Back to school

To watch my son Nick find his locker and work his combination during middle school registration Wednesday was to dial back 47 lord-have-mercy years and remember a freshman who couldn't get his lock open on his first day at St. Joseph High School in Cleveland.

Frustration turned quickly to panic as halls emptied and there I was alone and incompetent and late. A homeroom teacher -- Brother Healy was his name -- came to the rescue with a casual lesson in combination locks that was kindly done and never forgotten.

That was one echo in the halls on Wednesday, still clear enough so I wanted to make sure Nick had his combination down. He was quicker at it than the old man.

Echoes aside, there were other lock struggles and school map searches and the sense of nervousness and excitement of 7th graders on the eve of the jump up. The gym was beautiful, clean and quiet; locked classrooms framed like still-life paintings in their door windows waited for prep and first bell, still two weeks away. Popcorn was plentiful. So was reassurance.

Overall the sense was one of hope, about right for a new school year. I thought about the differences between my going to Catholic school and Nick going to public school, and I remembered one of them the next day when I read Steve Haycox's column about public education that appears to the left today.

I don't recall my parents ever complaining about supporting public schools while sending their kids to parochial schools. Granted, the costs were much less -- in grade school there was a $10 book bill; high school ran something like $300 a year, plus books and fees. Nuns, brothers and priests leavened the lay teaching force and worked cheap based on vows to God. Now and then you got what you paid for but mostly you got a decent education and sometimes you got great teaching, the kind that gives for keeps.

But there was no talk of vouchers or demands public money pay for private schooling. As an adult, I asked my mother about it once, and she said it was just taken for granted we paid for public education and if you wanted private schooling you paid extra -- the Baltimore Catechism didn't preempt civic duty.

Maybe it was inheritance, but that's the attitude I had during years my kids went to private school. We still owed our public share.

That faith and willingness has waned. There are plenty of reasons for that and plenty of room for improvement, but we'd better think twice before diminishing public education. Something else was apparent at registration along with that sense of hope -- a lot of dedicated people, many of them volunteers. Let's not sell them short.

-- Frank Gerjevic