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By BILL MAXWELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 1, 2001
The other morning, I heard an administrator with the Baltimore school district on National Public Radio bragging about the district's massive summer school program called "Teach Baltimore." The program's more than 12,000 students are "never left unsupervised" and are "are never left alone," the woman intoned.
Never left unsupervised. Never left alone. The words stuck in my mind.
According to a Johns Hopkins University study, about one in five students in the nation's largest urban districts attend mandatory summer school. The overwhelming majority of these students are low-income minority kids. Many have scored poorly on one standardized test or another.
Like similar programs in many of the nation's largest school districts, "Teach Baltimore" was established to prevent "summer loss" or "summer slide." Research indicates that between Memorial Day and Labor Day, children, particularly those from low-income environments, forget vocabulary words, study skills and discipline.
The Johns Hopkins study shows that most students greatly benefit from summer school. The names of the programs alone -- "Bridge Over Troubled Water" in Chicago, "Summer Stars" in the Washington, D.C. -- attest to bold, good intentions.
All that said, the argument of this column will be heresy and will ring of naivete to educators and parents who see summer school as a place where children are safe and productive, who fear idle time (watching television and playing video games), who see the streets as war zones.
The words of the Baltimore administrator made me return to my childhood, when summer meant total freedom from grown folks, frolicking with your peers, being alone as children, making your own rules, defining your own reality.
When I lived in rural Florida, my friends and I roamed the woodlands barefoot and shirtless. Our agenda was simple: play like hell from sunup to sundown. We swam in lakes, dived for mussels, waded in brooks, caught crawdads, fished for bream and bass from shore and from bridges, canoed and kayaked, played cowboys and Indians, slept in our tents, target-practiced with homemade slingshots.
We flew kites, roasted hotdogs over campfires, wrestled until we were too exhausted to move, climbed trees, played the dozens, shot marbles, pitched horse shoes. We made weights out of syrup cans, concrete and iron rods. One summer, we built a western town and named it Dodge City.
We rarely saw an adult while we played deep in the woods. We did everything we could to avoid adults. Church was the only place where we tolerated their presence for more than a few hours at a time.
In Fort Lauderdale, Sistrunk Boulevard (then 6th Street) and its side streets and the various parks were our playground. Without adult supervision, we played basketball and tackle football. In my neighborhood, our basketball hoop was a bicycle rim, our backboard a piece of plywood nailed to a light pole.
We played stickball in the courtyard of the apartments where I lived. Jim Crow barred us from Fort Lauderdale Beach, so we would hitchhike to Hollywood and catch the ferry to the Negro beach. When we really needed money, we would collect soft drink bottles and sell them to Bass Brothers store. Or we would hop on a labor bus in the morning to pick beans. On a good day, each of us could earn $5.
We were classic urchins -- smelly, sweaty, loud, profane, mischievous. Few of us had televisions, so we would go to the movies a couple of times a week. Saturday was the best time because of the matinee and Buck Rogers space cliffhangers.
We were unsupervised and loved it. We could not imagine adults intruding in our lives during summer vacation. For us, the word vacation meant just that: a respite from the orderliness of the adult world. We did whatever came to mind. But we abided by the unspoken, unwritten rules: Do not get into trouble with the law. Do not hurt anyone physically. Do not talk back to adults. Get home at night by the appointed time.
Each of us found precious time to be alone.
I would walk to the public library at least once a week and read for the entire day. Robert Long had a Brownie camera, and he would take pictures of people on the street. Otis Gray used to hide out and draw diagrams of football plays (He dreamed of becoming a coach).
Did we suffer from "summer slide" or "summer loss"?
Did it matter? I do not think so. Turning out to be a decent, mannerly kid was the big thing. Sure, being an academic whiz was important, too, but it was not something that anyone I knew dwelled on 24 hours a day.
Oh, how things have changed since my innocent childhood. Society is more dangerous -- or at least it appears to be. I do not understand nor do I want to understand our obsession with standardized testing and 24-hour supervision. Everywhere I look, I see too many kids imprisoned in some way -- summer school, summer camp, day camp, Bible study.
My question is this: When do today's kids get a chance to be kids? When do they do their most important work, which is play? When are they ever truly alone to define their own realities? When do they enjoy old-fashioned idle time? We have institutionalized the innocence out of kids. We have made them dubiously wise before their time.
They are never left unsupervised. They are never alone.