Being busy has become a status symbol. Why or when this became a thing is beyond me.
I know it wasn’t a thing before or after my dad died. Elementary school was an 8-to-3 deal. I don’t remember having anything that could be defined as extracurricular beyond taking off my school clothes, putting on my play clothes and screwing around being all free-range kid until dinner…which was around the table.
Middle school was an 8:30-to-3:30 deal. There were a few sports teams that practiced the last hour of the school day but you had to be finished in time to catch the bus so it never ran long. I took guitar for an hour per week from a guy who just tabbed out Kiss songs and showed me the chords. Still mostly free-range on most days.
Even high school ended practices by 4:30pm or so. Again, practice started during the last period of the day and a two-and-a-half hour practice is good enough for any sport. You could also be a part of several clubs if you wanted which all had a special schedule to accommodate during the school day twice per month. I’m not much of a joiner so I stayed in homeroom during that time because the skirts of Angie Mahan and Tracy McCarver needed to be chased. Mostly we weren’t good at that and played paper football.
Our coaches and teachers knew we had part-time jobs and church stuff and family deals going on so homework was pretty limited. Oh, and being an average high school player with average high school grades was okay. There was little belief that any of us would get scholarships in the sports we played. Except for baseball. We kicked ass at that.
And summer? Don’t even get me started. We actually got bored when Little League ended on MEMORIAL DAY weekend with a tournament. If you made the All-Star team you played in a couple of tournaments if you kept winning, but those were done by mid-June. We got bored. A lot.
But now? Kids are warp speed…and so are parents.
School seems to start with extracurricular practices/meetings at 6:30am. In my community it’s pretty common to see the high schoolers practicing until dinner and sometimes even beyond.
Homework seems never ending…despite rampant grade inflation. I read the other day where in 1980, 7% of students made the “A” honor roll. Today: 41%. In our state, there’s pretty intense pressure to land in the top 10% of your graduating class get some sort of guarantee into the state schools.
Most kids choose a sport or area of focus before high school. They spend most afternoons working towards extreme excellence in their chosen thing. There are private volleyball coaches, music lessons, meetings, games or whatever until well after dinner. The folks who eat family dinner at home are few & far between. Parents are on the go in the SUV to make most of those things happen or support their kid as it’s happening.
Weekends and summer? There are SAT teams. Tournaments. Private lessons. Tutoring. Vacations revolve around whatever “voluntary” practices or meetings teachers/coaches impose (if you don’t go, you will volunteer to sit the bench). Instead of 3 months of vacation time it shrinks to about six weeks as the year ends later and you have to be back first of August to excel. I don’t know of many kids who have jobs. Busy creeps into those times, too.
I just focused on the kid side of things here. We all know that work weeks are expected to be in the 50-55 hour per week range. My grandfather was a big deal for a major U.S. company and he was 9 to 5, Monday-Friday…and my suspicion is the three martini lunch was a thing too. And parenting back then wasn’t as fully engaged as it is now. There were blocks of time where my mom had no real idea where we were.
All those involvements keep you connected to people, too. We try to cram family time into those engagements. We’re at warp speed. Together. We don’t even slow down for church gathering. It’s just another thing on the schedule…and stats show most folk attends weekly service twice per month these days. We’re surrounded by people during most all that time.
And now, we’re connected even when we’re disconnected. Phones and social media and stuff.
Now, don’t think this is some scorching case of “good-old-days” syndrome, though. I’m not pining for some return to a Deep South catching lightning bugs in a jar way of living. That lifestyle had some major league drawbacks for sure. What I’m highlighting is the reality that there are some unintended consequences of
But as a latchkey kid, you learn a few things when you’re alone as much as I was…sometimes four hours a day after school/extracurricular stuff. Weekends could be from Friday night to Sunday night with nothing on the agenda for me.
And there are some things you learn from being alone and disconnected. Some very good things, too.
Like, I learned to be self-sufficient. There were a lot of things that you had figure out on your own. If poster board were needed for a project, well, mom isn’t home so you’d better figure out a way to go get it. Dinner was done by reading the back of the box or on the label somewhere. Hey, Mr. Stokes, can you show me how to patch my bike tire? Lawnmower needs a new spark plug so you use about 43 tools before you figure out which one fits and/or works and take it to the hardware store.
Sure, there was an awful lot of trial and error (ever been shocked trying to replace a car battery?) but you figured it out.
There were a couple of bonus off-shoots of being self-sufficient: You develop an adventurous spirit of sorts…you give it the old college try and then deal with the failure. Mr. Stokes also had to help me put a dishwasher back together once. But I tried to figure it out before I realized I was in way, way, way over my head.
Also, self-confidence. After a few wins you begin to believe you can do it. You may have to make a phone call to finish the job but you start by saying, “I got this.”
Second, when you’re alone you tend to get creative. There wasn’t anyone around to play these sports board games I had where the dice rolls re-created the on-field performance of players and teams. So, you devised rules so the teams could compete and you could coach both teams.
Or maybe you didn’t have anyone to work on your pitching, so you rigged up some rope and hung a quilt over it, stole a milk crate from behind Western Supermarket and poached tennis balls hit over the fence from the country club (about four miles away via bike). You then could throw about 40 pitches into the quilt from 60’ 6”, pick them up and put them back in the crate and repeat the process. As an aside, your mom will lecture you about the duct-tape strike zone and mud splatters on the quilt Nana made like 25 years ago.
And I engaged in the arts. Granted, it wasn’t like I was listening to Vivaldi or Ravel in the afternoons or reading Hemmingway or whatever. But I listened to a lot of music when I was by myself. I read a lot of books (Stephen King and Edgar Allen Poe were big) when I was by myself. I wrote a lot, too. Sometimes in journals. Sometimes giving short stories a whirl, too.
Lastly, I learned that being alone keeps you centered.
What I mean is that I was surrounded by people all day from 8am to 3pm. Surrounded by their ideas and thoughts and whatever current events and such. When you come home you have to deal with the thoughts in your own brain. You have to figure out what you believe and why you believe it…or if you believe it.
You develop the ability to be honest with yourself because there isn’t anyone else to be honest to, with, or about. You develop a way of looking at the world that is uniquely your own because you have time process.
You kind of grow into yourself. You become okay with living in your own skin.
I’m convinced that the busyness and accompanying social demands are part of the reason people have lost their minds. Why these are valued is beyond me.
Being alone helped me find mine.