Thursday, September 2, 2010

Easy Living

The British kids are going back to school today, and if it seems as if they have just begun their summer school holidays, that is because they have.

Compared to their colonial cousins, British school kids get a paltry amount of time off for the summer. Granted, they make up for it during the rest of the year—the British school year seems to consist of a few weeks of classes, a few weeks off, a few weeks of classes, etc. I’m sure there must be some advantage to this system—such as not allowing time for all of the knowledge the teachers struggled so hard to cram into their pupils’ heads to leak out of their ears—but I still prefer what I grew up with, even at the risk of returning to school more ignorant than when I left.

In the States, when school is on, it’s ON. They call it the school year because that’s what you do during it—School. In September and October you’re settling into your new life; you used to be a 5th Grader, now you’re a 6th Grader, and at the top of the Elementary School food chain. You make do with Columbus Day and Halloween for diversion, and in November you look forward to Election Day and the mini-break (not to mention the turkey) at Thanksgiving.

December brings the Christmas/New Year ensemble, with its full week off and the opportunity to ride your new bike when it’s minus 17 degrees Fahrenheit outside. Then, I must admit, winter and school just drag on. And on. And on. And there is nothing for it but to hunker down, get to work and look forward to better days. It’s good training for adult life.

Even so, spring does arrive eventually, with muddy fields, blooming lilacs, cautious warmth and the Memorial Day weekend. Summer cannot be far away.

When I was a child, summer arrived in three phases, and the first was Memorial Day. It might be May, it might still be cold and dreary, but the Memorial Day weekend was the official starter’s pistol for summer. That was when the seasonal businesses reopened and people with swimming pools cleaned them out and got them ready for the coming season and people, like us, without swimming pools made the inaugural trek to the local swimming hole to test the waters. They were always freezing, but we didn’t care.

The second, and most important, was the middle of June when, after sitting in sweltering classrooms taking end-of-school tests for five days, you at last heard the clang of the final school bell. There is nothing to compare to the feeling of stepping out of school and seeing the whole of the sweet, sunny, sultry summer unfolding in front of you.

And finally, with the official summer solstice unnoticed and in the past and a few weeks of leisure under your belt, the Fourth of July would arrive. This was not a harbinger of summer so much as a confirmation that summer was here and in full swing. Picnics and fireworks—what better way to affirm your freedom?

During the summer, my friends and I would swim at the creek, ride our bikes, camp out in the woods or just enjoy lazing around in the hot, humid afternoons. The days stretched on forever, the world was benign and welcoming, and the possibilities for adventure were endless. We had no Internet, X-Box or iPods, but we were never bored.

I consider myself especially fortunate, as this long and languid period, for me, was punctuated by the Chatham Fair—the annual agricultural event held over the Labor Day weekend. We would go to the fair, look at the animals and exhibits, eat fried dough, cotton candy, candied apples, and then head for the main event—the rides. The Tilt-A-Whirl, the Ferris Wheel, the Scrambler, the Octopus—we would ride them all, repeatedly. Mostly without throwing up.

There would be car rallies, horse races and some has-been celebrity would put on a show in the grand stand and we would notice, as dusk settled around us, an autumnal chill in the air, signalling the end of this marvellous and magical season. Then the fair would pack up and leave town. We would have the next day—the first Tuesday in September—to find what clothes still fit us, get new hand-me-downs and steel ourselves for the coming year, where we would be back—on the bottom of the food chain—in Junior High School, to repeat the familiar cycle.

Now I just get a day off at the end of August; it’s not quite the same.


  1. It's when they close all the beaches at Labor day even when it's still beach weather that really makes me sad.

  2. Yes, I left that bit out, how the world turns back into winter mode at the end of Labor Day Weekend. All the pools close, the seasonal shops pack up and everything gets suddenly quiet. Very strange on those 80 degree October days when you think you might like to go for a swim and get an ice cream.

  3. Perhaps we all measure out our lives by those kinds of events but it's interesting how they vary from country to country. The start of spring/summer for me is the Grand National (horse race) and the end is the Last Night of the Proms.

  4. Having goal posts to tell you if you are in summer or not is the important thing, and "Last Night of the Proms" is a lot more classy than the Chatham Fair ;)

  5. Anonymous12:09 PM

    But in America people back their kids off to 'summer camp' don't they? The British equivalent of boarding school - necessary I suppose due to the paltry amount of annual leave you get out there. Personally I think 6 weeks is too long! Other European countries have equal holiday breaks throughout the year and I think that's much better for kids and easier for working parents, more realistic in this day and age when many mums work.

  6. Anonymous - most camps are day camps, not sleep-away camps. Sleep-away camps are wickedly expensive - just like boarding school!

    The school year in the UK is 190 days. It's 180 in the USA.

    The thing that drives me nuts is that all the camps close down for the week before school starts, just when I need the kids to be in camp because I start school before they do.

    The thing

  7. I've noticed how often the schools here in Hampstead are closed. It seems that the kids in the building are home an awful lot. But this summer they were all on holiday during their paltry 6 weeks. Funny how long 6 weeks can seem when you want it to end and vice versa. I finally have peace and quiet in the garden now!