Summers and Huckleberry Finn

1622398_origI have to admit that I have never much liked August for the same reason that I used to have an aversion to Sunday evenings. August meant that it was nearing the time when I would have to return to school, something I did both as a child and later as an adult. August seemed to be the dog days of the entire year, a month in which the heat had built to a climax and the fun and relaxation that I had enjoyed in the summer was in its waning days. When August came around I was generally filled with a sense of dread knowing that my vagabond adventures would soon be replaced by early rising each morning and working on school related projects until late in the evening. I seriously didn’t want to even think about all of the labors and restrictions on my time that lay ahead.

Don’t get me wrong. I was a devoted student as a child and once I became a working adult I threw myself wholeheartedly and enthusiastically into the teaching profession. I enjoyed being in school, but I had a love/hate relationship with the entire experience. On the one hand I felt a rush of excitement about the new challenges that I would most certainly encounter in each new year, but on the other hand I fully understood how much intensity I would surely throw into my labors. Thus each time August rolled around I longed to extend my freedom and relaxation just a bit longer.

When I was a child I had the luxury of enjoying all thirty one of the final days of my annual holiday. Not even once did we return to the classroom before Labor Day. The trend of beginning  the school year before the eighth month of the year had ended did not come about until I had been working for a time as a teacher, and so our family often planned a big vacation to cooler climes to take a break from the heat. Some of our best vacations to places like Montana and Wyoming happened during the first couple of weeks in August. I didn’t even think about school until the middle of the month, and even then the transition from vagabond days to almost total preoccupation with work were usually gradual enough to help me grow accustomed to a return to my labors.

All of that began to change over time. The old school year ended later and later and the new one began earlier and earlier. Expectations regarding professional development became more demanding, so much so that I often spent most of June attending classes designed to improve my teaching. By the first week in August I was already planning lessons and visiting the school to prepare my classroom. My summers became more and more constricted as did those of my daughters who had to attend practices and complete summer assignments.

When August rolled around we were no longer able to make family plans because everyone in the household was quite busy gearing up for the coming months. I adapted to the changes albeit a bit grudgingly. I knew that many of my friends had little sympathy for me because they worked all year long with only one or two weeks of vacation. It was difficult for them to understand just how much I needed the down time of a full three months when such an extended break was an unheard of luxury for them. What I knew is that very few of them would be grading papers and creating lessons at eleven in the evening and all weekend long just to stay afloat of the demands of their jobs. The extra work that I did at home every day of the school year was easily equivalent to the eight to ten hour days that they spent at their jobs all summer long. In other words our labors were equivalent, even though they were not performed in the same time frame.

Now I’m watching the demands of the school year begin as soon as August rolls around. A grandson who is in his middle school orchestra has already been practicing for several weeks for a performance that his group will give to returning teachers. Another grandson is working with his band from seven in the morning until five at night. Teacher friends are attending conferences and training sessions that will dovetail with requirements to be on duty beginning early in August. Many schools will open their doors to their students by the middle of the month, making the summer seem shorter and shorter. Soon the buses that stop at my corner will be rolling again and everyone will be in full swing.

Part of me feels quite sad about the abbreviated summer vacation for students and teachers even though it really doesn’t affect me anymore. In retrospect I think that as a youngster I learned as much during my time off as I did during the school year, maybe even more. By the age of fifteen I had a job as a receptionist for our family doctor from June through August. I learned how to work with the public and deal with emergencies. I became an expert at keeping books and running a small office. I developed people skills and found talents that I had no idea even existed. I also learned how to spend and save the money that I earned in a wise and reasonable manner. I would have been unable to go on my senior trip or purchase a class ring without the income that I generated during the three months that were mine to use in exploring the world.

Those three months also allowed me to read purely for pleasure. It was in my self selected forays into literature and nonfiction that I have the most wonderful memories and grew most fond of reading. I had time to learn how to dance and twirl a baton, how to paint and mold clay into sculptures. I enjoyed being creative with the other kids in the neighborhood and spent hours writing and performing in backyard plays or creating a neighborhood newspaper. I had bridge tournaments with friends and made my first attempts at cooking. I had time to do exciting things that I was too busy to tackle during the school year when my teachers filled my calendar with assignments of their choosing. Summers were glorious moments spent on my grandparents’ farm soaking in their folk wisdom. It was an opportunity for education of a different sort than the kind that is ruled by curriculum guidelines or a scope and sequence of learning. Summer was the frosting on the cake of my learning.

