Here are a few of the things my 7-year-old son has done in the few days since camp ended and he has been, in his word, "freed":
Decided there was not enough wind and rigged up two electric fans on the porch to fly his kite.
Tied three hammers together and hung them from the porch rail.
Taken the dowel holding up a window and tried to saw it in half.
Eaten an entire box of cereal, an entire box of popsicles, a box of goldfish crackers; made several milkshakelike concoctions; and opened the refrigerator door approximately once every half-hour to stare disconsolately at its unsatisfactory contents.
Cut out a coupon from a cereal box and demanded to be driven to get the free ice cream it was good for.
Had at least seven temper tantrums in three days, most culminating in tears, slammed doors and a shouted "Leave me alone."
I give up. I know I am a total failure as a mother, and I'm sorry about that, but the summer is too long. Or rather, the summer vacation is too long. Three months of no school is unreal, and it's time somebody did something about it.
Personally, I do not know any children who harvest crops these days. (Lawn mowing does not count.) Three-month summer breaks were created, as far as I can tell, to save electricity and keep teachers from madness, but now that nearly everyone works to pay the taxes that pay the teachers, letting millions of kids run wild for three months is counterproductive, to put it politely.
The summer vacation is supposed to be for recreation, renewal and fun. Six weeks would be long enough to do all of the things that have traditionally produced all that, especially since we are no longer supposed to get suntans. There would still be plenty of time to catch lightning bugs in a jar and watch them turn into dry corpses, to get ear infections from swimming, to decapitate your sister's doll, to put gunk on your hair and comb it into really radical dos, to scratch your mosquito bites until they bleed and scab over.
As a culture we have a thing about summer, and that's fine. I am one of those who think it is a crime that Troy Donahue never won an Oscar. Even as a teenager I knew that the American male's ideal of a woman is a girl who looks good in a bathing suit, drives a convertible, and can stand to lie for hours on a chaise longue by the swimming pool reading Seventeen magazine and saying, "Would you put some more goo on my back?" to the nearest boy.
When you think about it, the long summer vacation has done a lot for our country besides elevate the poolside airhead to a cultural icon. (Do you know how many of those girls go on to have successful lives and make meaningful contributions to society? None. Not a single one.) For one thing, the three-month summer vacation has allowed millions of kids to discover failure, as they fail to master batting/skateboarding/doll-decapitating, fail to change their 90-pound-weakling bodies into muscles, fail to peroxide their hair a real blond and succeed in having it turn green instead. And, worst of all, fail to have a good time doing nothing.
Thanks to the excessive summer break, millions of adult workers now feel cheated, gypped and exploited for being expected to work after school gets out. Deep down in their psyches, they know they should be out there on the back porch as they were trained to do in childhood, experimenting with the ratio of ice to soft drink and picking at the wicker chair until it unravels.
This is not to say that some people don't accomplish something over the summer break. I myself spent several summers attending a special school session for the algebra deficient, known quaintly as "summer school," pretending for several hours a day that I got it. Thus equipped, I was able to fail remedial math twice in college. One summer -- I was 9, I believe -- I abandoned my familiar Louisa May Alcott favorites for a cache of Gypsy Rose Lee mysteries that I found in a summer place my family was renting. In one chapter, a bunch of strippers was arrested and taken to jail, where one of them, on entering their group cell, rinsed her brassiere in the ice-cold water of the single basin and put it back on. She said it was good for her bustline. This is, obviously, something I have never forgotten, although I have never tried it.
One teenage girl I knew spent her mornings taking a foreign language course at a local college. She'd get back home at 10:30 a.m. By 11 a.m. she'd have breakfasted and was back in bed. She'd sleep until about 3, then go out with friends, to that vague somewhere where teenagers go. When asked why she didn't get a job, she'd say, "I'm too busy."
Another teenager I heard about actually did get a job, but was fired when her coffee shop employer discovered she didn't know how to wash dishes. "We always use the dishwasher at home," she explained.
But I digress.
I suppose I should wish for such enrichment for my own children. I should relish the continuing traditions of summer idleness, as my own little ones say to me, "There's nothing to do" in the same whiny, snotty, rotten tone of voice I used with my mother. I should enjoy watching their little bodies become supine in front of the television set, just as mine did, and treasure the sweet Tom Sawyer-like efforts they make to initiate projects, like hammering nails into their bedsteads. So cute, so resourceful. So infuriating.
If the summer break were only six weeks long, the juniors could go to camp for a shorter time, then go on vacation with their parents, and still have time to go to the dentist, get their annual physicals, buy their annual back-to-school sneakers, amass terrific rock collections and read dirty books in secret. Parents, on the other hand, would have six fewer weeks to schedule, to arrange for the picking up and the taking and the dropping off, six fewer weeks of saying "no television" and "put on your shoes when you go into the alley," fewer days of taking a kid to the office and insisting, "It'll be fun."
And teachers -- well, arrangements could be made. This could be a time for student teachers to shine, to have six weeks of remedial work for those who have been dragging down the national board score averages, or enrichment for those who already know algebra. Think about it.
It would be fabulous.