Here it is near the middle of July already. It’s almost time to start looking in the closet for the winter clothes, except that here in Minnesota we really never put them away as my family did back in our Illinois days, when winter arrived December 20 and was long gone by balmy Easter Sunday. The climate near the nation’s midsection is a good deal different than up here near the border. It’s interesting to note differences and changes. For instance, were there more clothes moths in the ’50s, or back then was there simply more clothing of the moth chow sort? We had closets and chests reeking of mothballs, a thing you don’t need to bother about with synthetics or treated fabrics. I’d guess the modern clothing era has rung in tough times for the makers of moth balls.

It’s also funny how changes creep up on us. I wonder right now how many of you gave a thought to moth balls even once in the past decade. I’d suppose not many. In another generation, an innocent observation about the scent of moth balls might bring censure as a pornographic comment. Things from one era get swept to oblivion in another. Try asking for the nearest furrier’s vault or request having the points changed on your late model car. See what response you’ll get. It’s not that long ago that middle-class women took their furs to a furrier for summer storage, and not very long ago their husbands had the plugs changed on the car with similar seasonal regularity.
Change happens, and quite often we neither make much note of it nor recognize its potential for reorganizing our lives. The recent tour of my old high school showed more changes than I was aware would be needed. Who’d think the sinks, tables, gas burner fixtures, etc. of a chemistry lab could be especially outdated and in need of replacement? Who’d think redoing a lab could turn super costly if you threw in the word “asbestos” to add hazard abatement to the price tag? Workers breathing regulated air delivered to them in containment suits are a response (some say an overreaction) to casual practice (some say negligence) known in the past. I’d bet you anything that as a young person I breathed dust (some of which I undoubtedly created) with a content of asbestos. If you helped your father change brakes on a car, busted up old floor tiles, or pitched in redoing the siding, you were exposed. Incidental exposure isn’t same as the chronic form, but it IS exposure no less.

As for mercury poisoning, there wasn’t a boy I knew who could resist the stuff. We salvaged it from thermometers, and if you knew where to look from mercury switches. My personal collection grew to about twelve ounces worth, proof I was a lad reckless of life. Did adults warn us? Yes they did. The chemistry instructor who had us do experiments in that asbestos-contaminated lab was one of those issuing warning. Did we listen? Of course we did not. We were busy being immortal. Don’t get this wrong. I’m not saying certain dangers don’t exist or aren’t serious. They are both. But there is some validity to parse the extent of danger. Having a wonderful technology able to measure down to parts per million quickly and with accuracy does not automatically confer risk or danger at those levels.

Most of us don’t like gray areas where we’re not sure if parts per million of something mean a lot, mean a little, or fall somewhere else. We don’t like uncertainty any more than we look for confrontation. Well, a good many of us prefer not to be too combative. I’d like to include myself in the ranks of the conciliatory, but there’d be too many complaints and no one would believe it anyway, so why bother? My being meek has all the sales potential of selling golf as a low-cost activity on a par with checkers. So, I’ll admit to a touch of argumentation in my tea when I ask if you think there’d be a difference in reaction if told there was a single part-per-millions of bismuth in your water or were given the same proportion for arsenic. My guess is that arsenic has about the same impact as saying “head lice” in a beauty salon. There doesn’t have to be a real threat or an actual louse for some expressions to work, emptying the house of hair glamor the way a Hoover sucks dust bunnies from under the bed: gone, vanished, empty.

And yet most of us were calm as sliced white bread when charter schools and education choice were in ways the functional equivalent of Edward Arsenic or Louise Louse. There was a general sense of going along with plans dressed up nice with public-interest trappings of the private type. How did a flimflam of choice get the nod over making every public school as good as we could make it? I’m not saying there is no argument for charters or choices. There is. But are those arguments vastly superior to support for public education? Is it essential to have it 100 percent pure the way you want it? It might be nice, but is it for the best? Some, perhaps many, will say it is best, especially if they see their views getting the priority spotlight in the choice/charter setting. Many saw promotion of their child’s uniqueness or sacred protection of their family values as more important (to them) than a public, secularist educational plan. Just one little thing like choice can mean a gradual retreat from pulling together to standing increasingly apart as collections of special interests. Is it really a good idea for the U.S. to be so respectful of “other” cultures that we’d weaken allegiance to our own? Easing the distinctions between public and private interest is a little thing by itself, but it has anything but small implications.