The seasonal rhythms of life in the Gulf States have more to do with the rotation of the calendar than with a change of temperature. The almost uniquely American ritual of students returning to classes after a three month parole from educational incarceration is largely disassociated from any signs of change from summer. I know that I’ll soon see high school students trooping past my house the few blocks south to the local high school. They’ll have the look of a defeated army marching to interment, heads down, dragging their feet, shouldering backpacks big enough to carry supplies for a long bivouac.
As I’ve watched this parade from my front and back porches for several years, I’ve noticed that this depression will gradually lift, cheered by renewed friendships, laughter, raised voices and slightly quicker pace in the direction of the school.
Napoleon was correct when he observed that an army marches on its stomach. This one leaves ample evidence in the form of discarded soda bottles, candy wrappers and potato chip bags festooning my curbs and landscaping. I wouldn’t mind having my unquenchable adolescent metabolism back, burning off an endless stream of calories taken in with no regard to consequences.
Mass public education is arguably an American invention, and one that was early on tied to our rural origins. Schools closed for the summer in part because students had to help out on family farms. As Americans migrated to cities the habit of the long summer off was carried with them. The freedom from the ordered structure of a classroom for a quarter of a year is unknown in most of the world. I’ve often wondered how much this has to do with the formation of American character. The kind of easy-going informality we’re famous for is based on annual escapes from authority figures in favor of the freedom of association with one’s equally liberated friends, people chosen for companionship and not forced upon us by arbitrary assignment to a classroom. It is possible that we are never as equal as we are in summer.
I won’t expect a nip in the air to signal the arrival of fall for another six weeks or so at the least. My herald of autumn will be the slightly muffled, percussive sound of the high school band practicing for its Friday night half-time duties. These concerts are blown my direction by the breeze off the river. The brassy bass notes somehow survive shredding by tree limbs, chimneys and roof tops. The woodwinds aren’t so fortunate, their notes impaled on twigs and branches.
I’ll be back in the classroom myself, waiting to greet my new graduate students in the College of Architecture. It’s time to put on the role of teacher like a fall outer garment. We have things to do together, but we’ll all be remembering the taste of freedom that summer brought to us.
- Michael Guarino