Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Reluctant Gatekeeper

Fall used to be my favorite season. I know that spring is the official season of new beginnings, of reawakening, of rebirth. But, for someone entrenched in endless cycles of the educational system, fall holds the title. Or at least it used to.

For my nieces and nephews in the Mainland, fall still is fall and school still begins either the end of August or the Tuesday after Labor Day. Many of my Mainland friends and family take their vacation in August since their children are busy with summer programs (sports clinics, summer school, enrichment programs etc.) during late June and through July. Here in Hawaii, most of the private schools adhere to a traditional schedule and the students (being high achievers on the fast track to success) just finished summer school and August is their month of freedom.

When I was growing up, the long summer represented a different kind of education than provided by the classroom. Summer was a time of emerging independence, of socialization and recreation, a time of self-discovery. It was a time where we were out the door as soon as breakfast was over and didn’t come home until lunch, which was finished quickly to get out the door until dinner. During my elementary years in the San Fernando Valley, we were allowed to run the neighborhood after dinner until the street lights came on. During middle school years (called junior high back then) I lived in a mobile home park on the Malibu Coast and those summers were jam packed with outdoor invention. Later, back in another suburban valley, summers were long enough to test us to the hilt when it came to figuring out what to do with our time. At the age of 15, just a year away from the freedom of a driving liscence, we managed to get to the beach via our bikes, horses, and the bus. When a friend's older brother left us at Zuma Beach one day we went for the obvious obtion - hitchhiking home. After a ride through the canyon in a Chevy Nova driven by an eighteen year old who thought he was trying out for the Indie 500 - not to mention his rambunctious, "oops sorry I keep pressing my face into your boob" buddies who kept using the speed devil turns to lean into us a little too too much - I learned that hitchhiking WAS a little too high risk for me.

The transition from summer freedom, summer adventure, summer independence, to getting ready to go back to school and its routines was a time of rituals. Children and teens thrive on rituals and our society seems to have less and less positive rituals, especially coming of age rituals. There was a time when becoming a teen meant getting sent up into the mountains and not coming back until you had a vision of your purpose. Or at least hunting a buffalo. Nowadays it seems the closest the teens come to a coming of age ritual is being given the keys to a car and, sometimes, a six-pack of beer. I was lucky enough to grow up in a place and time where back to school rituals coincided with the season of autumn.

First there was the ritual of school shopping, with the underlying possibility of reinventing oneself. As a young child I was not big on shopping. Even back then I was reluctant to give up even one day of my summer freedom. And since I was not a kid who cared a lot about fashion or shopping malls, the confines of a department store were stifling. This was compounded exponentially by the fact that I had two sisters and a mom who thrived in the throes of rifling through racks of clothes and shoes. In retrospect I think they were experiencing spontaneous orgasms. I would either sully over to a narrow strip of window and press my face against the glass, imagining what fun I could be having outside, or I’d climb through the clothes and sit in the center of circular rack and wait to see how long it would take for my mom to wonder where I was. One time I so spaced out in some imaginary world that I didn’t hear my mom when she started calling for me and it got to the point where they were freaked out and had the saleslady call the police. It was events such as this that gave me a reputation for being loopy and caused endless teasing by my family. However, the skill of tuning out those around me had its purposes.

Later, as I approached adolescence, the annual back to school shopping trip gleamed with possibilities. Especially when it preceded a change in schools. What better time to reinvent oneself than when moving on to middle school? Or high school? Or a new high school because your parents moved around trying to find the Los Angeles suburb that might resurrect their marriage?

Other rituals of reinvention included the discovery of placement. In elementary school this meant visiting school the week before it started, running through the empty halls in shorts and sandals and cranking back your neck to cast your eyes on the lists of teachers, classrooms and students. Which teacher did you get? The nice one who kept chinchillas in cages along the windows of her room? Who had an aquarium in her classroom? The one your lucky older sister had been fortunate enough to get? Or the mean scary bitch who yelled at everyone at recess and almost made you piss your pants when you were in first grade? Was your best friend in your class again or was this the year that the cold hand of bureaucratic fate separated you? Decades later I can still feel that anticipation of looking at those lists. I can close my eyes and feel the knot in the pit of my stomach and smell the concrete and dust of the hallways.

Later, this ritual would be replaced with riding my ten speed bike to the high school with a new best friend and picking up our schedules; followed by a ride to one of our houses where we’d leisurely drink iced tea and compare our soon to be new routines. The anticipation of a new start, a new beginning, the chance to reinvent yourself began the changing of the mindset guard. Summer freedom and adventure slipped into the past almost unnoticed as we prepared for the first day of school. Our summer freedom had been long enough to actually make us miss school and anticipate our return.

I’ve never lived where there are drastic season changes. I mean, Southern California and the greater Los Angeles basin is to most of the country what Hawaii is to Southern Californians. And I’ve lived in Hawaii now for over twenty years. Haters, do what you must. We all, willingly or not, take the good with the bad, and even mild weathered sunny paradises have their drawbacks. So anyways, as I was saying. There’s a scent in the air, a change in the breeze, not to mention a shortening of the day, which says SUMMER’S ALMOST OVER. In my So Cal youth, that often meant the Santa Ana winds. Some of my friends called them the East winds. The winds usually kicked it up right after school started. Nowadays these winds have taken a bad rap what with all the wild fires. But as a child I was oblivious to the negative connotations of the Santa Annas. I loved them. When we were living on the beach during my middle school years it meant racing home from the bus stop to put the summer swim suit and shorts back on for one last after school hurrah. Later, living in the Conejo Valley, it meant getting on my horse and galloping through the hills with the warm winds whipping my horse and I along until we made it to a crest of the mountain where we could gaze at both the Conejo and Hidden Valleys. The winds represented a tween time of seasons. Where summer tried to kick autumn’s ass. A last scortching of the soul before the nip returned to the air for the rest of the season and the next thing you knew the Christmas decorations were showing up in the stores.

We may not have drastic weather transformations with the changing of the seasons here in Hawaii. But there is still a shift. A scent in the wind. A changing of the tides.

And right now it is still flat on the North Shore. People are snorkeling. There is a swell on the South Shore. People are surfing.

My students are being great sports about returning to school in July.

What’s sad is these 15 year olds don’t know anything different.

The world I grew up in is history to them. The world the private school kids in Hawaii and the Mainland kids live in is alien to them.

The self-education that comes from a long summer is denied them. They will never know what they missed.


Anonymous said...

i didn't comment on this piece of excellence the first time i read it. it is so amazingly good.

the santa anas have been blowing the past couple days, although today it's just hot. and the islands are visible.

it's the best time of year. i'm loving it.

Christy said...

Wow - I always imagined living on Hawaii would be a dream come true. But you're right - times have changed, everywhere. My youthful summers were spent roaming the neighborhood between meals too. And I also always loved horses -- I've never owned one, but I ride in high school and college and so miss it. You were so lucky to grow up and have one to ride like that! Now that would be a dream come true! (hope it's not weird to comment on these posts written a year ago?!)