SO WE SAY O WE SAY an Ave Maria and send the little guy off to school for the very first time. Kindergarten . . . the bunny lair of lower education.
"Always keep your receipts," I tell him.
"And save 10% of everything you earn," I say.
"OK, Dad," he says.
He has been preparing for this day his entire life. He's wearing a nice, clean shirt and some squeaky sneakers just off the shelf, hard as truck tires. We spare no expense, for this little guy is the only hope we have left. Our ticket out of the ghetto.
"Oh, and don't let the big kids push you around," I tell him.
"Especially those teachers," I say.
He has no pockets in his pants. He has no pockets because he has no possessions. No credit cards. No BlackBerry. No ATM slips. No BlueCross card. He has what he had when he arrived in the world some five years ago -- exactly nothing.
And he couldn't be happier. Couldn't be more thrilled. Not that he's not a tad anxious about this day. When he spots the crush of kids and cars at the school's gaping mouth, he squeezes my hand a little tighter.
"I can't wait for kindergarten," the little guy whispered when we climbed into the car.
"Me either," said his mother.
Now, with five minutes till the morning bell, he is ready for kickoff. His mom has his hair combed just so, parted on the left, straight as a pencil. The 5-year-old looks, as he always has, freckly and drawn toward the warm glow of the sun -- like Ron Howard strolling beside a North Carolina lake. Like he's about to go fishing for the afternoon. Or spend a day collecting frogs.
Seems like last week I was bringing his big sister along these same steps, to the elementary school tucked in the hills. It's one of those precious little places nestled in the eucalyptus trees. It's not so much a school as it is a learning boutique. No rusting chain link here, mostly morning glories and little gardens at the end of each classroom. Everyone seems glad to be here. Even the guards . . . oops, the teachers.
Today, he is following in his 17-year-old sister's footsteps up the path, to the kindergarten rooms on the high side of campus. I seem to recall they put on a very nice Thanksgiving pageant here. His sister was the only kid in her class who knew all the songs. You're following in some pretty big footsteps, kid. Sure you're ready?
"Over here, Dad," the little guy says, pulling me along.
Is this any place for a kid? I don't mean this school, I mean this world. He is eagerly stepping into a land where no one seems to agree on anything and half of all e-mails seem like scams. He is stepping confidently into a world peppered with Nike swooshes, where all events are sponsored by Visa, where religion and journalism are now based on the bottom line.
Big business is running amok. Baseball is adopting instant replay. Alyssa Milano is getting another TV show. Where does it all end? Is there no stopping this train wreck?
Where are the populist firebrands demanding a fair shake? Where's the next Harry Truman, the next Upton Sinclair? Heck, right now, I'd settle for the next George Carlin.
Maybe he or she is here, climbing the steps to Miss Price's room, with a Thomas the Tank Engine backpack. I hope so. No, I pray so.
I also hope that, amid the high hopes and expectations of this special day, the little guy and his new classmates can enjoy one ration of decency. One small kindness. Maybe some new friend who will share a slice of apple at snack time. Maybe a classmate will hold open the bathroom door.
That's how the future starts. With one little gesture. One honest moment, in a world run on bombast and self-interest. A world where the other night I paid 38 bucks for a $12 steak.
But I will send you away with this, little dude. I love you madly. Your mother loves you maybe even more. And with you out in it, the world is a slightly better place.
Now, go on to kindergarten. Run.
Chris Erskine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.