I suppose that today’s kids have little idea of what they are missing. They go with the flow and follow the new rules because it has always been that way for them. Everything in their lives is far more organized than my experiences were. I don’t see many children playing outside even on the hottest days. Summer jobs like the ones I had are hard to find. It’s a different world and I suppose that everyone takes the new ways for granted just like I did those glorious three months of freedom. Perhaps it is best to prepare students for the realities of a world that is far different from the one that existed when I was growing into an adult. With air conditioning there is little difference between August and November, so schools may as well be open for business. Still I find myself wondering which way really is the most effective. Somehow I think that I would not be nearly as interesting if I had not had those precious three months each year in which to develop myself just as I wished. Those were my Huckleberry Finn moments and I am all the richer for enjoying them.


Summer Reading

LordOfTheFliesBookCoverMany students will be receiving summer reading assignments in the coming weeks. The ingenuity of their teachers will play a large role in determining whether this is a pleasant experience for them or not. Sadly it too often becomes a dreaded task that young people avoid until the last possible moment instead of being a source of pleasure. In our quest for accountability those of us who are teachers all too often concentrate more on how to ascertain if our pupils have actually learned certain things from the experience and less on how much they enjoyed it.

Kylene Beers is a well known reading specialist who strongly believes that children should have much more say regarding what they will read in their leisure time than most teachers are willing to grant them. She insists that our students should have many book choices and that they be the ones to ultimately decide which ones to tackle. She also cautions teachers from creating assignments and tests that erase the satisfaction that should come from digesting a truly interesting novel or nonfiction text. She notes that much of the joy of reading is extinguished each summer by well meaning teachers who lack the trust that their students will actually choose worthy volumes and then critically read them.

Dr. Beers suggests that teachers provide students with a long list of acceptable titles and then allow them to pick the ones that are most appealing. She feels that proof of reading should be checked in creative ways of the students’ own design. Otherwise, she points out, it becomes an odious task and the act of reading is associated with very negative feelings.

I find myself agreeing somewhat with Dr. Beers. I had to read several books each summer. Some of them were quite delightful and I am happy to this very day that I discovered them. I read others grudgingly and shutter even now at the thought of how uninterested in them I was. While Kon Tiki was a bestseller and a great adventure for some, for me it was a nightmare. I had a difficult time remembering what had happened from one paragraph to another. I simply had no desire to read such books back then. I eventually became enthralled with Into Thin Air and other similar titles but being exposed to such nonfiction in my youth did little to change my attitude. Thankfully there were enough titles on my teacher’s list that I mostly enjoyed my summer reading.

Today the favored tactic is to assign a single book to the entire class. Usually it is a classic with appeal to most students. I often wonder, however, how terrible it must be for someone who just can’t get into the story. We’ve all had that problem with one book or another. We aren’t the same and sometimes a story simply doesn’t speak to us. Maybe we need to be sure that students have a number of titles from which to choose rather than assuming that we have found one that will be acceptable to all.

One summer my grandson had a reading requirement for an American History class. There were four or five titles from which to choose. He enjoyed the first one that he read so much that he later tackled some of the others. When he had the freedom to decide his interest was piqued more than ever. Because I wanted to be able to discuss the books with him I bought copies of all of them. Like him when I discovered how great his first choice was I realized that his teacher had excellent taste and that I would probably like the others as well, which I did.

How to assess the students on reading assignments is another issue. Dr. Beers believes that many teachers find books that their student like, but then kill the appreciation with tests that ask questions about minute details that few of us would recall. Instead she recommends that the teacher should attempt to determine the student’s reactions to themes and characters. She suggests that asking students to discuss their feelings about the book is far more beneficial than having them tell what color a certain character was wearing at a particular juncture. She wants students to create questions that they may have and to list aspects that they had difficulty understanding. Just as members of a book club get together to critique a selection, so too should students be able to comment rather than being tied to an assessment that destroys their exuberance. The summer reading experience should never be a “gottcha” moment.

