The Last Day of School and Other Sighs of Relief

Every so often something happens that feels like a great weight has been lifted off of some important body part.

The end of war, as in the famous Times Square VJ Day photo of Alfred Eisenstaedt, produced just that giddy, “it’s good to be alive” combination of gratitude, joy, relief, and abandon. In the spontaneous madness of public celebration, the sailor sweeps a nurse unknown to him into his arms.

I dare say that the U.S.A. probably hasn’t experienced anything quite like that shared moment since World War II ended in 1945.

But most of us born after that event probably know some smaller examples of the same feeling from our post-war childhood.

Remember the last day of school when you were young? In the Chicago Public School system, the final day was always curtailed. And as the seconds of the shortened day counted off, all you could think about was how the vast expanse of summer time (“when the livin’ is easy,” as Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess told us) lay ahead.

Imagine, over two months (until the day after Labor Day) without the classroom grind!

Amusement park rides, ball games (played and watched), movies, swimming, TV, catching fire flies, trading baseball cards, and sleeping late all beckoned. And, best of all, no homework, no tests, just about no responsibilities.

When I was very small, I’d actually imagined something even better. I don’t recall my age, but I must have been about seven. It was the foggiest day ever. One could see perhaps only a quarter of a block ahead and the world became this mysterious, fantastical, enshrouded place that looked like a different planet than I had inhabited the day before.

And somehow, on the 15 minute walk from Talman Avenue to Jamieson School, I got the idea in my head that perhaps, just perhaps, my school had disappeared! Minnie Mars Jamieson School still occupies about 2/3 of a square city block in the Budlong Woods neighborhood of Chicago’s northwest side. It is three stories high — all bricks and mortar and intimidation.

But still, if I couldn’t see it, surely it wasn’t there. It didn’t occur to me that all the other befogged buildings on the walk to school were coming into view once I got close enough to them. I didn’t consider what it might have taken to raze the gigantic edifice quietly over night. And sure enough, as soon as I got close, the structure rose up before me and looked down on me, as if to say, “Not so fast, buster. You can’t get out of school that easily. I’ve been here since 1937 and I’m always going to be here. Get used to it.”

No, reality could not be escaped. And, as if to counterbalance the relief I felt on school’s last day each year, the business world concocted a dreaded campaign to suck the life out of the last few weeks of “freedom” one experienced at the end of summer.

Even today it is called by the same name: THE BACK TO SCHOOL SALE.

It seemed to me that all of the stores except for those selling food and tires must have come together in some secret meeting place with the following agenda:

Those kids seem altogether too happy. They are enjoying their time off too much. How can we bring them down to earth?

I’d like to meet the now, undoubtedly long-dead genius who answered that question. The guy who got all the other retailers to promise that they would create gigantic billboards and store signs, employ men wearing sandwich boards, run newspaper and magazine ads, and create radio and TV commercials that would, at precisely the same moment on August 1st, make it impossible for any kid in America to completely enjoy his last month of liberty.

The ads and signs seemed to count-off the days on your stay of execution: 25, 24, 23…tick, tick, tick, 13, 12, 11…tick, tick, tick, 3, 2, 1.


If you recall James Cagney or some other movie actor going to pieces as he walked down death-row to the electric chair, then you have some idea of what this felt like even if you never went to school a day in your life.

“Oh, no, not that, anything but that!”

It was only many years later, when I became a college professor, that I began to realize that the teachers probably felt as bad about the end of summer as the kids.

But, as I think about it, in the nostalgic after-glow of a long-departed youth, its hard not to be grateful for that joyous end-of-school, end-of-war, sense of relief that still visits me from time to time.

Yes, I get the back-to-school feeling on occasion as well. But it seems more manageable now, easier to accept.

It’s almost spring now. Think Frederic Delius’s achingly beautiful, six-minute tone poem, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. And, to greet the summer we have the first movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony #3, the movement he called “Summer Marches In.”

The end of the school year is near.

The world is full of delight.

Enjoy the small pleasures.

The top image is card stencil spray paint from a photocopy of the famous VJ day image by Alfred Eisenstaedt sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second photo is Hydrocarbon fog.jpg by Cambridge Bay Weather. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.