All over the country right now, kids are enjoying a feeling of exhilaration that occurs only once a year. Some may be tempted to grab the nearest calendar and kiss it. The euphoria is most intense during 24 glorious hours that comprise the first full day of summer vacation.
If anyone ever takes a poll on the most beloved two-word phrase in the English language, "school's out" would certainly rank high. Suddenly, there are no more worries about lost homework, surprise tests, or missing the bus. The air seems fresher, and the sky looks bigger. It makes me a little sad to realize this collective experience is now in decline and will eventually disappear, as summer vacation is phased out of the educational system.
Giving kids a long recess during the hot months is, of course, a tradition that started when many American students lived and worked on family farms. These days, a growing number of parents and teachers think schooling is more efficient and effective when classes are maintained on a year-round schedule. And they may be absolutely right.
But the first day of summer vacation has nothing to do with efficiency, or practicality. It's all about imagination. A vast expanse of free time stretches toward the horizon, as far as young minds can see, like a wilderness calling out for exploration. Planning the endless cavalcade of adventures used to leave me mentally fatigued. Beach trips, sandlot baseball, floating down the Mississippi River, or discovering a passage to the center of the earth all seemed equally plausible as I weighed my options.
Of course, the reality of summer vacation usually pushes the dreams aside before too long. Parents expect extra help with chores. Sports camps dominate many schedules. And with advancing age comes the pressure to find a summer job.
By the middle of July, boredom may invade paradise, along with a nagging fear that the good times are slipping away. It is impossible to hold back the clock. The days begin to speed by each week faster and faster, like water draining from a bathtub.
But none of these disappointments are around to dull the glow of that moment when the school year ends and the bells go silent. I would race home, find a calendar, and carefully count all the squares of the coming months. The pattern reminded me of gold bars stacked in Fort Knox.
I think that explains why the first day of summer vacation always made me feel like a millionaire.
* Jeffrey Shaffer is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore. He is vicariously enjoying his nine-year-old daughter Rudy's first day of summer vacation today.