Summer is a luxury I was afforded as a kid. We got to go "up north" (as we say in Michigan) every summer, to stay with my grandparents in their home. They are Finnish and now I remember the details of their home with precision, because it is no longer there. Cedar log-cabin feel on the inside with a huge loft where we all slept together. Dad snoring but getting up early, mom dreaming but getting up later, me rambling late down the carpeted stairs to the kitchen table in the morning, glancing out toward the lake to gauge the weather. "How's the water today?" we would ask grandma, who we know had gotten up at 6 to go down to the dock to take the temperature. "Cold. 72." she'd say, and banter about what she was going to make for dinner, in between bites of toast and coffee in ceramic dishes.
Everything about the house was so Finnish, quaint, and wonderful. The wooden ducks that looked out the bay window on the south side, the huge picture windows overlooking the lake. Their overstuffed furniture and doilies on end tables. How long I sat on the couch and stared vacantly out those windows my whole childhood. How the presence of the lake was calming, even if storms rained down on the waters. The obvious sauna in the guest bathroom, and my obsession with the stove when I was younger, and with watching the temperature rise as we poured water on the coals. The Kalevala out and open on the end table, portraits of dad, Jude and Dave everywhere in their hockey and band uniforms, 70's hairstyles poppin'. Pasties in the oven, grandpa reminding us not to only drink half a can of pop and leave it out there unfinished. Promising to be careful and save the petoskey stones we found. Then, getting our suits on and being in the water all day, swimming, lounging, rock-collecting, finding crayfish and minnows, playing catch, napping in the sun, making up games in the water, calling up Kim and Leijona and seeing what mild trouble we could concoct, reading at the picnic table in the sun.
We went to see the house when my family went up north this summer, and the family who bought it from my grandparents promised they weren't tearing the house down, but did exactly that, and rebuilt it to fit their family's summer memories. The garage was the same: country blue and yellow, where we'd stumble out to get more pop from the fridge, and grandpa would be puttering with a lawnmower or filling a birdfeeder, fixing a bike or listening to talk radio. Grandma's garden was long gone, but I remember picking snap peas and weeding with her, this memory visible in the grass as we stopped the car in disbelief.
I am blessed to have these memories. I want the same for generations of kids, I want the same for all kids. For summer to mean time, sun, water, recreation and imagination, with the occasional meal urged in by moms, with the occasional layer of sunscreen applied.
But summer in many parts of America has long meant violence. To my students, it is time for fights, for parties that end in gunfire, arrests, police surveillance, intoxication, rape and death. The kind of summer that I had each summer is not a reality for so many children. Going to camp is not a reality. Summer sports on organized teams is not a reality. My summers are white privilege, crystalized and idyllic in their blissful ignorance of hot, city summers. There is lots of idle time spent on stoops, sports played at the park, swimming pools, local beaches if your parents can afford to take you somewhere, lots of TV, social media, lots of repetitive days in the park with the same neighborhood kids. There is also a lot happening, cookouts, block parties, stoop parties, dominoes on the corner with the viejos, bodega parties, tons of free events in the city if you have the subway fare. I love New York City in the summer, but it is hot and sticky, and the heat can be oppressive, and maddening, and when combined with alcohol, violence-inducing.
I don't want to romanticize this violence, and my intent is not to bring pity upon my students, who love their summer freedom of riding bikes and splashing in opened fire hydrants just as much as I loved playing in the lake all day. It is to recognize that certain things I love and remember are the products of privilege in this country, when they should be accessible to all people, in an allegedly free country. While I do have to fear my husband being pulled over with a busted tail light and the encounter that could ensue with a police officer in Michigan or New Jersey, I certainly didn't grow up with the knowledge or fear that police violence spikes in the summer. I am constantly aware of these things now, and also remember being in the streets of New York with a wallet in the air after Amadou Diallo was killed. As a white person, I have made a choice to open my eyes and bear witness to America as segregated still, because I have witnessed the duality of existence in this country. From something as simple as childhood summers, the glaring differences in race and class are crystal clear.