “No more homework, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks!” Well, not quite true. We give homework in our Orff course, ask students to read our books and bend a nail on our xylophone and we will give you a look!
But all of this is down the line. Today will be the staff-8th grade basketball game, farewell lunch with our school tradition of mud-pie desserts, with the special song the kids have to sing (1 mudpie, 2 mudpies, 3 mudpies, 4 mudpies, 5 mudpies, 6 mudpies, 7 mudpies, Yum! Ice cream, sauce and oreos, oreos, oreos, Ice cream, sauce and oreos, chocalate, chocolate, chocolate, Yum!: etc.). Then the kids look down at their mudpie and sit for 30 seconds of complete stillness—one move and I snatch their mud-pie away. This is an event to behold. Next comes the closing ceremony, always with song (Side by Side, Que Será, Summertime, etc.) and closing remarks. Each teacher speaks about their class and officially rings them up to the next grade on our ceremonial Balinese gongs. Then the youngest and oldest child in the school, who rang the gongs to start the year back in September, ring them again (much more sonorous than my harsh Harrison School 3 o’clock bell). When the last vibration fades into the 190-kid silence, school is out! But no jumping off the steps yet—first the hug-line outside, where every child hugs every teacher before going off into Summer. (Nervous about making this public— the Limiters may sniff us out and send Child-Protective Services to forbid this practice).
That’s how we will end school today, as we have done so many years before. Still 8th grade graduation tomorrow and two days of meetings before it’s really done and have I mentioned that I’m not finished with report cards yet? But I’m giving myself permission to leap off the steps into summer— something I now can only do metaphorically without hurting my ankle. But it’s just as sweet and delicious now as it was 50 years ago.