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Matt James on end of barefoot summer

photo copyEvery September, in the rain, we posed for a photo in front of our house. My mom loved it. We looked so nice in our raincoats.

We trudged up the hill toward the school dutifully, if not eagerly. For it was the end of barefoot summer. If I dig deeply enough, I think I liked school all right, but at summer’s end I would rage against the dying of the light.

I remember going into either grade one or two after a late summer tornado had ripped through our town. It was a devastating storm, destroying the lives of some. None were unaffected. In the coming years, we would all crouch in basement doorways at the slightest sign of thunder. But that year, in the dying days of August, I rejoiced, for I would not — could not! — possibly be expected to attend school this year: my school had been destroyed. Even more specifically, my classroom had been shorn off from the rest.

Someone had been listening. Maybe it was God, perhaps it was Santa. Whatever power it was, it had answered me, and this year summer would go ever on. Yes, we would have summer holidays forever. And summer holidays were the BEST!

Ah, summer holidays, when my family would pull out of our driveway with tent trailer in tow and head north in search of adventure! We made time for each member of the family to indulge in his or her special interests.

That meant endless hours at abandoned mines or rock cuts at the side of the road looking for specimens to add to my brother’s ever growing mineral collection. We would explore as my mom waited for perfect light, bent low with her macro lens trying to capture the right photo of some wildflower or another. I think my dad indulged the rest of us more than he did himself but we certainly did our best to find old violins or rare violin books wherever we travelled. I was the fisherman. Rivers, streams, ponds, piers. All these MUST be investigated. At all costs!
It was also the time of reading. The back seat of our car was set up with pillows on the floor and pillows on the bench seat, and my brother and I would stretch out with headphones and novels. I love returning to those books — The Hardy Boys, Tolkien, Mark Twain — for instant time travel, back to either our old Oldsmobile or the tent trailer. The smells come back readily: the hot upholstery smell of the car or the slightly musty canvas smell of the Scamper. Just the same, I’m sure that if I slapped my Iron Maiden tapes into that old Sanyo Walkman I would be likewise transported. (There is something about ’80s heavy metal and boys’ adventure novels that fits perfectly together even still.)

But then came the portables. To be sure, my attitude was not good — I made a poster that read “I Hate School.” This was troubling for Mrs. Sales, my teacher. She spoke with my parents and they spoke with me.

I tried harder to like school. I did love the gear: green-handled scissors, blue-lined paper, yellow pencils and my own pink-lipped glue bottle.

And I loved my friends!
 But, to be honest, I remember pangs. Pangs of fear, excitement, anxiety. And smells. Smells of new shoes, cleaning products and a bouquet of shampoos.

Smells of newness. And autumn coming.


Matt James is a noted painter, a multiple award-winning illustrator and a musician. He lives in Toronto.

Watch for back-to-school blog posts from Groundwood authors running from August 15th – September 15th. Everyone at Groundwood hopes that this school year will bring you green-handled scissors, blue-lined paper, yellow pencils and your own pink-lipped glue bottle.

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