The Passing of Summer -- 09/01/02

Labor Day weekend is here and summer is leaving.

Oh, sure, we will have some warm and sunny days during these three remaining weeks of calendar summer, but Labor Day weekend always seems to mark the real end of summer.


Yes, it's school that does it, that controls what summer "really" is.

Memorial weekend in late May seems to be a teasing signal about summer; it's the first warm weather three day weekend, but it's followed by more weeks of school before summer vacation really starts. School, when I was a kid in upstate New York, always began two days after Labor Day -- the teachers had to start on Tuesday, but school began for kids on that Wednesday. In fact, in the late 60's and early 70's (when I was teaching school) the same thing was true; and even today New York schools follow a similar schedule. There is, of course, a simple reason for that (besides tradition) -- The New York State Regents Exams. All high school subjects in New York for "academic" or "college-bound" classes had a mandatory state-written final examination. If you take the required courses and pass all of your Regents exams, you get a "Regents" diploma; otherwise you get a "school" diploma -- which, at least within New York State, tells people you at least showed up for school, maybe took courses in auto shop or secretarial skills [uh, actually, I vaguely recall there being Regents exams for things like typing, as well.... but I was high school class of '61, so don't count on total accuracy about that]. I understand that as part of the current fad for accountability and testing, etc., New York State is planning on mandating that all students take Regents exams; this strikes me as a rather dumb idea unless they plan on failing vast numbers of students, watering down the levels of difficulty of the exams, or have found a way of emulating Garrison Keilor's fictional Lake Woebegone ("where all the children are above average"). (Please note: I think the Regents exams are a good idea and believe more states should emulate that rather than these big drop-dead exams so many seem to be implementing, but requiring everyone take those Regents exams is the kind of "progress" that only makes sense to education bureaucrats and politicians.)

But I digress... Those Regents exams were given on specific dates. All students taking the exam for a given subject took it at exactly the same time, statewide. State law also mandated a minimum of 180 days of school. To allow for snowdays most schools scheduled 184 or 185 days, so just add in the various holidays and back it off from the June Regents dates... school starts right after Labor Day.

Most schools around here in Rhode Island seem to follow similar schedules -- school will start this coming week -- even though there are no state-wide final exams. Some schools, however, started a week ago. This makes no sense to me. I mean, what's the point?

Back in ancient times, when I was a college student, colleges seemed to start in mid to late September. I just brought up a 1961 calendar (in Lotus Organizer). Labor Day was Sept. 4th that year, I would have come home from my summer job on the 5th, hung out with my family for a few days, travelled by bus (hours and hours) to get to New Haven, Connecticut to visit my girlfriend, been picked up on Sunday the 10th by my mother and brother and an uncle (who had a full-sized car; my parents drove a VW Beetle -- yes, this one, in 1964 I bought it from my parents) and driven down to C.W. Post College on Long Island where I began a week of Freshman Orientation and then classes began on Monday, Sept. 18th. The fall semester didn't end at Christmas break; instead, we had to go back to school in early January, have a week or two weeks of classes, reading week, then a week or so of final examinations, and then go back home for a couple weeks of intersession break, and then spring semester began sometime in mid to late February.

Moving fall semester back so that final exams could be given and the semester completed before Christmas break (no more term papers hanging over your Christmas vacation) but many colleges now begin in late August. (I brought Adam, my oldest kid, off to start his freshman year of college on the last weekend in August of 1986.)

The weather has cooperated this weekend with setting an end-of-summer mood; cool and cloudy, almost no sunshine at all (even though the weather guessers this morning were claiming the clouds would move away by noon and we'd have a sunny afternoon. Nope. It's not really cold, temperatures are in the sixties but with the overcast skies and in comparison with the many days we had with highs in the nineties, it seems cool and autumnal.

David Rossie, a columnist (and education editor) for the Binghamton Press always used to print the same column on the first day of school, about how a Big Yellow School Bus came and took summer away. (For all I know, that column will probably run again this week.

Good-bye summer, see you again next year.

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