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(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, May 17, 2014)

HAMILTON, CANADA ✦ There was a time when a neighbourhood school was a place that nourished your soul. It wasn’t that long ago. I’m not that old.

You’d go to play, say, baseball on Saturday morning or, in winter, hockey on the rink that your Grade 6 teacher lovingly flooded outside the row of windows where even the good students looked out to daydream.

It was a time when you’d walk to school every morning. By yourself. Even when the school bully – her last name was, fittingly, Greenall – went the same way. It somehow even brought out courage that you never knew you had.

Years later you’d return to shoot hoops in the old playground. And years after that, at its final reunion, you’d walk in only to have a former teacher, one who hadn’t seen you for decades, call you by name with an excited, “Oh my God, it’s Tommy Froese!”

This was my experience. My grade school was that inviting.

The other day I went to register my kids in the Ancaster school around the corner from our house. My kids attend for two months annually when we’re home from Africa.

The school had to buzz me in.

This school, the one that removes its outdoor basketball hoops so nobody can play in summers, the one where I’ve never even seen tag played during summer break, now locks its doors during school days.

Not that it’s a bad school. It’s not. It’s a good school with some fine people. Apparently, like too many others, it’s just a very fearful school.

“I see you have controlled access now,” I said to the principal. He mentioned the Sandy Hook, Conn. school murders, and that the province, that is your tax dollars, is paying for new security systems.

But, in truth, he added, “If someone wants to get in to do something like that, they will.”

The principal is right. Which is why it’s so disturbing and sad, this boogeyman paranoia where shadows lurk at every corner, as if we’re prone to some sort of American-style siege, this hyper-vigilance that actually takes something of great value from our children – and our community – and normalizes what is, in fact, an anxious unreality.

Some time ago I visited another former school, my middle school. I drove the hour or so, parked, then, for the first time in some 30 years, walked in.

Navigating a flurry of coats and day-end activity, I looked into this classroom and down that hall. I poked in the gym and around old corners, my heart racing with the thrill of this inner-childlike tour to ensure everything at the old joint was, more or less, still in place.

Upon exiting, not surprisingly, I was asked about my presence. So I explained I’m a former student, in town to also visit my father. But I’m usually away, far away, overseas. And, without wanting to cause a stir, I quietly dropped in.

It all worked out, ending with smiles and me sharing some business cards. And while I don’t recommend this stunt for everyone, the unfortunate point is that my own children will never get the chance to even imagine such a worthwhile effort.

No, when they’re older and want to feed that important part of who they are, rather than naturally visiting the school so close to their Hamilton home, they’ll likely find it more inviting to fly all the way to Africa.

Africa, where school girls are taken hostage in their nighties and bare feet, where there are plenty of other dangers, but less fear.

Well, it’s a new era, say the handwringers. We have to take precautions, you know. Or good God, we’ll be sued!

There’s another angle, though, a more holistic and lively one that says, as a rule, in this world, don’t let your heart be troubled. True, there’s real trouble often enough. But locking your doors never works, anyway. You simply can’t lock it all out.

This is what any kid, or anyone really, needs to be reminded of in our time. Learn to face your troubles. In your deep and quiet places. No, don’t let your heart be troubled.

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About Thomas Froese