There is no doubt that we have outgrown the agrarian school calendar. However, I would argue that by sheer serendipity, our national character is rooted in the experience afforded by the long summer months away from school. In fact, what makes us so darn good, when contrasted with our international colleagues in the global marketplace, is not so much what we learned in school, but rather what we learned from our summer job.
Several years ago I was teaching pronunciation to an executive from one of those highly-cultured European countries – let’s call it France- that keeps insisting, verbally and nonverbally, that they are smarter than us. When I arrived at his Kempsville home for a tutorial session one evening he was outraged about an assignment his oldest son, an eighth grader, had done that day in school. His son had spent the better part of the afternoon on a computer typing a five page report on some suitable eighth grade topic. His fury was over the fact that his son spent an inordinate amount of time typing. With a very strong – but highly cultured – accent, he exclaimed : My zon (read son) will have a zecretarY (stress the last syllable) to do zis type of work. He does not need to know how to type.”Type” was pronounced “tip” – one of his pronunciation problems that had me there in the first place. But one did not need a Masters in linguistics to know EXACTLY what this guy was talking about.
It was the way he said secretary that really ticked me off. His intonation suggested that such a person was beneath him – and his 12 year old son. The perfect lesson for the evening would have been for me to wave my magic wand and turn this ragiing dinosaur into a secretary for a couple of months. But he couldn’t really help himself. After all, he was hired right out of university, which had been preceeded by twelve years of year round elementary and secondary school. No primitive agrarian calendar over there!
About two years ago I attended an evening workshop at a local high school entitled “How to Write a Good College Entrance Essay”. A woman from the admissions office of one of our most prestigious state universities was there, and she read to the crowd of 100 juniors a really good college essay she had recently received.
The writer explained that while a junior in high school, he was not sure he even wanted to go to college, never mind medical school to follow in his father’s footsteps. That summer he took a job in local garage and worked long hours alongside the two men who ran the garage. When he wasn’t pumping gas and changing oil, the men patiently and thoroughly taught him how to do other jobs around the station, like fixing a punctured tire or checking brake linings. He was always dog-tired after working all day in the unairconditioned bay, and he would sit out front waiting for his ride home. He explained how every day at the same time one of the men would be picked up by his wife who always had their two toddlers in the back seat. The rising senior never could figure out where this man found the energy to run to his kids, pick them up, twirl them around, and chase them around the station every evening before they all got in the car to go home.
Over the summer he developed a deep admiration for these two men who were as committed to to doing their job right as they were to their families. One day he hoped he could be a Dad like that. But more than that, from his summer job experience, he realized that it did not matter if you were fixing a puncture in someone’s tire or a puncture in someone’s heart – we all have to depend on each other to make it work.
I was mesmerized by this essay. But what really blew me away was the response from the crowd of 100 high school juniors. They cheered. They clapped. They got up on their chairs and hooted and hollered. They got it. I’d like to think that every 18-year-old American would. I’m not sure that French guy ever did. And I ‘m not sure that if we do away with the summer job experience, our national character will stay on course and intact.