Over time, we learned three of their names. Four teenagers playing Monkey in the Middle at the beach had gradually caught our attention. Two pairs of siblings - Justin, Nick, Ryan, and… for some reason, we thought maybe Ashley. The game moved up and down the beach, mostly in the water, but sometimes at the edge. Nick faked to the left and circled right and Ryan’s pass just eluded Ashley’s outstretched arms. An errant pass fell into Justin’s hands as Ryan cheerfully said, “I touched it first,” and moved into the middle as the teams reformed and Justin looked for Nick. Justin’s pass splashed into the water and after a brief scrum, Ashley emerged with the ball. So it went as my wife, my son, and I read our books, soaked up the sun, and periodically smiled at each other or murmured a low comment after a particularly fun moment in the game.
At one point, the ball slipped through Justin’s hands and hit him in the face. The others moved toward him as he said cheerfully, “It’s alright. I get bloody noses all the time. It’ll stop.” After a bit, they decided maybe he needed to use a towel, and they chose one of the older ones with a black area. Once the bleeding was stopped, the game resumed for a while until they all decided maybe it would be fun to get ice cream and they packed up and left.
On the face of it, this was nothing more than just a pleasant interlude on the beach. But then, we spend so much time in schools thinking about how to teach negotiation, collaboration, and empathy - and here were these kids, all on their own without any adults hovering nearby, negotiating, collaborating, and empathizing. They were acknowledging mistakes and moving on. They were problem-solving. And they were having enough fun that even a bloody nose didn’t put a damper on things.
One of the catch phrases in education today is “college and career ready.” Bill Ferriter once pointed out the importance of adding another “C,” civics. And all those are important; of course they are. But we would do well to keep actively in mind that school is not the only place where kids can acquire those skills and develop that readiness, and for that matter that all learning experiences aren’t necessarily structured. Vacations may be a break from school, but in no way are they a break from learning, especially the kinds of learning that naturally happen in families and friendships.I turned back to my book, The Summer of Letting Go by Gae Polisner. The protagonist, Francesca Schnell, has a summer job working as a mother’s helper, caring for five-year-old Frankie Sky, who calls her “Beans.” I was at the end of the chapter where they go to the playground and she is pushing him around one of those human-powered merry-go-rounds. He throws his head back, closes his eyes, and sticks out his tongue, tasting the wind. He begs her to jump on, and she “[works] to gain speed, faster and faster until I’m running like mad, then jump on next to him and throw my own head back in the wind. I stick my tongue out like he did. / ‘Is it good, Beans?’ he asks. / ‘Yes, Frankie. It’s really, really good.’” I set the book down, close my eyes and feel the warm ocean breeze against my skin. Surrounded by my family, I drift gently to sleep.