I am not naive enough to think that none of the students will take advantage of a teacher’s largesse if such changes are made, but there are ways to determine how much a student derived from reading without making it a laborious task. First, everyone should have a choice of titles. Assignments should be variable as well. Students can use their creativity to demonstrate what they learned. For some an essay will suffice. For others the creation of some type of object representing what they lessons they drew may be preferable. I suspect that allowing students to demonstrate their appreciation in various modes and then present their ideas to the rest of the class will result in far more interest. 

Think of how you usually decide to read a particular book. Quite often you see someone you know engaged in it. You ask him/her about it. Something about the response intrigues you. You find a copy and become enthralled. The next time you see your acquaintance you mention the text. The two of you begin a lively discussion. You share ideas. It is a pleasurable experience. Nobody is forcing you to do this. Reading becomes something that makes you happy and so you read even more.

I love the idea of having students spend time reading during their summer vacation. I like that they are often introduced to new authors and topics that they might not have otherwise discovered, but I also believe like Kylene Beers that they should have some freedom in deciding what sounds interesting enough to pursue. When the assessment is creative enough to keep that spark of enjoyment growing the experience is pleasurable and remembered forever.

I still tell people to try Things Fall Apart, The Kite Runner, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, A Separate Peace, The Lord of the Flies and so many other titles because they touched my heart. I will talk about them with anyone willing to listen, not because I had to read them, but because I wanted to. Reading should be a joyful experience. Let’s keep that in mind when we ask our children to spend some of their summer inside the pages of a book.   

Memories of Summer Past

46211978-Children-racing-in-the-park-on-a-sunny-day-Stock-Photo-playing-child-park.jpgWhen the weather gets warm and the school year comes to a close I have a tendency to hark back to my childhood, and oh how wonderful it was. We didn’t have air conditioning back then even though Houston was as hot as it is now. We used a big attic fan and open windows to keep cool. Mostly though we stayed outside where there was always great adventure to be found. The hose was our water fountain and source of play all in one.

My usual wardrobe consisted of a pair of shorts and a sleeveless crop top. I don’t think I donned a pair of shoes from the end of May until the end of August unless we went to church or a store. My mother usually cut my hair into what she called pixie style, but it had mostly function and very little style. It kept my neck cool and was easy to care for. My feet would turn almost black by the end of each day and I often sported a ring around my neck from dirt and sweat that my mother called “Grandma’s beads.” God only knows I survived cuts from glass and punctures from nails.

I remember waking up early each summer morning. Somehow getting up with a rising sun was much easier when a day of fun lay ahead than during the school year. We were mostly on our own for entertainment. If we dared to hang around complaining that we were bored Mama would admonish us to go outside and play. Truthfully we rarely had trouble finding something to do. There were kids all up and down the block as excited about creating adventurous times as we were. We rode our bicycles up and down the neighborhood and across the bridge over Sims Bayou to Garden Villas. There we played games at the park and visited the mobile library.

All of us were quite inventive back then. At Karen’s house we built tents on her mother’s clotheslines out of sheets and blankets. At the Cervenka’s we dug an underground room. We teamed up for street baseball and had serious Red Rover tournaments. Sometimes I broke off from the boys and played with my dolls with Candy and Jeannie. Groups of us also created shows to which we would invite the entire neighborhood. I even tried my hand at amateur journalism by creating a newspaper with stories about all of the happenings.

Once in a great while my mother would treat us with a big thermos of ice water with enough cups for our friends. It was a welcome change from the hot rubbery tasting water from the hose. She was also known for inviting our friends in for lunch and she made the best sandwiches ever. When the temperature crept above one hundred degrees she allowed us to host game tournaments at the kitchen table. Monopoly and Canasta were two of the favorites and we played like Las Vegas professionals vying for world titles.

We enjoyed riding to Hartman Junior High to swim and to Ripley House to take art lessons and such. I most of all loved lying on my bed in front of the windows reading books while a hot breeze wafted over me. Reading was the surest way to be allowed in the house. As long as we were quiet and didn’t make a mess our mother was happy.

