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School Starts Again; Complicated Feelings and High Hopes

By Peter Gow — September 03, 2013 4 min read
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It’s Labor Day eve as I write this. Fifty years ago and more this was one of the more fraught and sorrowful nights of the year, the night when childhood summer was really at an end. On this night--ignoring (as I recall) the blandishments of Bert Parks to gaze upon Miss America: “your ideal"--the household would be packing up. It was the formal night of transition between the glorious--or so it seemed--world of summer and the new school year that would soon engulf my family members one at a time: first my younger siblings in public elementary school, then me, and at last my father as the students arrived at the boarding school where he worked and we lived; suddenly he would disappear through dinnertime every day of the week except Wednesday, his “night off.”

I liked school, and I was moderately good at it, but somehow Labor Day eve was a night of dread, the dread of going back to school. I look back now and wonder exactly what that was all about, and why we’ve continued to create a system that so bifurcates kids’ worlds between their experience of family and “the world” and their experience of school.

Part of it is natural, I understand. Labor Day brings forth collective sighs from young and old, a day we make a national transition from parties at the beach (or wherever) to the school year and the work year. After Labor Day only the retired, the wealthy, or the really fortunate can actually go to all those places where September is supposed to be the best vacation month. It’ll soon be getting cooler and probably wetter in most places, and in northerly parts the leaves will be turning.

“School” for most of us--kids and adults--represents a certain kind of confinement, a limitation on our freedom of movement and on our freedom of imagination and expression. It is a rare school indeed where students are more excited at the prospect of being there than they are at the idea of being almost anywhere else, even if they’re happy when they actually get there. (College seems to be an exception for many students, but I suspect this is more about social reunions than academic programs.) Although I sometimes grumble when bloggers and other gurus trash the education system for squelching free and creative thinking, it’s hard on Labor Day eve not feel a bit restive on this subject.

Of course, in 2013 schools have already started all over the country, some as many as three weeks ago. While my old-school sensibility says there oughta be a law against starting at least before, say, the Monday the week before Labor Day, this is the way our society now works. We know that summer vacations, supposedly once synched to the needs of an agricultural nation, are actually an anachronism, and there is a pretty solid logical case to be made for year-round(ish) school, assuming we can air-condition enough classrooms to cool children in an age of global warming.

But school, year-round or otherwise, has for fifty years (in my experience) been something that is hard to look forward to, at least in concept, in the contrasting light of a fading summer. Is this because the experiential learning that can happen in summer, even in the dullest of summers, is so much more engaging and compelling than book-learning? We know the answer is yes, even though we know that some of that book learning is also essential.

We on the reformist and more progressive side of things claim to want schools to be places of joy, to be places where children’s spirits are unleashed to soar and explore, places upon which Sir Ken himself would beam with pleasure at the imaginative work that children were being asked to do. Our ideal schools would be so relevant, so connected to the world, that the barriers between school and life would seem to dissolve altogether.

Maybe in the schools of the future Labor Day eve won’t seem so fraught, just evocative. Perhaps in schools of the future, with experiential learning and creative problem-solving at the heart of the curriculum, kids will await the end of summer as a time to return to an experience that will so honor their needs and nature as to make the prospect of school actually seem better than vacation.

At any rate, by the end of this week all will be mostly well. School will be in session and plenty of happy students will be back in environments that lots of them actually find pretty congenial, perhaps (like their older collegian siblings) more for social reasons than academic ones. Hardworking and forward-thinking teachers will continue their earnest quest to make school more “real” and more responsive to the requirements of their students. And folks like me will be over our Labor Day eve flashbacks.

But it’s nice to imagine, sitting here as summer comes to an end, a kind of education that just naturally occurs, in which kids are set--or better, set themselves--to tasks that are so meaningful and engaging that they become, like the very best jobs, not work but an ongoing source of pleasure, validation, pride, and new understandings that nourish the spirit and excite even greater levels of curiosity. I don’t imagine kids will ever say, “Gee, why do we have to wait until Tuesday to start school? I wish we could start tomorrow!” but it’s fun to think what that might be like.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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