Tugged Back from Summer

August 31, 2009

The car is heavy with children
tugged back from summer,
swept out of their laughing beach,
swept out while a persistent rumor
tells them nothing ends . . .
                      — Ann Sexton, 1928-1974
                          American poet

I spent sixteen years as a full-time student and twenty-nine more as a full-time teacher. Lynn was entering seventh grade when I left the classroom, so for ten more years, until she graduated from college, I lived the rhythms of the academic year. They were probably in my DNA anyway. My father was a teacher, and so from birth I knew “a year” as something that started in September, took a little break in December, another one in late March or early April, and ended in early June as daylight began stretching beyond the dinner hour. “Summer” was a floating time that belonged neither to the year that had just concluded nor to the one about to begin. It just was, bound neither by clock nor duty, endless and free.

This is Lynn’s second September out of the classroom, her second September in her first full-time job as a production worker in a lab that manufactures substances for use in scientific experiments and studies. Long gone are the days when I had to make sure her emergency card was on file and her field trip permission slips signed and sent back on time. Gone also are the days when I had to pay her tuition and her room and board fees and plan my days around her field hockey games.

And yet, I continue to live according to an academic year. I divide my time into a fall term, a holiday break, a winter term, a spring break, and a spring term. Like many creative people, I find that by June my well-laid plans have gotten a little ragged. I use the summer to review, regroup, rest, and remember. In August, Bread Loaf juices me up again, shows me new ways to do the familiar things, helps me decide what old ideas should be shelved and new ones addressed. I come back, rest for a week, and on the first day of the new school year, I begin again.

That day was today. I was up early, had my C&C, packed my writing materials and a good lunch (tortellini fruit salad with raspberry-walnut vinaigrette dressing), and by ten after eight was headed for the studio space I will be working in this year. I drove through my neighborhood slowly, and at each corner I smiled at the knot of Children of Woodridge waiting with their parents for the big yellow school bus. I breathed a special blessing on the tiny members of the Class of 2021.

The place where I’ll be working this year sits on a hill above a small-town neighborhood of duplexes and row homes. In the ten days I used the place before I left for Vermont, I observed the Children of High Street, maybe a dozen of them from early elementary school to early middle school age. We had sunny skies and warm weather and the children seemed to be outside playing constantly. Some of them used a hammock strung between two sturdy fir trees, others sat on the shady steps of one house and played jacks or Barbies, the way I did fifty years ago. There were ball games, running games, shouting and laughter. I wished I had a pulley and a basket of baked goods to lower to them, as I have read Emily Dickinson did from her high window.

It was 9:00 by the time I was settled in my space, and the neighborhood was quiet. I set to work getting myself reacquainted with my novel-in-progress, untouched since April. I worked steadily, laying out my charts and my lists of scenes to be addressed on the broad work table beside the stairwell. Periodically, however, I would stop to observe the one child left behind.

He’s probably not quite five yet, missing the cutoff date for entering kindergarten. He spent most of the morning piloting various wheeled apparatuses back and forth in front of his house — a toddler-type plastic Big Wheel, a small bycicle with training wheels, and a scooter. All by himself he seemed to make as much joyful noise as the whole group had been able to make a month ago.

He disappeared for a while, lunch maybe. In the early afternoon I saw him walking his scooter up the steep driveway to the building I occupy. He disappeared under the roof line, and soon I saw him aboard the scooter, rolling back down, yelling at the top of his lungs. Several times he put out his bare foot to slow the scooter or to steer it.  At the bottom of the driveway he brought himself and his ride almost to a halt, and then turned down Abolition Street (another fairly steep hill) and disappeared from my view. He did this repeatedly, until summoned by his mother.

He let the scooter fall at the bottom of his porch steps, and presently he emerged, wearing shoes this time, with his mother. They got into their car, and drove away.

The older children began arriving home about 3:00. I heard the bus at the bottom of Abolition Street, and then saw them come to the corner of Abolition and High, wearing their backpacks. It wasn’t long before two of the girls had unfurled the hammock and lay swinging in it together.

I don’t know what they accomplished on their first day of school. Very likely they spent most of the day filling out forms and getting reacquainted with the friends they haven’t seen all summer. That’s pretty much what I did, too. Back in June I’d left two of my characters, who are very real to me, standing in a doorway about to begin a difficult task. Today I wrote 500 new words that brought them into the room and set their task in motion.

We’re tugged back from summer and into the new year. May only joy come of this.


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