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An elegy for a lazy season

This is the last in a series of summertime essays.

September 04, 2006|Karin Klein | KARIN KLEIN is an editorial writer for The Times.

THE END OF SUMMER brings a sad little dread that tugs the heart downward. Truth is, though, summer as it exists in our nostalgic memories -- long days of swimming, playing and, best of all, accomplishing absolutely nothing -- has been withering, and gone, for years, like a worn-thin autumn leaf.

Summer was, for a while, a child's time, conferring an inviolate right to laziness. It was a form of education that had nothing to do with adult priorities, providing entire afternoons to watch exactly how many ants would scurry out of one hill and what they would bring back.

The sanctity of that kind of summer was first diminished by necessity, when overcrowded classrooms brought us the year-round school calendar. Next, the battle against social promotion forced many an indifferent student into summer school -- while the hard-charging students willingly packed into summer school as well, to get a leg up on the coming year.

Then, as though the world of achievement had some sort of legitimate claim on summer, even schools that maintained the old-fashioned schedule began reaching their tentacles into summer. Some school districts start the traditional school year in August, the better to squeeze in a couple of more weeks of instruction before the all-important state standardized tests given in spring. Worse, what used to be recommended summer reading lists are now becoming mandatory assignments. And woe to the ambitious student who's signed up for Advanced Placement classes, and thus a summer-load of note taking and homework.

It's not just the schools. As a society, we grow itchy at the sight of someone -- even a kid -- accomplishing nothing more than fun. Thus parents have become suckers for anything that lends a constructive air to summer. Summer camps used to exist for the purpose of marshmallow roasts and putting frogs in your bunkmates' beds. Those still exist, but they compete mightily with the new camps -- the ones for improving a child's writing style, building math skills, honing soccer stardom, learning a foreign language, building dance talents or finessing skills playing a musical instrument. Even many colleges and universities, such as Johns Hopkins, have climbed on board, mailing out glossy brochures about their expensive summer programs for supposedly gifted, or at least financially gifted, students.

None of this activity is required, of course. It's simply advisable for a child to get a start on finding a cure for cancer so that he or she can land a spot at a top-notch preschool.

Unluckily, other societal changes also have pushed back at summer. Children can't get together a pickup game of kickball when their streets are the turf of gangs. And without a shove out the door, today's youngsters are more likely to spend a day clicking away at video games than swinging in a hammock.

Still, it is a decision, however unconsciously made, to view summertime as a commodity to be prudently invested, rather than as a gift to be lavishly spent. There is only one sort of skill we are afraid to nurture in our kids -- the ability to do nothing more constructive than make a blade of crabgrass, pressed between our thumbs and blown, blast a reedy note into the summer air.

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