Summer vacation, age 11. My neighbor’s mom is driving my friend and her sisters to a tiny amusement park in our town next to a Putt-Putt and a little merry-go-round. I have a UTI from bubble-bath and can barely move; I spend the afternoon on a brown recliner in my mom’s dark basement, chugging cranberry juice, watching MTV, and feeling miserable.
Summer vacation, age 13. Out-of-whack hormones being the prime cause of nonsensical drama in early-teen relationships, my friends and I are in a fight over something banal. I spend the majority of the sunny months inside my bedroom with the windows shut, reading book after book and moping.
Summer vacation, age 17. My best friend’s work schedule at Taco John’s conflicts with my work schedule at Subway, and so we are like ships in the day. At night, we smoke joints in the park or dive into gravity bongs in the basements of dirtbag skater boys; we do this during the school year, too, so it doesn’t really matter if it’s July or November.
As kids across the country trod back to institutions of higher learning, it always feels like time for a requiem. Apart from Christmas and birthdays, no event in the U.S. is so brightly outlined for school-age people as the vaunted summer vacation, a cause celebre for teachers, students and—probably less so—parents, in which three months of freedom are afforded to hardworking little rug rats. The break is well deserved, and arguably important in furthering the education of young people; its mythology has developed largely because school is often portrayed as a chore or, at worst, an act of state oppression meant to indoctrinate young minds into the system.
In “School’s Out,” the iconic 1972 song featured in school-as-tyranny movies like Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and Dazed & Confused, Alice Cooper made a gleeful threat: “Out for summer, out ‘til fall, we might not go back at all.” In the 1979 cult film Over the Edge, a group of suburban kids goes wild with juvenile crime, eventually burning down their school, their rebellion driven by a lack of things to do in their torpid community other than submit to the discipline of their shitty school. I remember watching that film more than a few times during the school year and summer vacation both, relating to the crushing boredom that overtook the teen druggies—in my hometown of Cheyenne, Wyoming, there was little accommodation for teens like me, who weren’t spending sunny days at the basketball court or riding freaking horses around on their rich parents’ ranches. School might have been sloughed off for several weeks, but there was still the issue of hot days on the plains, sleepily bleeding into each other, eventually becoming a source more oppressive than the seven-to-three schedule of high school. Besides, during the school year there are winter and summer breaks to look forward to. During summer break, the only thing to look forward to is more school.
But summer vacation is also aspirational, a cultural archetype that can never possibly live up to its expectations of picnics, popsicles, swimming pool, and summer camps. It is idealized in the minds of schoolchildren, but once they arrive there, at some overly cheery last-day-of-school in June comprised of games and pranks, a void emerges that, if not filled with some kind of structure, can develop into the existential. For kids like me—bookish, non-athletic, latchkey, generally concerned with ditching my shithole town as soon as possible and, most importantly, prone to depression—the promise of more sun and less structure is not enough.
Combined with the pressure to make the most of three short months before the looming routine of the school year returns, summer vacation can mean not freedom but more anxiety and uncertainty. (For an unacceptably huge swathe of American kids—13 million of them—who depend on school lunch programs, it can also mean food instability, an issue most communities are still trying to combat.) While the resuming school year may mean further responsibility and pressure, it can also provide a modicum of predictability, a schedule that charts out how and when and where an unsure kid is supposed to be, after three months of feeling undone and flailing. At the very least, there are adults around for a guaranteed six-hours a day where before there may have been none. It’s an American societal imperative to make summer vacation the best ever, but with that brings an added pressure, and those of us who don’t naturally take to it or can’t provide it for the kids in our care can be imbued with a further sense of alienation.
September brings an end-of-summer ennui, a melancholy in anticipation of shorter days and less abundance. For those of us who feel seasonal unease, though, it marks a beginning—the school year brought new possibilities, or at the very least something else to do, and as an adult autumn ushers in like a cloak, when preferring to spend quiet time reading indoors doesn’t feel like a cultural affront. That’s the core of it, I suppose—feeling a sense of guilt for not taking advantage of being unleashed in the fashion that’s commonly accepted, as though any time spent not windsurfing or making beach castles is time wasted. The pressure of summer vacation comes from the fact that it is finite, and expensive. The relief comes when it’s done.