Usually when people get to a certain age the tendency is to tell younger people how much easier they have it. I have certainly been guilty of a little bit of that myself, but when I sit in the traffic congestion of a city street or the 405 freeway caused by the simultaneous opening of every public and Catholic school in August I think, “You know what? I had it a lot easier than kids have it today.”
Year-round school is now a norm, and even in parochial schools the school year seems to begin earlier and earlier. My own children were on the tail end of the time when summer meant summer — three whole months of not wearing shoes and having the world at your beck and call … except when the angelus bells rang at 6 o’clock, which was the Catholic call to supper when I grew up in the San Fernando Valley.
Labor Day was the holiday least looked forward to by any summer-loving school-age kid. Sure, for the adults it meant a three-day weekend, but for us it meant another school year beckoned. Now I was kind of a strange kid, I must admit — I liked school, or most of it. But summers in my day were so much more than what kids get to experience today. For one thing, we got to experience nothing at all. It was like our little adolescent clocks knew how to mute our senses and just zone out, in probably much the same way as your average California brown bear experiences winter.
Never let anyone tell you we don’t have seasons in Southern California. In summer we had re-run television season and also summer replacement shows. Yes, they used to make short little series just for the summer while the “real” shows were on hiatus.
These sprung up like so many Brigadoons, which we enjoyed and then they were no more.
Television also served as a kind of summer barometer. Once you saw your first commercial for the Jerry Lewis Telethon for Muscular Dystrophy — always over the dreaded Labor Day holiday — you had a sinking feeling in your heart.
Summer was over.
It would only be a matter of time before you started seeing commercials for the new TV shows for the fall season, and every commercial hawking the new and improved network offerings only brought you that much closer to the first day of school. Three glorious months of not thinking about homework — where every night was like Friday night and bedtimes were negotiable — eventually gave way to tests, book reports and whatever other unknowns lurked in the next grade you were about to enter.
Living one block from our church, and thus one block from school, had its pros and cons. For several years in grammar school I would go home for lunch. Can you imagine the number of investigations that would ensue today if a fifth-grader got up from his desk and just started walking home in the middle of the school day?
Living close to school had its “costs” as well. Like clockwork, after the first commercial for the Jerry Lewis Telethon, came a phone call to our house from the sisters at St. Elisabeth looking for help getting the classrooms organized for the coming year. It was good and bad being in classrooms that had been freshly painted, with shiny linoleum floors glistening from all the asbestos in them, and seeing the sisters in a different way. They would still be in their habits, of course, but they would be dusting things and fixing door hinges and doing all kinds of “normal” things we never thought they did.
In another blink of an eye, Labor Day would be over and we’d be in our uniforms (ah, the smell and sound of fresh corduroy), and our momentary melancholia would give way to connecting with our classmates, making plans for Halloween and realizing school was survivable again. And in nine months, summer would return.