Skipping a day of school now and then is actually good for kids, says Leah Hager Cohen. Not just for their spirits, but for their education, too. (shoothead/flickr)

My kids’ school recently revamped its attendance policy. Apparently the old one had not been sufficiently stringent. Now, whenever you attempt to call your son or daughter out sick, you must first sit through a ponderous recorded message, lasting well over a minute, which not once but twice advises you “consult the attendance policy for clarification.” It seems timed to induce parents to conclude, long before reaching the beep and being permitted to leave a message, “Never mind, I guess a rash and temperature of 101.5 isn’t such a big thing after all.”

Anyone who takes in earnest the suggestion to consult the full attendance policy will encounter a 3832-word document, opening with nine bulleted “key points,” in which one learns that “In extenuating circumstances, a student may appeal absence-related consequences to the Attendance Review Panel to resolve attendance issues,” and “Appeals must be in writing to the student’s assistant principal within one (1) week of the incident.” It ends, some six, single-spaced, byzantine and frankly intimidating pages later, with an assurance that the policy “adheres to the Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 76, Section 1 and conditions under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), Massachusetts General Law Chapter 71, Section 37H.”

You still with me?

I hate schools.

Okay, not really. But must they be so schooly?

My own parents had a fairly relaxed approach toward school attendance. As a child I was pretty much allowed to take a day off anytime I asked. It’s not that my parents thought education unimportant (they met in teacher training school). It’s just that they didn’t see education as being limited to what happens in the classroom.  TWEET

I didn’t take excess advantage of their beliefs. If I’d tried, they likely would have amended their policy. But with their blessing I did take a day off at least every other month, and some of my very best and most formative experiences happened as a direct result of skipping school. These might involve taking the train to the Museum of Modern Art, visiting the school for the deaf where my father worked, volunteering with a traveling theater company, riding the NAACP bus to the nation’s capital to march on Washington, baking an elaborate pastry concoction, painting an over-sized street scene on a canvass spread across the kitchen table, or going on a long bike ride to a grassy spot along the river with a sandwich, a bottle of lemonade, and a fat library book in my pack.

“Couldn’t a bunch of those activities as easily have taken place on non-school days?” I imagine a skeptic asking. True enough; they could. Yet it seems to me that no small part of their value was a function of doing them in place of school. By designating these activities as worthy — as containing at least as much merit as a day of standard lessons — my parents signaled something indelible and transformative about the meaning and purpose of learning, about the scope of human development and human being.

By designating these activities as worthy — as containing at least as much merit as a day of standard lessons — my parents signaled something indelible and transformative about the meaning and purpose of learning…

I believe I’ve failed my own children by not providing them with a comparable sense of freedom and autonomy regarding their own growth. They hardly ever miss school unless they’re sick. I’m not quite sure why this is, how I let it happen. Have I let myself be overly cowed by the school district’s dim views on truancy? Are my children overly susceptible to the idea that missing a day of school will have dire consequences? Or perhaps it’s more that the times really have changed, that with today’s unremitting emphasis on “teaching to the test,” perfect attendance matters in a way it didn’t used to — and matters not just for individual students’ GPAs, but for teachers’ and administrators’ performance evaluations, and district scores, rankings, and budgets.

Last month, my son was out of school two days in a row. This was hardly a radical, subversive move: he had his wisdom teeth out. (Even so, and despite having conscientiously followed the rigorous instructions regarding leaving a message on the school attendance line, I had to engage in additional correspondence with one of his teachers, verifying that he’d missed her class for a legitimate reason, in order to avoid her imposing grade penalties.) But oh, how it filled me with joy, and no little nostalgia, to see how he spent these serendipitous hours. Swollen-cheeked, Tylenol-with-codeined and all, he threw himself into composing and recording music — three or four new songs in those two days — melodies, harmonies, lyrics, multiple tracks laid down with guitar, percussion and vocals. He lost himself in ungoverned, ungraded creative exploration. And found in himself something of worth.

Listen to one of the songs Leah’s son, Joe Fitzgerald, wrote while recuperating at home. 


Tags: Family

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