Mostly though we stayed outside until it grew dark each evening and grudgingly suspended our play when Mama called us in to take baths and get ready for bed. We spent a great deal of time lying on our backs gazing at the stars. We identified constellations and talked of things that are important to children. I remember feeling gleeful upon seeing the fireflies lighting up the nighttime and playing shadowy games of Swing the Statue.

On Friday evenings we always went to visit my grandmother, even in the summer, and that meant seeing all of my cousins. Our favorite past time was a game we called Hide and Find which was little more than a variation on Hide and Seek. We tended to stay outside because our parents filled Grandma’s tiny living room with smoke from their cigarettes. When we did go inside it was usually to watch wrestling or The Twilight Zone. On rainy evenings we spied on the brothers and sisters who were now our parents as they argued over poker games and who was our grandmother’s favorite child. We ate slices of rye bread and washed them down with a weak and sugary version of coffee. There was nothing quite like those weekly reunions that we thought would never end. Like Peter Pan we were in no hurry to grow up.

I rarely witness the kind of lifestyle that we had back in the fifties and sixties. Children today mostly stay inside of their air conditioned homes. When they come out to play their parents are with them, watching to be certain that they are safe. Most of the time they are not home, instead away participating in a host of organized activities. They are warned not to drink from water hoses because they might ingest dangerous chemicals that will make them sick. They wear shoes to protect their feet, kneepads to keep their shins from being skinned and helmets to insure that they will not endure head injuries. They make us look like free range renegades, children who should have been referred to CPS. The fact is that we were loved and cherished by parents who taught us how to fend for ourselves. We tackled bullies on our own and learned early on how to engage our creativity to occupy the hours. We truly believed that our childhoods were wondrous and we mostly invented the fun of each day with other kids rather than adults.

I suppose that the world is not quite as safe now as it was back then. The windows were always open and even though we did not see our mothers, they saw and heard us every minute. They had a neighborhood spy system that kept them continually informed. We were a different kind of gang than the ones that are now so dangerous. We took care of each other and learned how to share and be part of a team. Like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn we were summer explorers who found great adventures in our own backyards with adults from one house to another silently and stealthily tracking our movements. There was an innocence back then that parents today can’t afford to assume is present and oh how wonderful it was.

I sometimes sit and watch my neighborhood from my living room window. It is mostly quiet even when the children are not in school. I hope that they are somehow having as much fun as we did and that they will have memories that are as happy as mine. There was something rather lovely about the utter simplicity of my youth that seems to be missing today. I understand why, but it saddens me to think that children have to face ugly truths and realities about which we were oblivious. Some progress is wonderful, but having to grow up without the freedoms that I so enjoyed seems to be a loss for the new generation of children. Perhaps they are okay and don’t even know what they are missing, but I for one often wish that I might go back for just one more summer day from the time when I was young, and I would like to take a youngster along to witness just how marvelous it was. 

On The Road Again

299756_thumb.jpgIn just a few more weeks the kids will be out of school for the summer and Americans will be hitting the road for vacations. Thanks to President Dwight Eisenhower we have a fairly decent interstate highway system that links us from one place to another. Traveling by car takes more time than flying, but it is a far more interesting way to go. Driving gives a real sense of geography, the changing landscape and the enormity of our nation. In some ways it is almost like a pilgrimage, a time for relaxation and reflection, a way of getting to know our landscape more intimately. It is on the hidden byways and along the main streets of tiny towns that I truly begin to understand the variety and diversity of the United States. Those long road trips are filled with unforgettable memories of places that I had no idea even existed. Long after I have returned home I picture them in my mind and almost feel as though I am there once again.

As we whiz past homes along the route I find myself wondering who lives in those edifices and how they came to settle in such places. Sometimes the houses are palatial and speak of money and success. Other times they are the size of small huts, filled with signs of poverty and neglect. Since I have no way of knowing the stories of the residents I create descriptions of them from my imagination. I pretend to know what the rooms are like and what the people within them may be doing. It occupies my mind when the miles stretch endlessly ahead.

I love the towns the most. I wonder what the citizens think of those of us who are only passersby. I try to get a sense of why some small places even exist. I begin to realize just how much of America is so different from the metropolis from which I come. I want to stop and tarry for a time but usually have to continue onward to the next place lest I never reach my ultimate destination.

