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The end of summer

Having lived in Iowa all my life, I’m not familiar with the policies of other states regarding summer vacation and the beginning of the school year. I know there are places that take into consideration the weather (extreme heat or cold) and holidays (both religious and national) when scheduling the school year. Circumstances have changed dramatically since early pioneer days when schools were strictly local matters, often managed and taught by individuals with no official oversight by local government or even school boards.
Often, especially during the time when the economy was based mainly on agriculture, the planting and harvesting seasons were taken into account when scheduling the school year, so older children (boys especially) could be available to help with the farm work during those busy seasons. Even when classes were held during those times, staying home to help with those crucial chores was a valid excuse for missing school and not considered to be truancy. There was even a bit of it still going on in the ‘40s and early ‘50s when I was in junior high and high school. Our town did not have school buses to pick up students from surrounding farms at a time when several country schools in the area still taught students through eighth grade. Students were required to attend school up through the age of 14 but many rural children did not go on to high school. Those who did were responsible for getting themselves to town for classes every day, and many farm students boarded with families in town during the week. I remember my mother’s youngest sister, who lived on a farm many miles from town, stayed with us during her high school years, and a girl from rural Pella stayed with us for two years, before she eventually dropped out of high school.
Summer vacation wasn’t over with before Labor Day and the Iowa State Fair, as it is these days. You had to be 5 years old before November in order to begin kindergarten. Children less than 4 years and 10 months of age were considered to be too immature to start school, although kindergarten then was often a child’s first separation from a full-time mother and could be a fairly traumatic transition for some of them. Kindergarten, in those days, was comparable to today’s preschool, where children became accustomed to time away from home in the company of other children. The real purpose of those early school days was mainly to accustom the child to rules and routines often very different from what he or she was accustomed to at home.
Those first days in kindergarten were, for me, the greatest adventure of my life at the time. My sister, almost five years older than I, spent the previous two years “preparing” me to start school. She made flash cards to teach me, first the alphabet and numbers up to 100. (I must admit I thought, for most of those pre-kindergarten years, one hundred was as far as numbers went and was greatly discouraged when, not many years later, I was faced with the concept of infinity. The idea , no matter how great the number, you could always add more was more than mind-boggling. I wanted no part of it.)
In addition to teaching me the letters and numbers, she taught me the names of all the colors in the big box of 64 crayons. Things sometimes got a little complicated when she deliberately misled me, giving what she called “trick questions,” which in reality were simply wrong answers, she pounded into my brain to the extent that, today, I still have to stop and think about some of them. For instance; she drilled me on all the colors but consistently insisted orange and green were green and orange. And later, when she made flashcards of short words for me to learn, she switched the letters around and told me “was” was “saw” and vice versa. I still tend to type those two words backward and have to stop and think about the two colors. I have since forgiven her though, because she did teach me to read before I started school which gave me a shot of confidence that spilled over into most other subjects and, as a result, I always loved school and eagerly looked forward to the new challenges that came my way every year when September rolled around.
I was, of course, a bit reluctant to give up the carefree, barefoot days of summer when I had to go back to stiff, brown oxford shoes and trade in my pigtails for those long, sausage curls my mother so carefully brushed around her finger every morning. There were new crayons to look forward to, long, yellow pencils with fat, perfect erasers, new friends, new teachers, and new challenges. Sure, I’d miss those lazy summer days but school was definitely better.