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Commentary & Opinion

Happy New (School) Year

School bus
Pat Bradley/WAMC
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I don’t know whose idea it was to start the New Year on January 1st? Why would anyone want to start a new year in the dead of winter? The Jewish religion and school administrators far and wide got it right when they designated September as the month that we return to school and work in earnest.

I still run my life according to the school calendar even though it’s been years since I sat in a classroom or taken a math test. Or that I’ve dropped my kids off at school at the crack of dawn. That was a rather rude awakening. Once I graduated from high school I assumed that was it. No longer would I have to rise at an unnaturally early hour when my body was telling me, begging me in fact – and I believe in listening to one’s body – to go back to sleep.

My greatest achievement in an otherwise lackluster academic career after managing not to flunk out – and believe me I had ample opportunity starting on or about the first day of kindergarten – is that graduation meant I’d no longer have to rise before the sun did.

Nobody told me that once you have children you have to do it all over again. I frankly didn’t understand why. I’d completed my sentence. If they wanted to go to school so badly why couldn’t they get themselves up, make their own breakfast, and find their way to the bus?

I can already hear my wife saying, “You hypocrite! I’m the one that did all the heavy lifting.” That’s true. But I helped. I was responsible for ferrying them to school at least two out of every five days.

But whether you’re in school right now – you have my sympathies, by the way – have children who are, or your school years are a dim and distant memory I find it helps to organize your year and work around the school calendar. The problem is that when you’ve lost all your connections to organized education it’s hard to know when that is. It’s downright disorientating. Without the benefit of things like the first day of school, Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations, and spring break, it’s easy to feel lost in the world. You’re groping blindly for any semblance of structure.

One of the benefits of briefly returning to New York City this week was watching all the children and parents or baby sitters heading off to school in the morning and returning home in the afternoon. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t feel the remotest urge to be back in school, being berated by my teachers for not doing my homework, my parents for my bad grades and disappointing work ethic, and bullied by my classmates because I was unpopular. Nothing would make me want to relive that painful and poignant period of my life.

I’ve rarely experienced the boundless sense of freedom I did when I went off to college and discovered that I could arrange my classes so that, even if I couldn’t sleep in most mornings and still graduate in four years, at least I no longer had to go through the torture of sitting around our kitchen table in the dark chewing on Corn Flakes or Cocoa Krispies or Raisin Bran while my three younger brothers did the same, just as miserable as me. By the way, did they really have to chew that loud?

If I don’t miss that dreary and sullen tableau, I do the sense of industry, the feeling that the world was awakening as one and getting on with the day’s business. Part of the challenge of living in the woods is there’s no one to take your cues from, no one hectoring you to get out of bed, put your clothes on, eat breakfast, brush your teeth and make the school bus. Chipmunks and squirrels are no help as far as role models go. While they’re awake industriously early they betray no panic over incomplete homework. I’ve never witnessed a squirrel cram for a math quiz or history test on a school bus.

Basically, I hated school. But I still find it beneficial, all these years later, to live my life according to the cadences of the school year. Life is no fun if it’s one long, undifferentiated slog. It needs to be broken down into component, bite-size parts. There should be moments of intense work and equally intense play. What’s recess but a mini vacation in the middle of the morning? If math and spelling class marked the depths of my despair, dodge ball, at least if you managed to avoid getting hit by the ball and expelled from the game prematurely, was a small taste of ecstasy.

Perhaps in the infrastructure package currently wending its way through Congress, a few billion could be set aside so that every American, no matter his or her or whatever pronoun applies, age could be afforded the opportunity and associated equipment to play at regular and frequent intervals. Fixing our roads and bridges is great. But let’s not forget the national importance of seesaws and jungle gyms or whatever sensory-stimulating chutes and slides and safety surfaces, and their adult recreational equivalents, have replaced them in our current litigious age. Character and values are forged as much, if not more, in playgrounds, gyms and on ball fields, as they are in any classroom.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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