Some of the most wonderful memories that I have are from unexpected places. I can still see the road to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. It is late afternoon and a storm is brewing. The clouds are dark and foreboding. The people who live in the farmhouses are safely inside with the warm glow of lights radiating from the windows. Even the livestock have taken cover, having more sense than we do as we continue on as the wind whips our vehicle warning us that perhaps being outside is not particularly safe. Then we see a twister moving across a field traveling in our direction. We abruptly change our course as a torrential rain overtakes us. We race back to the tiny town from whence we have most recently come and hurry for cover along with others caught so unexpectedly by the angry forces of nature. As we settle inside I feel a rush of excitement and somehow know that I will never ever forget this experience.

There is another trip that returns to my recollections time and again. On this occasion we are in Utah heading toward Durango, Colorado. The sun bears down relentlessly on our car. Dust on the road coats the paint with a fine red mist. It is unbearably hot but somehow there is a beauty in the utter desolation of the road that we are following. I find myself thinking of the first people who settled in such a wilderness and marvel at their fortitude. While it is magnificent it is also forbidding. I try not to think of what our fate might be if we were to break down or become ill, for there is nobody around. It is as though we have become the only people left on the planet.

It is dark by the time we drive into Durango. We are exhausted and quite famished. We find a restaurant that features a dinner of rainbow trout. A chill has come over the dessert-like climate and so a fire is burning to warm the customers. It is cozy and welcoming and we are quite thankful to have serendipitously stumbled upon such a place. Our food proves to be more excellent than we had imagined it might be. We tarry in the hospitable atmosphere and somehow file away the moment in the part of our brains that holds thoughts of the most treasured times.

Road trips have taken us through Yellowstone National Park in the midst of a raging forest fire. They have shown us a glorious rainbow in Glacier National Park. They have made us laugh as we witnessed the ever present humor of our fellowmen in signs and silly yard displays. They took us along narrow mountain trails and through miles and miles of green corn fields. We have learned of the difficulties of driving through downtown New York City, and chided ourselves for the foolishness in the aftermath. We found old time tunnels through which our vehicle barely made it. We marveled at the manicured vineyards of wineries and the permanent ruts made by the wagons of long ago travelers. We might never have seen any of these wondrous things had we decided to travel by plane. We would have missed them as we flew high above the clouds. What a loss that would have been!

Later this summer we plan to travel to Wyoming in hopes of getting a glimpse at the once in a lifetime solar eclipse that is scheduled to take place in a swath along much of the northwest and midwestern states. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the weather will cooperate and that we will be able to actually witness this phenomenon, but even if things don’t turn out as planned I am confident that our road trip will provide us with many wonderful surprises. We will see things that we had not expected. Just thinking of the possibilities is rather exciting.

Thank you, Henry Ford, for making the automobile accessible to the common man. Thank you, President Eisenhower, for insisting that we have a nation of good roads. Thank you to the little people everywhere who set up the gasoline stations, restaurants and places to rest for the night. Because of such innovations my world has been much more expansive than it might otherwise have been. I am a far different and better person for seeing so much of this wondrous country. I can’t wait to get on the road again with the strains of Willie Nelson filling the cabin of our car. Who knows what lies ahead?

A Season of Bounty

Swinging-Bridge-at-Caddo-Gap-1I was six years old in the summer of 1956. It was a very good time in my life. Our family lived in a beautiful home within walking distance of my school. My best friend, Lynda, lived right across the street and from the time that we awoke each morning we rode our bicycles and played in the woods at the edges of our neighborhood. That summer my family traveled to Arkansas to visit my grandparents’ farm. It was a season of plenty in which all of my childhood dreams were beautiful. I had little idea that storms were brewing for me and that life was already difficult for others that I did not know. I reveled in the gloriousness of that time while ignoring the signs that something was not quite right.

Life with my grandparents was deliciously fun. We helped my grandfather milk his cow each morning and I vividly remember how velvety the warm milk looked as it filled the tin bucket with a foamy white mixture. I recall the feel of the cow’s utter and my amazement that my brother’s favorite drink didn’t actually come from the glass bottles that the milkman delivered to our doorstep each week. I can still smell the sweetness of the hay in the barn and hear the chickens raising a ruckus in their pen as the rooster strutted from hen to hen crowing for attention. How I loved being part of that scene and watching my grandpa’s strong hands do his work while he puffed on a pipe that hung from his lips and sent a lovely aroma into the air.

