IN THE DINING ROOM of my childhood home was an ancient Victrola, scarred from constant use. Each family member would crank it up whenever possible -- my sister to hear the nasal longings of Nelson Eddy, my father for the cantorial pleas of Yossele Rosenblatt, my mother for her cherished Caruso recording.
I spent many magical summer hours in front of that machine, conducting my own orchestra. As a pockmarked recording filled the house with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, I would wave my baton (the stick of a long-discarded flag), fancying myself a young Toscanini.
Then one afternoon when I was 7, it happened. I was having a glass of orange soda in the kitchen when a frantic concert manager called me to the dining room. The maestro had fallen ill, and I was to take over the podium. After a sweeping bow toward the living room, I turned to the Victrola and began to conduct the symphony from memory.
I felt the swelling pride of the standing-room audience behind me -- when suddenly the musical spell was broken. My mother had returned from her daily mission to the grocer, and I could see her just beyond the tympani, fresh rolls in hand, peering into the dining room toward me. But she knew better than to intrude and spoil my private summer triumph. She turned her glance aside and disappeared, leaving me free to resume my performance.
I recall that episode in the languid days of summer. For today's children, summer vacation no longer seems a time for freedom and privacy, for the lazy daydreams that so richly nourished me as a child. Instead it is a time for action -- for computer camps, exercise classes, remedial tutoring in long division, or stepped- up sessions with the child's very own vocational counselor.
The summer agendas for youngsters on my street are awesome. They include foreign language lessons, museum tours, tennis clinics, remedial reading classes, diet camps. One 10- year-old is even flying to Palm Beach to attend -- so help me -- an Emily Post summer camp. Under a hot Florida sun, she will learn impeccable manners -- how to sit and stand gracefully, what utensils to use for which foods, acceptable words to say when answering the phone.
My neighborhood may not be typical, but chances are that if a little boy were to spend a summer afternoon idly whittling today, many a parent would quickly sign him up for a wood-carving course. Let a child bat a ball with a hint of skill and we lavish on the little star a king's ransom in equipment, making sure it will be used to in a summer baseball league as fiercely competitive as the majors.
"You don't just play," I recently heard a father admonish his 7-year- old son as twilight shrouded the neighborhood playground diamond. "You play to win!"
My immigrant parents were themselves nearly seduced by such summertime achievement standards. Like their more fully acculturated neighbors, they began to harbor the insidious conviction that children should spend summer vacation doing something useful, "something that would help you some day amount to something."
It might be working in the neighbor's grocery store "to learn what it is to have a business," visiting a scholarly uncle in Jersey City to study Talmud (most accomplished uncles of that era were mysteriously congregated in Jersey), painting everything around the house -- chairs, tables, steps, fence posts -- or, best of all, going "every day like clockwork" to summer day camp.
For a nominal fee (if you were sufficiently poor the fee was discreetly waived), Scranton parents of the '30s could provide their children with a program of healthy activities that not only would put a bloom on their cheeks but would open new vistas of American culture -- sports, hobbies, crafts, clubs. At day camp we could learn to swim like a fish, compete in tennis "like a regular Bill Tilden," even ride a bus into the country for a picnic, singing all the way.
So it was that I found myself in my 13th summer the reluctant beneficiary of the local YMHA day camp program. I left home each morning "at least to be with other children," a bag lunch in hand and a nickel in my pocket for the obligatory noontime chocolate milk. "Make sure to read if it's pasteurized" were the last words I heard as my mother closed the door behind me.
I suffered bravely through orientation and a week of bewildering activities. I tried -- God, how I tried -- to catch the rhythm of the fun. But I was miserable. To me the swimming pool and the gym smelled of yesterday's sweat and made me nauseous. The tennis court seemed a mile too long; besides, I'd rather just practice against the garage in the alley. I was alternately sad and anxious -- and always on the precipice of embarrassment.
One morning I summoned the courage to break the news to my mother: I wanted out.
"So what do you want to do?" I remember her asking softly.
"I want to sit on the porch."
"Sit on the porch. Read. Write letters. I can exercise by myself."
For a moment she seemed stricken. Why, I ask you, pass up such a golden opportunity to learn new skills, to "mix with others" and become a mensch mit menschen -- a real person among real people?
I had to fend off my father's reproaches as well, a task made more difficult by his cascade of Talmudic aphorisms on the importance of companionship. ("A lonely man is like a corpse," said Reb Meir ben Ezra.)
But soon enough my parents recognized the futility of their summertime goals for me. A boy who conducts the Victrola and writes poetry is not going to learn by September the seven most powerful wrestling holds, the basic techniques of woodworking, or the latest jitterbug steps for prom night, already only four years away.
Were I a child today, it is doubtful that I could escape my YMHA captivity of yesteryear. The thought of idleness fills us with guilt -- and we can hardly accept in our children what we reject for ourselves. Tangible achievement, not the richness of inner experience, has become the ultimate criterion of the good summer life for the young.
As a consequence, the inner motivations of many a contemplative child will be hard pressed to survive school vacation. When a youngster hears an abrasive voice breaking into his summer reverie, he may be forced to leave the controls of a rocket in mid-orbit; to tell a Hollywood director sorry, she can't do that screen test with Robert Redford; to give up the last precious step in a groundbreaking chemical experiment, or to stop just short of finding a satisfactory answer to the riddle of birth or death.
Children robbed of their summer reveries lose more than a transient sense of contentment. They are deprived of the chance to test the limits of their soaring interests, to develop an indentification with heroic figures, or to puzzle out a healing solution to one of life's complexitities.
Many parents erroneously view a child seeking solitude as the incipient victim of a serious psychological problem. "Catatonic" is how one parent recently described her pensive, 8-year-old daughter.
It is true, of course, that chronic seclusiveness and daydreaming can become unhealthy substitutes for dealing with reality. But the existence of such rare clinical problems does not mean that children should be deprived of their private psychological agendas.
Indeed, as renowned child analyst Selma Fraiberg maintained, a child's contact with the real world is actually strengthened by periodic adventures into solitude and fantasy. Youngsters find it easier to tolerate frustration if they can manage to restore their spirit on occasion by excursions into a private world of their own.
Nor do the fantasies that filled those precious days of youth altogether end there. I know that one night soon I will be sprawled on the gentle lawn of Wolf Trap Park and my summer dreams will be rekindled afresh. As darkness descends and the stage lights brighten, I will hear the fateful announcement. Rostropovich is indisposed. Not really sick, God forbid, just indisposed. "Can anyone out there conduct Tchaikowsky's 1812 Overture?
Quickly I will make my way to the podium, bow to the audience and lead the National Symphony. The applause will be deafening, and later I will modestly accept the praise of admiring throngs surrounding me.
Reality will intrude soon enough -- just as it did in the Septembers of my childhood -- but I will have been renewed by the summer gift the child in all of us needs: doing nothing.