Sunday, August 20, 2017

Already Back to "Back to School"

Some of the school districts in my city begin school tomorrow. Some have already been in session for a week. Others won't start for a while longer. It's interesting to search for the reasons for the switch—and, by extension, the reason for much of what's happened in public education in the past centuries since we've become a country instead of a British colony.

Since it's my habit to wonder about the history in which my ancestors' lives were steeped, of course I'd be curious as to when school started for my great-grandparents. Or if my third great-grandparents even went to school—and if so, what it was like back then.

While some of us who grew up in the northeastern part of the United States may remember the official start of school never came before Labor Day, lately things have been different. For a long time. For the vast majority of parents in this country now, school starts long before Labor Day.

Interestingly, the start of school hasn't always been that engraved-in-stone post-Labor Day date. It's been an education of its own to peruse some writings on the evolution of when we start the school year and why.

Apparently, the line-drawn-in-the-sand Labor Day start hasn't always been so. The debate over start date, even now, is a "complicated, insidious struggle" between educators, commercial interests, governmental dictates, and financial analysts. And that line about starting school in September so the kids could help out on the farm? Myth, according to one article.

So, what was the norm when your ancestors started school? It largely depended on the era in which those ancestors were of school age, and where they grew up. City schools were vastly different than country schools in many requirements, among them number of days students attended school.

While I'll leave the bickering over start dates to others, the disagreement opens up the possibility for discovering more about our own ancestors' lives—and for making those discoveries relevant to our own families, especially the young ones still in our charge.

In fact, the many activities of daily life experienced by specific ancestors may reveal much about their whereabouts and their origins—clues we would miss if not willing to ask ourselves such questions. What, indeed, did our relatives of past centuries do about the myriad activities that become invisible to us because we take them for granted? Answers to such questions may awaken us to the texture of the fabric of life lived by the very people we're trying to research.

At the very least, it makes me wonder what, exactly, was the impetus for making the Wednesday after Labor Day my hometown school district's start date for my entire public school experience. Since I grew up near the beach, could it have been the vested interests of shopkeepers at the beach, wanting to keep their part-time help until the end of the season—or the whole tourism industry in general, wishing to support a healthy profit margin for the season? Could it have been owing to union organizers, intent on maintaining respect for the Labor Day designation?

There could have been many reasons. And different reasons, depending on which location became home for your ancestors.

Take this as an invitation to peruse the complex history of public education in the places where your ancestors once called home. Back in the day for your ancestors, school may not have started after Labor Day, either.


  1. Those of us who are interested in a rural area should investigate when the first local high school was built and what caused it to built then. In Ohio, I have found a number of rural high schools were built about 1920, shortly after the state law changed to require local (township) school systems that had no high school to pay transportation and/or apartment rental for their own students to attend the nearest one elsewhere. That must have been a jolt and a spur to action.

    1. Marian, I imagine suddenly having to pay for apartment rental for their students would indeed be an incentive for school districts to provide their own high schools! Talk about a jolt!

      Thanks for sharing that bit of information. I have several family members from that time period who lived in Ohio, so I will be taking your suggestion to check this out. I imagine investigating the laws of other states might reveal details with impact on our ancestors' lives, as well.

      None of us--nor our ancestors--lived life in a vacuum. Details such as these shaped our ancestors lives, just as they continue to shape our own, today.

  2. I will have to ask my Dad, I know he said they took off six weeks at Christmas time, because that is the coldest stormiest time in Minnesota.
    Here in MN the reasoning is that the tourist trade is important and they need the teenagers to work until Labor Day. :)

    1. Six weeks off in the midst of the coldest part of winter? Just the perfect time span to escape to warmer climates! But I don't think they had "Snow Birds" back then...


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