My grandmother took us on tours of her gardens and into the hills on their property wearing overalls, rubber boots, a long sleeved shirt and a huge wide brimmed hat. I thought it strange that she covered her skin in ninety degree weather but back then I did not yet know about skin cancer or the fact that her folk knowledge was so wise. She taught me and my brothers about the birds that we saw along our trek and instructed us on the kind of rocks that were strewn along our path. She demonstrated how to pick berries while checking for the presence snakes and showed us the proper way to drink the cooling waters from the creek. We learned about the land and how to protect it for future generations.

My brothers and I picked peaches alongside my grandparents, ignoring their warnings that we should protect ourselves with clothing that covered our arms and legs. We soon enough learned why our shorts and sandals were insufficient protection from the furry texture of the fruit that made our limbs itch as though we had been attacked by a thousand mosquitoes. At night we caught fireflies in jars with holes in the lids that Grandma had prepared. Our glass containers became nature’s flashlights until we freed the insects at the end of our play. Our grandmother created butterfly nets out of coat hangers and cloth. She taught us how to surprise the lovely winged creatures and catch them so that we might better observe them. Always she insisted that we let them fly free once we had watched them for a few minutes.

Grandpa took us into town to check his mail each day. We rode on the leather seats of his Plymouth which smelled of his tobacco and soap. He always wore a clean white shirt, polished black boots, suspenders and a big straw hat. He visited with his neighbors at the post office and bragged about us as grandfathers have been doing for generations. If we were especially good he took us to the grocery store and bought us each a cold soda that we selected from a big metal box filled with chunks of ice. I always noticed how much the townspeople respected him and I felt so proud and happy with him.

I had little idea back then how much the world was already changing. I overheard the discussions between my father and grandfather as they wondered what the governor of Arkansas was going to do about the order to integrate the schools in the coming fall. I didn’t totally understand what they were saying but their serious demeanors told me that it was something important. I didn’t know then that my family would soon embark on a nomadic adventure that would take us to California and back or that my father would be dead in less than a year. I had little warning that I would begin to see things happening in our country that somehow felt wrong even to my innocent and childish mind. On those hot summer days in Arkansas I saw only the bounty of the season. I felt as though I had landed in a kind of paradise.

All hell would break lose in the coming months when Governor Faubus would vow to never allow black children to integrate the Arkansas schools. My father would announce that we were moving to San Jose, California and I would grudgingly leave my extended family and my friends. I would watch as civil unrest took hold across the country and I would observe racism with naive confusion. I began to formulate a belief system that was far more generous than that of most of the adults that I observed. For the first time in my life I began to question their behavior as I realized that the bounty that I enjoyed was not shared equally by everyone. I was pushed by events into an early onset of maturity that felt uncomfortable and challenged the status quo.

Sixty years later I look back on that summer with mixed emotions. It was a joyful time that somehow masked the realities that were looming all around me. In a year I would feel like a different person but my lovely memories of that time with my grandparents would keep the light of optimism alive inside my soul. I would forever love the simplicity and honesty of nature while understanding the complex nature of human beings. I would see that I had been blessed by the random act of my birth. But for luck I might have been one of those nine students who had to endure violence just to go to school in Little Rock, Arkansas. I would watch as death, wars, assassinations and violence served as a backdrop for the years of my coming of age. I would witness the contradictions and hardships of the human experience always understanding how many blessings invariably came my way.

I still remember that wonderful summer of 1956 and cherish my recollections with all of my heart. I would ultimately find my way after the death of my father and learn how to find the bounty of even the most difficult seasons of my life. I had realized in that time just how soothing Mother nature may be. I had realized the depth of my grandparents’ love for me. I understood that I have always been part of something much bigger than myself and that I have never really been alone in my struggles. I found strength before I even knew that I possessed it. That summer would serve me well to this very day. I would find the bounty in life again and again and work to extend it to those who had not always shared it with me. Life has been good.