Fishing at sunset

Now that the school year is finally over, there are a lot of descriptive words being thrown around as we look back. “Weird,” “strange” and “crazy” are just a few of the printable words you may have heard. However, if you are of a certain age, two words that likely struck fear into your heart at the end of the school year were, “summer school.”

Yes, there is still work to be done for some students when summer vacation rolls around, but today’s euphemistic “credit recovery” programs don’t hold a candle to the terrors for those students whose sizzling summers were spent sitting in school.

I am proud to say I was not one of those students. With grit, determination and a bit of luck, I made regular appearances on the C- honor roll, thus avoiding the grim prospect of spending my summer in a school building. I did, however, spend time in summer school of a different sort, where I learned valuable life lessons that serve me well today. Let me explain.

While my academically-challenged classmates slaved away in steaming classrooms, my siblings, cousins and I learned our lessons on Sybil Lake in northern Minnesota. This classic beauty was carved and filled by a generous glacier roughly 10-15,000 years ago, and its crystal clear water provided the ideal setting for our decidedly low-tech summer school lessons.

While frogs, firecrackers and cow pies offered memorable experiences, our best lessons took place on the lake with the help of a giant tractor tire inner tube with a steel valve stem on the tube’s inner circle. With the goal of getting each of us to stand on the tube together, our summer school lessons began.

Our first lesson was the importance of teamwork. We quickly learned that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link- which was usually me. The first step involved getting each of us on top of the tube on our knees with interlocked arms for balance as we tried to steady ourselves to stand. Then, like drunken sailors, we wobbled and bobbed as we rose as one, only to be bucked off like rodeo cowboys, ending in a colossal splash.

Which led to lessons about the nature of water. For example, we learned about water displacement when we landed on our backs or faces. It hurt. Further, if one of us fell through the middle of the tube and had his ribs scraped by the steel valve stem, we learned that sound does indeed travel under water. We also learned about cold lake water and its effect on core body temperatures. Being young and skinny, I was nearly always the first one out of the lake, shaking like a Model-T.

We also learned about toughness. No crybabies here. Bump your head? Sit in the sun until you feel better. Swallow some water? Sit in the sun until you feel better. Cold? Sit in the sun until you feel better. Bleeding from a scrape or cut? Put a Band-Aid on it and sit in the sun until you feel better. No one stayed out for more than a few minutes before scrambling to the tube for another go.

Lunch hour featured a banquet of hot dogs roasted over an open fire with chips and cold beans, topped off with a slab of watermelon for dessert. After inhaling this feast, we learned one of our most distressing lessons: the relativity of time. Specifically, 30 minutes of time which is a relatively long time for kids waiting to return to the water after lunch.

After sitting around for what felt like a relative eternity, our food was deemed settled and we splashed into the lake for an afternoon session of summer school.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson of the day came from our parents. They weren’t giving us advice on how to stand up on the inner tube. They weren’t scolding us for not trying hard enough or comparing us to other kids on their inner tubes. They weren’t pushing us and taking notes so we could earn all-conference honors. They were simply there. For us. Every time. And when we got hurt or things didn’t go our way, they would repeat those three simple words every child needs to hear when the going gets tough: “Figure it out.” And so we did. Good parenting, we learned, is the art of being there.

In spite of our best efforts, we rarely succeeded in standing in unison on that stupid inner tube. And when we did, it didn’t last more than a few seconds, which would likely be a problem today for the good folks at the Department of Education in St. Paul.

Although we had a clear, measurable goal, we clearly failed to meet it. Worse, we had no standards or rubrics to guide our summer school education. There were no licensed teachers, administrators or aids to help us reach our goal. And our greatest sin of all? We learned our lessons on an inexpensive low-tech inner tube, on a lake.

By today’s standards, our summer school education on Sybil Lake was a complete failure, which is curious since we learned valuable life lessons that have served each of us well for decades. Sadly, many people look back on their summer school experiences and describe them with dark, angry words, most of which are not appropriate for this column.

However, I remember my experience quite differently from theirs and offer two words you may not have heard to summarize my summer school lessons: “Thank you.”

Mark Leitheiser is an area resident and teacher who contributes columns to the Leader.

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