The recent school shooting in the USA took me back to my first experience of living and working in the United States, fifty years ago. I had spent the previous year as a post-doc in Oxford, and was now in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the home of the most illustrious University of Michigan, founded in 1815. The U 0f M was in the top bracket of American universities, and it seemed to me a wonderful place. Many of the buildings were in the Victorian Gothic style, the trees were large and beautiful, and campus life seemed to me to be immensely civilised. And Dave Brubeck had recently played there. What more could it offer?
My eldest child went to the local primary school, her teacher looked like a Hollywood starlet, and the school’s facilities were superior in every respect. Within a few weeks Susan had traded her Oxfordshire accent for the broad Midwest: I became ‘Deeairdy…’ We went to a concert in the auditorium of Ann Arbor High School, which seemed to seat several thousand. Oh, my goodness, I thought, I could stay here.
It didn’t take very long to discover that Ann Arbor was a sea of privilege, and that surrounding Washtenaw County was impoverished in comparison, so that no one with a family would liven the county if they could afford to live in the city. But wotthehell, as Archy was fond of saying to Mehitabel, I was there, and it was fabulous. One night at the University’s Hill Auditorium I heard Msistlav Rostropovich with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, and a couple of weeks later the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell.
The town of 100,000 was pretty, and we lived close to the stadium, which could seat 101,001 people. Our neighbours and friends were gracious, generous and friendly. The society we lived in was Australian in its informality, but on a more open and generous scale. Every street was lined with trees, and when fall came there were perhaps three weeks of astonishing autumnal colours, and then all the leaves fell. Trucks with gigantic vacuum cleaners cleared the leaves in a few days. The leaf-removal was provided by a widow whose entire estate went to the city for just that purpose. Many of the people I knew were energetically democratic in their approach to problems, so unlike my own country, where we all companioned about when ‘they’ would do something that needed to be done.
And I worked at the Institute for Social Research, known even then as ‘mother church’ for anyone in the survey research side of the behavioural sciences. I found it a refreshing change from the epigrammatic sniping of Oxford, and the quality of the senior people was the highest. I learned well, and I learned very quickly. Life was at its peak. People were beginning to talk to me about positions in the US. I gave a lecture at another Michigan university, and was asked at coffee afterwards would I consider joining the faculty and serving as the department’s chairman. I was 28 years old.
A week or so before we were due to leave (I had a job waiting in Australia) an Indian postgraduate student sitting peacefully in his car out in the street a few blocks from us heard a knock on his window, wound it down, and was shot in the head by an unknown assailant. Two days before we left, cars driven by a doctor and an off-duty policeman collided at an intersection, there was a disagreement as to cause, and the policeman shot the doctor. Dead.
The undercurrent of violence was never far away. I had just put it aside as something that was not relevant in peaceful, civilised, educated Ann Arbor. But now I knew that I did not wish to bring my children up in America; I had had a similar thought about England, where the reason was the class system. For the USA it was violence, and guns. I had bought a Winchester when my military service had finished, fired it a few times at rabbits and rocks, and sold it when I moved house. No one I knew in Ann Arbor had mentioned possessing a hand-gun, but many citizens obviously did. There was such a lot to admire in the United States of America and its people, but it and they were not for me.
Kids in American schools shoot each other for the sorts of grievances that were sorted out in my schooldays with fists after school. Yes, the USA is home to about 325 million people, and it has 26,407 public high schools and 10,693 private ones, so the probability of anything happening to one’s child at a given school is pretty small. Yet Wikipedia has an extraordinarily long list of shootings in schools, and on one count there have been 74 separate shooting incidents in schools in the past 18 months.
What can be done about it? Apparently nothing. the President has said that Americans should be ashamed, but plainly the silent majority accepts it as part of contemporary existence, while some suggest that all teachers should be armed. It saddens me but, as with so many other aspects of 21st century life, there is nothing whatever that I can do about it, other than write a piece like this, and be thankful that Australia went another way.