Essayist Discusses Views on Time in the Summer

August 3, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT

NANCY GIBBS, Time Magazine: What is it about summer that makes children grow? We feed and water them more. They do get more sun, but that probably doesn’t matter as much as the book they read or the rule they broke that taught them something they couldn’t have learned any other way.

The school year channels them so efficiently through their lessons, their practices, their many pools of obligation. Summer is not obligatory. We can start an infernally hard jigsaw puzzle in June with the knowledge that, if there are enough rainy days, we may just finish it by Labor Day, but if not, there’s no harm, no penalty. We may have better things to do.

Pour a liquid out of its container and it changes shape, fills the space you give it. If you give children a lot of space, it may surprise you where they’ll go and the shape they’ll take.

Our family goes back to the same place every summer, a little town on a lake, and the place itself is as precise a measuring stick as the pencil marks on the kitchen doorway.

YOUNG GIRL: Right there. Look. That’s you.


NANCY GIBBS: The basement is a warehouse of outgrown skates and half- finished lanyards. Last summer, little sister's feet could barely reach the pedals; this summer, she's racing down hills, while big sister is taller than some of my friends. Her ears are pierced. Her shoes have heels when she's not barefoot.

Some things get smaller, like the print in their summer reading books and the time we get to have them to ourselves. As they get older, we have to share them more, both with their friends and with their need for solitude.

They prize these brief but recurring alliances with their summer friends. They never see each other in school clothes, don't know who threw up in math class, don't know who sits where in the cafeteria. They do remember when they capsized a boat together, and got their first dogs, and sneaked into the woods to break some rule for the first time.

They separate for 10 months at a time and then meet again, and so they have stories to tell. They become natural narrators, sitting together under a tree, smelling of dirt and sunscreen, comparing what being 12 means in Canton, or Fox Chapel, or Bronxville.

As parents, we pay so much attention to their schools, their scores, their teachers. How is it that two months of play seems to shape their character and reflexes more than a whole winter's worth of lessons?

When they are melted in the high heat of summer freedom, they find out just how flexible they can be, how bold, how resourceful, so that, when the air cools and school resumes, they swagger back into their orderly lines with a secret and another mark on the wall.

I'm Nancy Gibbs.