The School of Thought as Summer Fades Out

So my older daughter and her friend are at the dinner table, telling us about the calm day earlier this summer when they floated out too far on their rafts, the way teenagers are prone to do, falling asleep probably, the way teenagers are prone to do.

When out splashes this lifeguard to rescue them, even though they didn't need rescuing, which can kind of scare you when you're just lying there all lazy and stuff in the ocean and along comes this splashing lifeguard like it's some emergency.

"Sorry, Mr. Lifeguard," they said, but the lifeguard scolded them anyway.

"What was a lifeguard even doing in the water?" my lovely and patient older daughter asks between bites of her dinner. "Aren't they supposed to be up there in their little lifeguard chairs, talking on the phone and acting cool?"

"Yeah, lifeguards don't belong in the water," her friend agrees. "Lifeguards should stay on the beach."

And so went their summer, full of adventure and great trips and daring beach rescues, a summer to remember, over too soon, as most summers are.

"Is everyone ready for school?" I ask, which is a pretty lame question, because for two weeks they have been driving around like bandits, hitting store after store, trying to find the right backpack and the right graph paper and all the other school supplies.

"Yeah, we're ready," the boy says softly.

"Good," I say cheerfully, trying to put the right spin on school, trying to make the first day inviting, which it never really is.

Because school can be a relief. School can even be exhilarating. But the first day of school is rarely inviting.

"I think everyone's going to have a great year," I say, smiling like a politician.

"Sure, Dad," the boy says.

The boy sits at the table, his shoulders slumped, his forehead almost in his food, thinking about all the good things that are about to be taken from him.

He thinks about how his skateboard will sit unused in his room all day. And how his bike and Boogie board will collect dust in the garage.

To him, losing summer is like losing a limb.

"Please don't gulp your milk," his mother says, and I look over at the boy to make sure it's him she's talking to, not me.

The boy tries to explain that he can't drink without gulping, that he just can't help it because he's got this "gulping gland" in his throat that keeps getting in the way.

"See?" he says, drinking again, two or three big kettle-drum gulps, the sound movie dinosaurs make when they walk.

"It just happens," he explains.

And his mother calmly tells him again that young boys and girls can, in fact, drink without gulping, that they can eat mashed potatoes without slurping or meat without chomping, that if you slow down and pay attention, good eating habits will happen.

"It's not as hard as it seems," she says, trying to encourage them.

"We're just kids, Mom," the little red-haired girl reminds her, in case she'd forgotten. "We're just kids."

There is something in the air, a sort of weirdness you get before a major storm, when the sky is a color you've never seen and all the birds disappear, hinting that something biblical is about to happen.

Everyone seems lost in their own thoughts, maybe a little more impatient than usual. Something's in the air, all right. School is in the air.

"I don't think I'm really ready for school," the boy says.

"When do you think you'll be ready?" I ask.

"Maybe March," the boy says.

"Me too," says the little red-haired girl.

They nibble a little more, moving the food on their plates but not eating much at all, their stomachs a little knotted, their gulping glands a little swollen, all because of a new year of school.

Because in 36 hours, they will walk into a new classroom with a new teacher. And thoughts of lifeguards and rafts, softball and swimming will be left far behind.

In 36 hours, the frenzy begins again, with parents racing from school to work to soccer practice to Scouts, then back home to do it all again the next day. Another marathon school year, now just hours away.

"I don't think I'm ready for school either," I say.

"When do you think you'll be ready?" my wife asks.

"Maybe March," I answer.

"March would be perfect," the boy says.


Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is

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