The last day of school smells, feels, and tastes like summer with the heat heavy in the air, the sweat rolling down your back, and the thought of that ice cream cone you know you’re going to get after the bell rings. The last day of school is a rite of passage just as is the first day of school or graduation, but there is the unique quality the last day of school holds in a child’s imagination. It is still something that provides so much joy, making you giddy about all the free time ahead. The last day of school – nothing else feels quite like it.
Yesterday was my son’s last day of school – his last day of first grade. As we parents were waiting outside for dismissal, the building was literally rocking with screaming, howling, and laughing children. With all the windows thrown open due to the heat, we could see students running back and forth inside the classrooms, as if they were caged and waiting to be set free.
In one of the upper floor rooms, one student stuck his head out the window and proclaimed, “I hate school!” All the assembled parents laughed, no doubt thinking of their own childhoods. In another room Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” blared on a stereo as the kids were singing and dancing (one cool teacher in there). At a lower floor window a little one looked out the window and cried uncontrollably. From jubilation to tears – such are the emotions of the last day of school.
The bell rang – bringing back memories good and bad of my own school days – and, when the doors finally opened, the older kids burst out of them in a maddening rush. Arms and legs flailing everywhere, backpacks sailing into parents’ waiting arms, beach balls being tossed up toward the blue sky, and yelling and laughter could be heard everywhere – a free for all never felt so good, and I wasn’t even a student.
As my son’s class came outside he and his classmates seemed a bit more sedate. One of his little friends was crying, running over to his mother and saying he would miss first grade. I asked my son if he was okay, and he smirked and said, “Yeah, I’m fine.”
I recalled my last days of school and the joy I felt, remembering Alice Cooper’s song playing, if not on the car radio, in my head each year as I exited the building in sweaty delight. There was the vague but still perceived hope that his lyrics “school’s out forever” were not just wishful thinking. Somehow, someway, it would come true that year. Along with the Beach Boys’ album Endless Summer, there came a reverie of long, listless days of swimming and wandering the beach, sitting on the porch until it got dark, lighting the citronella candles, watching fireworks exploding over the ocean, and sleeping as late as I wanted with no sound of an alarm clock ever to be heard again.
Now it was my son’s turn. He ran around joyfully with his friends for about five minutes, chasing not only one another but the dream of the long sunny days ahead, and afterwards he bid them all goodbye with smiles and waves of hands. I took his hand in mine and as we walked out of the schoolyard, I felt his joy and the rush of what feels like Christmas in June – with the biggest present in the world waiting to be unwrapped – freedom!
Now he already knows from last summer that he is not going to be completely free. When we go away on vacation, we bring books to read and workbooks for math and reading. He understands that is part of it, but it also is on a flexible schedule, and there is joy in that there will be a good deal of time for playing and laughing and just his being able to be a kid. We will have the ocean and sky and long days and staying up late. Those languid, hot sticky days leading into long warm nights filled with fireflies are the things of which sweet dreams are still made.
If nothing else, summer is a good excuse for us all to be kids again. To stir up pitchers of iced tea or lemonade, to remember “time” that usually matters doesn’t now, to linger at the beach to watch the sunset or even to eat dinner there, and to sit looking up at the stars afterwards without a worry about tomorrow or any other thing.
We left school far behind and as I drove I said, “When school was over we used to say ‘No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks.’ What do you think about that?”
“That’s kind of funny, Dad.”
After that we went to have that ice cream, and we savored that cold delicious treat more now because there were no worries – no homework, no studying for a test, no getting up early tomorrow. As I looked at him and saw the joy in his eyes, I felt the way I used to feel when the calendar was still turned to June in my mother’s kitchen and I knew I had two more months of freedom ahead of me.
At that moment as we enjoyed our ice cream, it felt as if school was not just out for summer but forever and completely just as Alice Cooper sang so long ago. When we left the shop we went back to go for a swim in the pool and, as we floated and lazily stared up at the clouds in the sky, I almost believed that September would never get here.
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