Among the many things they don’t tell you about becoming a parent is that your life will once again revolve around the school year. Apparently our Summer vacations are the result, not some anachronistic agrarian calendar, but of an effort by late 19th century school reformers to standardize academic schedules between rural and urban areas. In the days before air conditioning, it simply made sense to take a break during the sweltering months of Summer. That same logic applies to life in Washington DC. No one moves here for the weather, and, as its denizens are fond of recounting, the city was built on a swamp. It is beautiful here for six weeks in the Spring and six weeks in the Fall, but at all other times DC weather is something to be avoided, and that goes double for the Summer months. Congress leaves on recess for much of the Summer, so it makes sense for much of the lobbyists, the nonprofit activists, the think tankers, the policy wonks, and the journalists to leave as well.
This Summer, I left for part of June, a slice of July, and all of August. I’ve lived here going on seven years, and I always try to leave for as much of the Summer as possible. In September, “ordinary life” begins again. Whether it is the rhythm of the school year or of the seasons, the resumption of routine has never been a particularly joyous occasion for me. Perhaps it’s the label, ordinary life. Maybe I’m just in need of rebranding effort for what it’s called to wake up, drive kids to school, work, pick kids up from school, cook dinner, read, watch Netflix, sleep, and repeat.
The Montgomery County Public School system is the second-largest in the country after the New York City system, and its first day was yesterday. Depending on whom one speaks with, the school year is either too long, or too short. The too shorts point to studies from Kipp Charter Schools and the high performance of kids in various Asian countries that show them doing better with more school days. I don’t buy it, tending to side with the too longs. To support my case, I point to the following, incontrovertible fact: most of school is easy, boring, and wasteful. If the goal is to inculcate knowledge, I think there must be 100 better ways to do it.
My son’s school is private, but it follows the Montgomery County schedule, and so I along with all the other local parents I know posted our customary #firstdayofschool Instagram photos. All smiling young grade schoolers, with their backpacks on, any first day drama relegated to the description section. Some of the parents whose kids cried we’ll never know about, while others will mark it down as a pitstop along the way to conquering adversity, exhibit number 546. He cried a lot, but then he was brave and handled it like a pro! My son didn’t cry, but he was just jet lagged from having come back from his annual Summer trip to Russia two days earlier.
His mom dropped him off, and I picked him up. This meant I had to drive from home in Silver Spring over to Sangamore Road in the far reaches of Bethesda for the first time in three months. It’s 25 minutes if I magically miss all the red lights, 35 minutes in average morning traffic, and 40 minutes in bad afternoon traffic. During a little snow dusting two years ago that began just as I was picking him up, it took an hour. There are at least four different ways to wind one’s way from my house to his school, and traffic on all four of the routes is unpredictable enough that I’ve taken to checking traffic on Google every time. I know, after years of making this drive, that if I do not consult the Google Gods, the fates will doom me to hit a random backup on my chosen route that day. So I always check.
Nothing depresses me about the end of Summer more than this drive. Every drive there, and every drive back, I get an up front view of suburban Montgomery County, and I am not pleased. The route from takes me through many of the wealthiest communities just north of Washington DC. One of them, not-in-my-backyard Chevy Chase, successfully delayed one of the country’s most significant light rail projects for years, single-handedly funding legal opposition at every turn. Heaven forbid a light rail service connects their neighborhood to a slightly less wealthy one to the east. Bethesda, just to the west, is consistently named among the richest cities in the U.S. Whenever I’m there I always feel like I should be clearing the sidewalk, either for the super rich 50-year-old white ladies and their poodles, or otherwise for the entitled 16-year-old teen-boys, who have been raised to understand they will own the world one day.
In June, I surfed Pacific waves in Baja with my son. In August, I salsa danced the nights away in Medellín. Now, for the next nine months I will do the routine, drive the kids through and around random traffic, go to the school nights and the sports practices, and ponder the arbitrariness of it all. I suppose we have culture so we don’t have to make every little way of thinking on our own. But, this particular niche of privilege and wealth inside the Beltway doesn’t do much for me when it comes to culture. We have norms of parenting so we don’t have to reinvent childrearing from scratch every time. We have public schools so each of us parents doesn’t have to figure out how to educate our kids from the ground up. We have a 40-hour work week and Saturday and Sunday off because that’s what workers generations ago decided to fight for. Though I can’t help but obsess over how everything could be different if we chose it to be. Even the stupid, interminable 35-minute drive to school and back could be different, if we’d built our communities differently, if the private school we chose for our son wasn’t right smack in the middle of a neighborhood we can’t afford to live in, if, if, if.
It’s times like this I get a little weepy nostalgic for places like the 1920s Montana of A River Runs Through It, where the preacher father home schools his two boys in nothing but reading and writing, but only in the morning, setting them free every afternoon to roam the rivers and wilds and towns of Montana, completely on their own. I picture myself studying philosophy and history in a grand, light-filled wood cabin I built myself on a rugged piece of land near the mountains that I bought for pennies, teaching the kids myself, efficiently, for a two or three hours every day at most, then kicking them out of the house until nightfall, so that I can study and write, study and write some more, and they can go seek adventure and become brave and independent and resourceful all on their own. I really do wonder some times: what is stopping us exactly?