Magazine August 10, 2009, Issue

Summertime Blues

The thing one always hears about the long school summer vacation is that it is a relic of the time when farmers needed the youngsters to help bring in the harvest. Historians, however, pooh-pooh this. Fear of summertime disease transmission, unavailability of air conditioning, and downward influence from the vacation habits of the rich seem to have had more to do with it.

Whatever its origins, the summer vacation is now a fixture in our culture. Ever since our teachers’ unions armed themselves with thermonuclear weapons and captured one of our major political parties, it is likely to remain so, though if there is any rational pedagogical justification for twelve weeks’ juvenile idleness, I should very much like to hear it.

Until recently it could at least be said that summer vacation gave all kids the opportunity for some out-of-school socializing, and older kids a chance to get early work experience. Both rationales are now dead. The first was killed off by a combination of hyper-vigilant modern parenting styles and the home computer, the second by the J-1 visa, with which foreign students can work in the U.S. for up to four months. Why hire a surly, litigious American 16-year-old when, for the same price, you can get a Bulgarian, Ghanaian, or Malaysian 19-year-old keen to improve his English and innocent of trial lawyers?

And so we are stuck with the darn kids for twelve weeks. Few of them seem to have any idea what to do with themselves. Running off to play in the woods Tom Sawyer–style is out of the question: They might encounter poison ivy or Lyme disease. Hanging out in the town is discouraged: pedophiles, drugs, gangs. The district has summer programs, but they are not popular with the mid-teen set, to which my kids (ages 16 and 14) now belong, and in any case they are disappearing as budgets are cut.

What the kids want to do is play computer games. Years of striving to lead them into worthwhile hobbies have yielded only partial, tepid returns. They — boys, especially — yearn for those flickering screens. When deprived of them, they yawn and doze, unable to summon up enthusiasm for anything much else. 

It’s the same all over. A friend raised in rural Ireland went back for a visit after some years. A little river runs through his hometown; in summer, he tells me, he and his friends would be in it, or by it, all day and every day — swimming if the weather was warm, fishing if not. Yet on this recent visit he was surprised, on a fine summer afternoon, to see no children at all near the river. Where were they? “At home playing Doom,” he was told.

A sad state of affairs. So here I am looking for my son, who has been ejected from the house on a beautiful July day after maxing out his allowance of computer time. I find him down the street a way, sitting with two of his coevals on the tailgate of a truck belonging to one coeval’s father. 

Gore Vidal has written that Faulkner thought “coeval” referred to people who were evil together. This always comes to mind when I see my son in company with other 14-year-old males. Groups of mid-teen boys, even well-raised middle-class ones like ours, seem to radiate mischievous intent, especially in the long summer sloth. If Old Scratch is looking to make some work, here are the idle hands.

The confederates eye me warily as I approach. I doubt they have been up to anything worse than trading dirty jokes, but probably the other two have also been sent out for computer-time violations or other small misdemeanors, and the air is thick with anti-adult attitude. I dispel it with a flash of my magic amulet. “Mom can’t cook. I’m going for fast food. Place your orders, please.” (It’s a neighborly street: We feed one another’s kids pretty regularly.) Now I see enthusiasm!

Girls are, as everyone says, easier. My 16-year-old daughter is a bookworm, currently reading her way through my fiction shelves. On a single weekend recently she polished off The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth. Her sole computer interest is in a game called The Sims, which lets you construct people with personalities and style choices and have them interact with one another. The thing has deep appeal to the young-female soul. (I hope the diversity cops are dozing in their patrol cars here.) Girls seem less susceptible to computer addiction than boys, though. Mine tires of her creations after an hour or so and reaches for a book.

She has company too: a female cousin, a year or so her junior, over from England for a few days. The two girls have bonded nicely, spending hours trading TV preferences, fashion notes, differences of accent and vocabulary, little-brother horror stories, and Sims tips. Thank God for the extended family.

Yet time still hangs heavy on their hands. Mom and Dad struggle to come up with chores, trips, entertainment. Somehow, under the July sun, the chores are more obviously make-work, the trips more prone to disaster, the entertainments only barely tolerated distractions from the flickering screens, whose dog-whistle call the juvenile soul hears every waking minute. Now is the summer of their discontent.

Perhaps it was always thus. The great, tragic Eddie Cochran was the voice of summer for my generation. Nik Cohn’s book about the golden age of rock music, irresistibly titled Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, gives Cochran a whole chapter, and rightly so. Cochran, says Cohn, spoke for every teenager who “is still at school and hates it, lives at home and hates it, works in his holidays and hates that worst of all.” 

This current crop of teens lives in an America where low-paid work is for foreigners. That aside, their long-vacation discontents are perhaps not so very different from those Eddie Cochran sang of back in the Eisenhower administration: 

Well I called my congressman and he said, quote:

“I’d like to help you son but you’re too young to vote.”

Sometimes I wonder what I’m a-gonna do

But there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues.

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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