We only get 18 summers with our kids. Our family allotment of summers was officially used up last year. When they were younger, summers were filled with passes to zoos and trains, and since we lived in Southern California, water parks. I love a good water slide or wave pool, but I didn’t love that at least once every season, I “lost” the boys on the lazy river, creating a unique hyperventilating panic for myself and annoying searches for the lifeguards. The boys found it hilarious. On less exciting days, we’d find a pond with fish and ducks to feed, or go for morning hikes in the California hills, visit different museums, or popped into the ice-cold library for more books. As they got older, summers evolved to body surfing and kayaking at the ocean and cross-country vacations to Colorado, Cleveland and DC, culminating last year with a memorable 18-day jaunt to Europe for the boys. They went without us, but we saw pictures and heard some of the stories, so it was almost as good as being there.
Then came the start of the school year. Sharp pencils, multiple notebooks, 3-ring binders in different sizes, and new shoes. Later, graphing calculators and driving licenses. Thinking up not-boring lunches was a daily challenge that got worse as the boys got older and more articulate with their complaints. One of my favorite things about school starting was that it meant a whole new class of friends for the boys. Some of them evolved into our “other sons”, and that sure made our lives richer. I miss being a chaperone on school trips. I really liked going to caves, museums, and parks with the classes, and listening to the swirl of kid conversation, glimpsing what their life was like in those 7 hours a day of non-parental influence.
This past weekend I got to go back in time and visit Wichita, Kansas. I went to school there from 1st grade (we moved in the middle of first grade from Dubuque, Iowa) to 12th grade. I returned for a unique experience – a grade school reunion. For 4th, 5th, and 6th grade I was placed, with 24 other “smart” kids, in an Accelerated Learning Program or ALC for short. We were to travel as a pack through those 3 years. The program was on one hall of Murdock Elementary while the other hall was populated by the “regular” kids, as we called them, and they hated us. It was like Lord of the Flies on the playground some days, with planned attacks on us hapless, glasses-wearing ALC kids. As I have mentioned in another column*, we didn’t think of it as bullying back then, it was just what happened and we never, ever told our parents about it. While against the regular kids, we were a united front, we ALC kids had a pecking order within our ranks, and I wasn’t high up in it. So, I was slightly nervous about seeing some of my old classmates again.
Our reunion turned out to be a blast. We want to do another one, and lure a few more of our classmates to join us. I think the most profound part for all of us was seeing the kid we remembered still present in the adults we have become some 45 years later. There is a shared bond there, and we’ve turned into interesting and driven people. A commonality is that none of have “settled”. We are all still curious about the world, still seeking. We swapped stories and gave each other goose bumps as one remembered moment led to others: Valentine’s day card exchanges that tortured us, feral classmates who bit people through winter coats, the poor kid who wet his pants in the middle of class, and was ostracized for the next 2 years, séances in basements that seemed to work and freaked us all out. Then there was crossing guard duty, which meant as 5th graders we walked into a busy road during rush hour with a heavy “stop” sign on the end of a long pole when the 6th grader in charge blew the whistle. We all expected the traffic to stop, and it did, most of the time.
What we all remembered most was how much we loved our science teacher, Mrs. Jones. Mrs. Jones took us on the BEST field trips, ones you’d never be allowed to do today. As 10-year-olds, we scrambled down steep embankments of lakes to dig for real fossils (crinoids and brachiopods and the seldom-found trilobite), and next to busy roadsides and railways searching for geodes and samples of igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks. There were no chaperones on these trips. The moms who drove us wisely stayed in their air-conditioned cars or went home and came back later as we traipsed around discovering ancient wonders. We chewed gum so we wouldn’t get thirsty, and shared a canteen of lukewarm water at lunch.
Mrs. Jones was also our typing teacher. We learned to type on manual typewriters. You had to mash the keys hard to get an imprint, and if you made a mistake you’d carefully roll up the paper, erase it without putting a hole in the paper, whisk away the bits of eraser so your typewriter didn’t clog, and then roll the paper back to the EXACT place you made the mistake and retype. It was twice as hard and annoying if you were using carbon paper (but oh, that incredible scent of ditto paper). Mrs. Jones insisted on perfect posture while typing. “Fats back, skinnies up,” she’d decree. Mrs. Jones was partially paralyzed on one side of her body and walked with a pronounced limp, but it never stopped her energy or her passion for teaching us. Mrs. Jones imbued us ALC kids with the love of discovery way back then, and it’s happily stretched into our adulthoods. So, to all of you with kids – enjoy every minute of your 18 summers, and when they go back to school, enjoy the field trips, good luck thinking up lunches, and I wish you the blessing of a teacher like Mrs. Jones for your kids.
*On Long Friendships and Comforters
**I am on the top row, in the middle with the two ponytails.