As the calendar turns from spring into summer, many of us are preparing for summer vacations, making new arrangements for children now out of school, or thinking back to our own childhood summer days. For this reason, this week we bring you three pieces on summer and childhood: an episode of This American Life called “Notes from Camp,” a recent op-ed by KJ Dell’Antonia on families that “can’t afford summer,” and finally, a recent poem by Maggie Smith on childhood that went surprisingly viral last week.
One of the great delights of This American Life is its commitment to capturing the texture of contemporary human experience through attention to the mundane features of everyday life. In one of my favorite episodes of the program, “Notes on Camp,” Ira Glass and Julie Snyder survey the phenomenon of summer camp, taking note of all its weirdness and wonder while fully acknowledging that the experiences they capture are not and cannot be shared by all. In this way they provide what portraiture also provides: an account of a life in time that, while always incomplete, gives occasion for further thought.
While the whimsy and recreation described by the staff of This American Life capture one aspect of summer for many American families, KJ Dell’Antonia’s recent op-ed for the New York Times displays another. His piece begins:
What are your kids up to this summer? Sounds like a casual question. But for working parents at this time of year, it’s loaded. What have you managed to pull together that will keep your kids engaged, healthy, happy and safe, while still allowing you to keep feeding and clothing them? For most parents, summer, that beloved institution, is a financial and logistical nightmare.
As Dell’Antonia goes on to show, the very idea of “summer break” is premised upon the availability—and affordability—of childcare, from a parent or other trusted source. When these are unavailable, and resources for camps are limited, children often experience what Dell’Antonia calls “summer slide.” As he puts it:
In summer, the lack of affordable child care and the achievement gap collide for lower income families. Most kids lose math skills over the summer, but low income children also lose, on average, more than two months of reading skills — and they don’t gain them back. That puts them nearly three years behind higher income peers by the end of fifth grade, and the gap just keeps getting wider. Researchers credit the summer slide for about half of the overall difference in academic achievement between lower and higher income students.
Whatever we make of the notion of year-round schooling, Dell’Antonia’s account sheds light on the ways in which different summer experiences increase educational inequalities among children. Summer, in this way, is a time of ambivalence—the benefits of unstructured or less-structured time and the unique opportunities of camps are real, but so too are the challenges for families incapable of accessing them. The picture of summer we are left with is, in this way, muddled.
This ambivalence regarding the many joys of the world and their distribution is captured beautifully a recently published poem by Maggie Smith called “Good Bones.” Much as Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” gained widespread interest in the weeks and months following the attacks of September 11th, Smith’s poem has gone viral since the recent tragic shooting in Orlando. In large part, this is due to the invitation it offers the reader to envision—and then “sell”—a better world at a moment in time when our sense is that the world is “at least half terrible.”
Good Bones | Maggie Smith, 2016
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
Enjoying Culture Briefing? Have an idea for a topic we haven’t covered? Send feedback, kudos, concerns, and ideas to Philip Lorish at email@example.com.