- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 28, 2001

It's back-to-school time, a time that can cause the billfold blues not only for thousands of students, but for teachers as well.

Whatever happened to a free education?

Reportedly, the Class of 2005 is the largest freshman college class in recent history. Some of them will be mine. I will be among the teachers trying to instruct and impress young minds.

Just call me "Professor Washington," as some of my journalism students at the Catholic University of America did last year.

Kindergartners from Prince George's County in Maryland along with those in Loudoun County in Virginia are no more anxious than the apprehensive college freshman entering the Class of 2005 at Catholic, Howard, American, George Washington, Gallaudet, George Mason and Georgetown universities and the University of Maryland this week.

I don't care how young or old you are or whether you're at the head of the class or hiding in the last row, we all get frantic that first day. Teachers are no exception, believe me.

I've been nervously pacing for a week wondering if I am up to the awesome responsibility of imparting knowledge in a fun fashion that won't have my students nodding off after the first five minutes. And, I've been racking my brain trying to come up with new techno-teaching tools to put in my bag of tricks to bedazzle the we-need-special-effects crew.

I won't admit exactly how much money I spent on Amazon.com in preparation for my upcoming lectures. Suffice it to say, it's more than I cared. But all dedicated teachers dig into their own pockets to buy extra materials for their students, especially for the young ones. I know of one elementary school teacher who is having to replace all her materials because she lost them in the District's disaster flood. Those arts and crafts goodies can add up quickly, too.

Whatever happened to a free education?

You can spend buckets of ducats teaching as well as learning. Yet I still believe that in America we don't spend enough money on public education to prepare our children for tomorrow's work force. No wonder foreign students are filling up medical schools, as "60 Minutes" reported, for example.

Having had two children in school and college at the same time, my heart goes out most to poor parents at back-to-school time. If they aren't poor before school starts, just wait a week.

D.C. and Maryland lawmakers deserve a pat on the back for holding tax-free sales weeks to help moms and dads keep a little cake for lunch money. Heck, I even bought myself a new back-to-school ensemble and saved enough on the sales tax to buy an inexpensive pen and pencil set.

It's not unusual for parents and grandparents to do their darnedest to ease the back-to-school schedule by spending a fortune on fancy new frocks and stuffing backpacks with fresh notebooks and sharpened pencils.

That's why those fund-raising folks who came up with the great idea to hold a school supply drive for needy students are also to be commended.

But talk about sticker shock. College dorm rooms must be outfitted with every teen-age accouterment imaginable from boxers to books. None of it is cheap. These days laptop computers are no longer a luxury.

Anybody caught in that traffic jam near George Washington University last week when hundreds of students and their parents were tying up streets unloading computers, trunks, bicycles, lampshades and other stuff could see that those summertime tax-relief checks could not have gone very far.

For those moderate- to middle-class families carting freshman off to college, it's not just the physical separation from your child that catches you off guard; it's the nagging feeling that you will be forever separated from the funds in your wallet that gives you a fearful jolt.

It's billfold-busting that tuition at some schools averages $18,000 a year. Last semester I tried to copy lots of handouts for my students, and I tried to limit the number of books that were required reading because a single textbook can cost upward of $70.

Anyone who has survived the rice-and-bean years when your children were in college knows of what I speak. Scholarship funds for needy students? Heck, someone ought to set up a petty cash fund for the "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" parents who find themselves suddenly spending a lot of time and dimes at the nearest Western Union.

Whatever happened to a free education?

There's a reason they call this back-to-school season "fall" you can see greenbacks falling as fast as green leaves off trees.

It can be the back-to-school billfold blues all right. So, dig deep. Help out a student, a parent or even a teacher in need.

•Adrienne T. Washington's e-mail is atwashin@aol.com.

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