Opinion: Sadly, end of the yearWhiner Alert: In the two paragraphs immediately following, the author of this column engages in completely unjustified puling about a childhood event most mature adults would have long forgotten or at least gotten over, especially considering the fact that his childhood was idyllic, with loving parents, supportive brothers and excellent friends.
By: Joe Graves, Mitchell superintendent
Whiner Alert: In the two paragraphs immediately following, the author of this column engages in completely unjustified puling about a childhood event most mature adults would have long forgotten or at least gotten over, especially considering the fact that his childhood was idyllic, with loving parents, supportive brothers and excellent friends.
When I was little, the yard area immediately behind our one-car garage was cemented over to create the 1960s version of a ground-level deck. Such an architectural feature would have been decidedly hohum to a little boy except for the fact that my father had nailed four large boards together and filled the resulting square with sand. That simple sandbox was easily my favorite place to play as a child, at least in the summer. On reasonably rainy days, sand castles arose. On hot ones, all manner of metal trucks, cars, green army men, and various plastic dinosaurs and less exotic animals cavorted in the dunes, sometimes refighting the battle of North Africa and other times just creating imaginary and peculiar neighborhoods or the occasional zoo. In my gilded memory, I would play in that sandbox for hours on end.
Until one day, it was gone. I think I had been away on some trip, probably to my grandparents in Ashton, Iowa, and returned home to discover bare, clean-swept cement in the backyard. Gone were the dunes and the castles and the roads so carefully sculpted with rusting metal bulldozers. The army men and animals were all washed clean, dried, and deposited in a plastic bucket on a shelf in the garage. A whole world obliterated as if some great meteor struck a planet and relegated the resulting dust to the far corners of the universe.
In my memory, I was 5 or 6. My father always insisted I was some absurdly advanced age — 12 or 13 — far too old to still be playing in sandboxes. My guess is we were both exaggerating but the truth is I still loved playing in that sandbox when it disappeared. Today, with four children of my own, all of whom played in the sandboxes I built at our various homes, I better understand the situation. With five boys, the eldest 16 years older than me, my father had been messing with sandboxes for 20 or 25 years when mine disappeared. My mother had been enduring the sand-filled shoes all over the house, the groundin mud in whatever clothes small boys decide are suitable for sandbox play and the various flotsam deposited on the garage floor during trips from box to house. They were simply ready to be done with it.
(Hey, you were warned.)
I am reminded of this each year as the end of the school year, sadly, approaches. The anachronistic agrarian calendar we still use for school — an absurdity only outdone by the more modern inanity of the four-day school week — creates an “end of the year” found in almost no other human endeavor. Our jobs don’t come to some artificial, annual end point at which time we all take eons of time off. Every holiday and vacation is short and followed quickly by a return to business. Parenting has no interregna when we cast off the social obligations of loving and caring for our children. No matter how tired we are, or how frustrated with their mewling complaints, there they are, needing to be loved and cared for. But schools come to a finite end each year.
Lest you think this is my complaint — it is most definitely my larger complaint but a side-topic here — it isn’t. My complaint is one of the occasional, unfortunate consequences of this annual terminus, the tendency of just a very few in my profession to cheat the children by slowing down, slacking off, and packing up before the final bell has rung.
We give our students a mere 174 days of school or even less in South Dakota. This lack of time should compel us to use every moment to its fullest, essentially because we know that the students need more, not less, instruction, that the coming summer is one, typically, of regression and lost academic ground. Yet some do just the opposite. They see the coming hiatus as a reason to slow down the pace of instruction, as if the students need to be acclimated to doing less.
Perhaps the most painful sign of this is the instructor who begins to pack up the room, to collect the textbooks, to strip the bulletin boards days or weeks in advance, so that when the curtain falls on the school year, they need do little more than lock their room, and head out the door. They act as if the students don’t observe this, that they can’t tell from their surroundings that things are shutting down and that they may do the same. A classroom communicates volumes to students and a barren, packed one tells students that learning time is over, that they may mentally shelve the year and move on to less challenging diversions.
Packing up and shutting down early is a mistake for many reasons, including the fact that it creates a not easily contained enthusiasm among students who still must be kept in good discipline until the actual end of the year.
But only one reason really matters. Failing to take serious the opportunities presented in the last days of school — riding out the school year clock — robs the students of a significant portion of their education. Failing to read that one more story, to teach that one extra math skill, to learn that one extra spelling word, to engage in that one extra cardio activity in physical education is a loss. And it is a permanent loss for, as your clock face warns, tempus fugit. It means students who are just that much less prepared for the next school year, for the workforce, for life.
Educators have an obligation to squeeze every drop from the too-brief time society gives them to prepare children for life.
When we end a year earlier than necessary in preparation for a summer vacation already so long most people can only remember and imagine it from their childhood, we cheat them of something. Not something silly like a sandbox. Something important, something they will need all their lives. We cheat them of their education.