One hundred ninety-eight.
You can bet we counted ’em.
I say “we.” I mean Sam.
Sam is our 12-year-old son. He didn’t so much count them as count them off. He drew a big X through each day of the final 30 or so of them, a paradoxically joyous and grim countdown to the end of possibly the longest school year in America.
One hundred ninety-eight school days.
That is 18 days more than the 180-day calendar of the public school where he started last year in Austin, Texas. It is 15 days more than the academic year in Washington, D.C., where he ended this year. Do the math: Throw in the weekends and you are talking, well, um, I don’t know the math, exactly, but you can round it up to an eternity.
How did this … this injustice occur? We moved. In the middle of the school year.
In Austin, school begins in mid-August and ends in mid-May. In Washington, D.C., it begins in September and concludes in mid-June. Sam, in other words, started early and finished late.
As a result, he had a long school year. A very long school year. Russian-winter long. Rotary Club-speech long. Waiting-for-vacation-to-get-here long.
One hundred ninety-eight school days.
But who’s counting?
So enthused a teacher when I informed her of the length of Sam’s school year.
I looked at her as if a waiter had just told me that instead of filet mignon, we would be having ground worms for dinner this evening.
Winning a free trip to Six Flags is great. Being given 50 bucks to blow on CDs, that’s great. A snow day, that’s really great.
But extra days in school, indeed, more days than the average prison sentence handed down for most criminal acts — great?
“Uh, not if you’re a kid,” I said.
I found it somehow both heartwarming and disturbing that a teacher genuinely believed that kids love school.
I should point out that Sam doesn’t hate school. In fact, as schools go, he loved the one he attended in D.C. How could he not? He went on field trips to Smithsonian museums, the Six Flags amusement park, and to a lunch with Chick Corea at a nightclub called Blues Alley.
It wasn’t just the field trips, though. He also loved the environment of the school. It is racially, socially, and economically diverse in a way that his Austin school wasn’t. He loved being around kids from worlds and backgrounds vastly different from his own and appreciated that he was so easily accepted.
A sixth grader, he even liked the classes themselves. He felt challenged in both his academics and his extracurricular activities. He also had the opportunity to play drums in a jazz band at the East Coast Jazz Festival, among other prestigious events.
And yet there is a reason that Chuck Berry’s “School Days” resonates. In case you’ve forgotten, it begins, “Up in the mornin’ and out to school/The teacher is teachin’ the Golden Rule.”
It continues through a typical school day with such lines as, “The teacher don’t know how mean she looks,” and, “Soon as 3 o’clock rolls around/You finally lay your burden down.”
The song winds down with the liberating release from the classroom, the student dashing to a juke joint: “Drop the coin right into the slot/You gotta hear somethin’ that’s really hot” because “all day long you been wantin’ to dance.” It ends, “Hail, hail rock-and-roll.”
Note that Chuck Berry on this classic youth anthem doesn’t sing, “Soon as 3 o’clock rolls around/You really wish you could stick around.”
Just as Alice Cooper didn’t sing, “School’s Out, Oh, Bummer.”
Nor did the Ramones sing, “Geom-etry and Biology High School.”
And Sam Cooke didn’t croon, “Know a lot about history/Know a lot about biology/But I don’t know if I love you/And whatever about you lovin’ me, too/What a wonderful world this would be, particularly if next semester I could take trigonometry.”
If rock is the soundtrack of youth, then the number of days spent in school is the arithmetic of youth. It was an arithmetic that had Sam singing the blues.
A few years ago, friends of ours moved from Austin. They did it right. They left at the end of the Austin school year in mid-May and started school in their new town in early September, giving the two boys, close friends of Sam’s, perhaps the longest summer in America.
It was a great bonus to moving, which is otherwise a trauma of kicking and screaming, and the family quite rightly trumpeted its endless summer, hoping, perhaps, that the refrain would be as catchy as a good pop hook that lodges in the brain. We were happy for them.
When it came time for us to move, I hoped to replicate their good fortune. The Fates didn’t cooperate. We found ourselves instead in just the opposite circumstance. Instead of an endless summer, Sam got an endless school year.
As a parent, trying to find the positive, you are reduced to uttering silly things, such as, “You’ll be smarter than everybody else.”
Well, this year he’ll have a regular number of school days, like everybody else. He’s no doubt happy about that.
But, who knows, maybe all those extra days in school will be worth something someday. One hundred ninety-eight. Hmmmm. Rhymes with “I’m telling ya, it’s not so great.”
I’m hearing a future classic.