There was a time when a neighbourhood school was more than a place you simply went for classes and drudgery, when it was more than a place of fear.

My own boyhood experience was that we kids would go to school after hours and on weekends to – imagine – play, say, baseball on a Saturday morning or, in the winter, hockey on the rink that my Grade 6 teacher, Mr. Chamberlain, had flooded just outside the row of windows where even the good students would look out to daydream.

It was a time when kids got to school every morning by, imagine this, themselves, but when the doors were always open to parents, especially for events like its annual Fun Fair.

Long after I left that little Canadian school, aptly named Maple Crest, in summer holiday months I’d often return with a basketball in hand to shoot hoops. The place always felt that inviting.

Yesterday I went to register my kids in their Hamilton school, the neighbourhood school they attend for two months a year.

They had to buzz me in.

This is a school where they actually remove the outdoor basketball nets  — not just the mesh, the entire nets – in the summer months so nobody can use them, the school where in 12 years of spring and summer months here in Hamilton, I’ve never once seen any kid playing anything as innocent as even tag in the school yard during off hours.

Not that it’s a bad school. I’ve been told it’s one of the district’s best, that teachers line up to get the chance to teach there. It’s in a well-to-do part of Hamilton that’s safe and comfortable.

Which is why it’s all the stranger to see the new norm, even during the school day, is that the place is locked.

“I see the school now has controlled access,” I said to the principal when I spoke to him of other things.

He said the province had made money available for the new system and he didn’t know why schools across Ontario wouldn’t take advantage of it. If the money is free, spend it.

In the next breath, he then said it likely all resulted from the murder of kids at Sandy Hook, CT some time ago, but he felt the new system didn’t make a difference anyway – “if someone wants to get in to do something like that, they will.”

Huh. Sad.

Sad because of such unfounded fears.

This school really does have the potential to be a fine neighbourhood hub, a bit of a throwback to yesteryear when children lived far more emotionally healthy lives, the sort of place that could be like Maple Crest, a meeting place for children of the community where memories could go far beyond just books and classwork.

My own kids can walk out our front door and be in the playground in a few minutes (unlike our 8-month-a-year African experience where we’re up before the sun and on the road by 7 to get the kids in their school seats by 8).

But it’s not a playground. It’s just where you go to wait to get into a building that locks the world out and locks you in until the end of the day when the bell rings and you leave with relief, happy you don’t have to return, that you can get as far away as possible, at least until the next day.

Because this, after all, is what the school is telling the kids to do. Run. Run. Run far away.