The school year channels them so efficiently through their lessons, their practices, their many pools of obligation. Summer is not obligatory. We can start an infernally hard jigsaw puzzle in June with the knowledge that if there are enough rainy days, we may just finish it by Labor Day, but if not, there's no harm, no penalty. We may have better things to do.
Pour a liquid out of the container and it changes shape, fills the space you give it. If you give children a lot of space it may surprise you where they go, the shape they'll take. Surprise is the one thing you can't have planned for. The word is borrowed from French, literally to take over. It suggests an ambush, a conquering, even a trap.
But with children in the summer, surprise is a summons to stretch. You can't schedule it. But you can welcome it, serenade it when it comes along. Above all, try not to be scared of it. Surprises, by their nature, come in disguise, masked sometimes as a disappointments or detours when they are in fact dreams turning solid, if you'll just step aside and give them some air.
Our family goes back to the same little town on a lake every year, and the place itself is as precise a measuring stick as the pencil marks on the kitchen doorway. The basement is a warehouse of outgrown skates and half-finished lanyards. Last summer little sister's feet could barely reach the pedals. This summer she's racing down hills, while big sister is taller than some of my friends, her ears are pierced, her shoes have heels, when she's not barefoot. One summer they went to see the Baha Men; the next summer, La Boheme.
Some things get smaller, like the print in their summer reading books, and the time we get to have them to ourselves. As they get older, we have the share them more, both with their friends and with their need for solitude. They prize these brief but recurring alliances with their Summer Friends. They've never see each other in school clothes, don't know who threw up in math class, don't know who sits where in the cafeteria.
They do remember when they capsized a boat together and got their first dogs and sneaked into the woods to break some rule for the first time. For those of us who grew up here, the town has its own geography of mischief and misdemeanors and memories, first kisses, first cigarette, first beer, first time we stayed out all night and got grounded for the rest of forever.
They separate for ten months at a time and then meet again and so they have stories to tell; they become natural narrators, sitting together under a tree, smelling of dirt and sunscreen, comparing what being 8 or 12 or 16 means in Canton, or Fox Chapel, or Bronxville. But then in another violation of the school-year space-time continuum, my rising sixth grader can have as her best summer friend the neighbor across the street, who hikes and kayaks and became a grandmother this year. The sixth graders don't play with the seventh graders at school; but four decades is as nothing in the summertime.
Getting to play with a grownup, or just listen in on their porch conversations, teaches children more about becoming one. Summer is a stage, where we rehearse for the dramas that winter brings. Nothing is for keeps; you can mess up your lines, try a new costume, improvise. Embarrassment evaporates faster in this heat, you live in the moment, don't hold grudges, and so it's easier to take risks, and not take yourself seriously.
As parents we pay so much attention to their schools, their scores, their teachers. How is it that two months of play seems to shape their character and reflexes more than a whole winter's worth of lessons? When they are melted in the high heat of summer freedom, they find out just how flexible they can be, how bold, how resourceful; so that when the air cools and school resumes they swagger back into their orderly lines, with a secret, and another mark on the wall.
A video adaptation of this essay aired Thursday, August 3 on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer on PBS.