It was Eid al-Fitr and the schools were closed, as they should be. New York is a great pluralistic city, and the public school calendar reflects that: the High Holy Days; Lunar New Year; “Winter” recess at Christmas and “Spring” recess at Passover, which covers Easter, unless they’re out of sync. What better way to appreciate the abundance of other people’s faiths and cultural traditions than by scoring a free day off?
However: someone somewhere, around school pickup or the school emails or something, had mentioned Thursday, too. Thursday, June 6? I opened up the calendar, and there was another observance:
Students do not attend school.
Chancellor’s Conference Day for Staff Development.
And then, after they would go back to school Friday and Monday, there was:
June Clerical Day
Elementary school, middle school, and D75 students do not attend school.
The vagueness and the bland jargon made the news even more demoralizing. There was surely a good reason, or at least a reasonably and faithfully negotiated contractual reason, for both of those days to be there. It takes time to write up the report cards! But something has slipped, little by little, out of kilter, and it starts tilting all the way sideways after Memorial Day.
On Memorial Day weekend, we happened to be out of town at a wedding, and there were other kids from elsewhere out of town for the occasion, and those kids were done with school. This is barbarous, of course; it goes along with starting school in mid-August. New York honors, in principle, the correct and civilized tradition, the one I was raised on in Maryland, that school should begin after Labor Day and should end after Memorial Day in June.
This current schedule, though, stretches so far past Memorial Day that it’s lapping at the shores of the Fourth of July. The last day of school is June 26, five days past the summer solstice. The days will already be getting shorter by the time school lets out. I could have written “by the time school ends,” but there is the heart of the problem: school is already over, right now. It’s just that the kids have to keep going to school.
The big tests are done. The long-rehearsed theatrical presentation about the Dutch settlement of Manhattan is done. The instrumental concerts and instrument juries for music students are done. On Monday, the second-grade teacher sent out an email thanking the parents for a great school year and wishing everyone a happy summer. There were still more than three weeks left to go!
It’s healthy and instructive to have certain amount of liminal dead space at the end of the year. The last few days of school always used to have an enchantment to them, as the classroom decorations came down and the totalizing institution was disassembled around us and the remaining make-work fell apart into extended games of meter-stick baseball, with masking-tape balls. The high school seniors disappeared and then reappeared to have a shaving-foam fight in the parking lot. It was part of the ritual.
That sense of burgeoning liberty, though, takes on a different mood when the kids spend almost a full month going through the motions—the mood of a soccer game with the score out of reach and half an hour of stoppage time tacked on. By the final week, the summer camps are flouting the school system’s authority and launching into their own schedules, so that the children trudging dutifully off for the schoolyard with their worn bookbags have to go past other kids in their brand-new camp t-shirts, waiting for the camp bus.
And now there are days off in the middle of what barely count as days on, ruining the one virtue of an extended school year, that it should give you a place to put the kids all day. No one really chose to do things this way; a series of decisions, over time, added up to a ridiculous outcome.
There is one obvious opportunity, on the calendar, to get things back under control. It is the “Midwinter Recess,” which blows out a whole week in February where Presidents’ Day, or Washington’s Birthday, used to be. This was not on the traditional calendar that my generation inherited; it was an innovation of the late ’70s energy crisis, so that school districts could avoid burning fuel for a week in the coldest part of winter. Over the decades, it became more and more widespread, even as the real energy consumption crisis made the winters warmer.
Now, it’s just another random winter week when parents have to scramble for child care, followed by an extra week to run the air conditioners. Cross it out, pay the teachers cash for their lost time off, and let the school year die when it wants to die.