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Longing for the longest days

The once lazy afternoons of August have eroded like a Gulf Coast beach. Today's schoolchildren don't know what they're missing.

Published August 31, 2003

[Photo: Visit Florida]

Who stole summer?

Not so long ago, Labor Day would have been the last day of summer vacation for most kids. They would have spent August idly luxuriating in the trancelike final days of summer, not sweating on the school bus and fretting about FCAT.

Ask people over 40 about the Augusts of their childhood, and you'll likely get a dreamy look and tales of playing weeklong Monopoly tournaments or endless sandlot baseball, stretching out on the hood of the car to watch movies at the drive-in, traveling to other states for family reunions on Labor Day weekend.

Summer had its own trajectory and rhythm, from the delirious excitement of being set free in June, through the firecracker celebration of July, then settling into August and a long, sweet coast through weeks of nothing to do.

Not any more. For most children around Tampa Bay, and for about three-quarters of American kids, school started weeks ago.

The shift to starting the school year in August gained momentum in the late 1980s, and by 2000, 75 percent of schools opened before Sept. 1, many almost a month earlier.

The academic calendar changed for various reasons. Many school districts wanted the fall semester to end before the winter holiday, so students didn't have to study for tests over the break. Others were expanding their school year or trying to give kids more time to prepare for standardized tests. Some front-loaded to allow for more holidays during the school year.

For whatever reason, the beginning of the school year was nudged back, and many kids even ended up with a shorter summer break. That's easier for working parents, but kids lose.

Of course, the whole summer school holiday is a quaint remnant of the 19th century. It has been a very long time since most American families needed the kids at home in summer to help harvest the crops.

And that never made much sense anyway in Florida, where harvest time is winter and spring. But for kids who grew up here a few decades back, there was reason to be glad school didn't start until September.

Baby boomers will recall that in the '60s most schools were not air conditioned. Neither were most people's houses, but it was easier to stay cool at home, with resources like Popsicles and inflatable swimming pools, than in a sweltering classroom where open windows just let in more humidity. Not to mention that kids weren't allowed to wear shorts to class.

Has anyone ever run the numbers on what it costs to air-condition all those schools during the hottest month of the year? (On average, August ties with July.) That might be one good argument against early start.

But the strongest arguments are intangible. Once you grow up, you marvel at how long summer once seemed. The days of bone-melting heat and buzzing cicadas went on forever. And part of its weather was the suspension of responsibilities. Years later, the crack of lightning across a summer sky can still sound like freedom.

Florida's summer storm season is in full swing in August. While I was growing up in Tampa and my friends and I were still a couple of years too young to drive, we would wheedle some exasperated mother or sibling into dropping us off at the beach at midafternoon.

Often it was the beach on the Courtney Campbell Parkway; there was a long mile of sand then, before Hurricane Elena stripped it away in 1985. If we were lucky, we might get all the way to Clearwater Beach. But that didn't matter as much as the timing.

"It's going to rain," someone's mom would say as she let us out in the parking lot.

"We know," we'd say as we slammed the car doors and ran.

We'd watch the storm clouds stack up until they filled the horizon. The water churned to navy blue as the thunder started to bang, and all the beachgoers would scuttle for their cars, dragging towels and toddlers.

All except us. This was what we were here for. The best place to wait out a storm was the little storeroom under the lifeguard tower, where the rain rattled the planks and the salty, ozone-charged scent of the wind streamed through the cracks.

Or we would lounge in the breezeway by the snack bar as that wind scoured out the aromas of soggy bathing suits and aging hot dogs. Sometimes a few gulls would sidle in, one eye on us and the other on the counter guy, ruler of the leftover french fries.

Usually, the storm sailed over fast. It always swept the beach clean of tourists and pesky little kids and adults who frowned at our bikinis.

The water lightened quickly from steel gray to glass green, and the sun's low angle turned the pale sand golden.

The beach was ours. We could sing at the top of our lungs, have a mud fight, kiss a lifeguard. It would be hours before sunset.

After a while, at the far end of the parking lot, at the edge of sight, a lone car would swing into a space. Our ride.

But it was a long way off. We turned our backs on it, walking slowly as the waves danced at our feet. We had time. It was still August.

- Contact Colette Bancroft at or 727 893-8435.

[Last modified August 28, 2003, 09:23:42]

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