Summer: Feeling fine being free

Even now, when I hear the word "classroom" I feel a little claustrophobic. I want to open a window and take a deep breath. School was always a drag, but third grade was the worst.

From September till the end of June, imprisoned at a desk and chair screwed into the floor, facing a clock whose hands crept along more slowly than any glacier, I had only one escape: daydreams. Mrs. Donahue tried hard to toss a rope around my untamed mind and haul it back into the classroom, there to teach me the finer points of long division or shed some light on the opaque interrelationships of pints, quarts, and gallons.

When at last the bell rang on that final day of third grade, I floated through those double doors as my mind sprang from the straitjacket of school into the limitless promise of summer vacation– an enormous block of time in which nothing­ nothing­ had been planned for me. My thoughts flew out into the cosmos, and my mind expanded like a mushroom cloud, billowing outward.

Boredom was impossible under these circumstances. Boredom happens when someone tries to make me pay attention to something that I have no interest in. "Boring" is intruding on my daydream.

Suspended by the vinyl web of the chaise longue in the backyard, my chin hanging over the end of the aluminum tube frame, peering at bugs weaving through the forest of grass, I'd coax an ant to crawl up my finger to my hand to my arm, then offer him a finger on my other hand to start the process all over again.

When my dad left that heavy wooden ladder up against our little ranch house, my favorite thing to do– when I was home alone– was to climb those forbidden stairs up to the roof, crawl up the asphalt shingles, and straddle the peak. I was king of the world. What I saw was treetops and my neighbors' houses from a new viewpoint.

But at night, I'd have these dreams– the swamp behind my house had turned into an ocean, and I could sit on the roof, look off to the flat horizon, and see Windsor Castle, the Eiffel tower, and the leaning tower of Pisa.

Long after bedtime, my big sister and I would lean on the windowsill in our darkened room and look out at the starry sky, hoping to spot a UFO.

One night, we saw one. An ellipse with a row of square windows hovered for many minutes in the sky over the swamp. We tried to get our parents to take a look, but they had company, and no one took us seriously. While I was watching the UFO, quick as a fingersnap it zipped down to the horizon, became a pinpoint of red light and hovered there for a long time, until we gave up and went to sleep, confident that it had come from Mars.

In the daytime, my favorite reading hideout was the massive back seat of the old Mercury up on blocks in the shade behind our house. No one ever looked for me there, and the only sound was the steady ticking of the dashboard clock– and even that clock didn't bother keeping track of the time. The hands just kept swinging around the dial at their own pace.

And pretty soon the tick, tick, tick and the dried-foam smell of upholstery evaporated as the words on the page hypnotized and pulled me into the world of the book.

Then I was speeding along in a convertible next to Nancy Drew, the wind blowing my hair back, on the trail of a mysterious stranger and ferreting out clues even though the grownups had warned us to stay out of it.

I could disappear for an afternoon, so lost in a book that I assumed I was invisible, that I had disappeared right up into the story­ and if my mother happened along and peered into the car, she wouldn't have seen me there.

Reading for long stretches was my way of warping the fabric of space/time– rolling myself up in it and slipping into other worlds, a trick that made it easy to zip around the inner universe, exploring it like a bag of candy, rummaging around and seeing what I could come up with.

In time, the hot breath of summer surrendered to September, and as the evenings turned chilly, I was reminded that my freedom was not without limits.

But let's not think about that right now.