Category Archives: Education

It Wasn’t Always Like This

Some of my silly classmates in Michigan in the 1950s.  (Photo: Ilse Jurgis)

Growing up in the United States was never easy. Certainly not during the decades following World War II. Not for displaced kids like me, at least, who were born amid foreign invasions and occupations. Whose families were forced to flee their homeland, leaving nearly everything behind. Including loved ones deported and imprisoned in godforsaken gulags. Nor for native-born American kids whose family members had served overseas and returned to a nation that knew almost nothing about armed conflict. Adults seemed all too ready to dismiss our difficulties. Parents responded by telling us how easy we had it compared to them, and healthcare providers responded by offering us platitudes and placebos. While young people these days have it better in these respects, they have also lost one important advantage that most of my generation took for granted: access to safe public places, particularly schools, where they could do dumb-assed kid things and still survive.

I remember the exact day that this started: 1 August 1966. I was an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan and heard that someone had gone on a shooting spree at the University of Texas at AustinCharles Whitman, a former Marine turned engineering student, had murdered his wife and mother and then brought several guns—including semi-automatics—to campus, killing 14 people and wounding 32 others, mainly from the 28th-floor observation deck of The Tower. An intelligent 25-year-old with a history of being abused by his father, Whitman claimed in writings left behind that he did not understand his own behavior and requested an autopsy. The Connally Commission was convened and concluded that a brain tumor “conceivably could have contributed to his inability to control his emotions and actions.” A aberration, we were conveniently led to believe.

Almost 52 years have passed since that day. And 19 since carnage occurred at Columbine High School in suburban Denver, where 13 people were shot and killed and 21 others were injured. And about five since 20 children between the ages of six and seven as well as six staff members and the shooter’s mother were slaughtered in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. And only six weeks into the start of this year since seven multiple-casualty school shootings have occurred. Including the one last week at a high school in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were shot dead and 15 more taken to hospitals. Over those 50 some years, the  frequency and scale of such shootings has increased to such a degree that no one can, in good conscience, call them “aberrations” anymore. They have become so common  in the States—as opposed to anywhere else in the world—that a recent  Los Angeles Times headline read, “Here’s a morbid exercise: Can you keep track of which school shooting was the last before Parkland?”

So common that I needed a reality check. Had our schools ever been as safe as I remember them being back when I was growing up? And, if so, what changed in 1966? Not surprisingly, I had trouble finding definitive data. The federal government does not study gun violence in the States because The National Rifle Association has opposed any measure to fund research on or accounting of America’s gun epidemic. But I did find a list that I could pare down for my purposes. Here it is, with a brief description and number of casualties for each instance:

1 July 22, 1950; New York City, New York. A 16-year-old boy was shot in the wrist and abdomen at the Public School 141 dance during an argument with a former classmate.
1 November 27, 1951; New York City, New York. A 15-year-old student was fatally shot as fellow pupils looked on in a grade school.
1 April 9, 1952; New York City, New York. A 15-year-old boarding-school student shot a dean rather than relinquish pin-up pictures of girls in bathing suits.
1 July 14, 1952; New York City, New York. Bayard Peakes walked into the offices of the American Physical Society at Columbia University and shot and killed secretary Eileen Fahey with a .22 caliber pistol. He was reportedly upset that the APS had rejected a pamphlet he had written.
1 September 3, 1952; Lawrenceville, Illinois. After 25-year-old Georgine Lyon ended her engagement with Charles Petrach, Petrach shot and killed Lyon in a classroom at Lawrenceville High School where she worked as a librarian.
1 October 2, 1953; Chicago, Illinois. Fourteen-year-old Patrick Colletta was shot to death by 14-year-old Bernice Turner in a classroom of Kelly High School in Chicago. It was reported that after Turner refused to date Colletta he handed her the gun and dared her to pull the trigger, telling her that the gun was “only a toy.” A coroner’s jury later ruled that the shooting was an accident.
1 October 8, 1953; New York City, New York. Larry Licitra, 17-year-old student at the Machine and Metal Trades High School, was shot and slightly wounded in the right shoulder in the lobby of the school while inspecting a handmade pistol owned by one of several students.
3 May 15, 1954; Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Putnam Davis Jr. was shot and killed during a fraternity house carnival at the Phi Delta Theta house at the University of North Carolina. William Joyner and Allen Long were shot and wounded during the exchange of gunfire in their fraternity bedroom. The incident took place after an all-night beer party. Long reported to the police that, while the three were drinking beer at 7 AM, Davis started shooting with a gun obtained from the car of a former roommate.
1 January 11, 1955; Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. After some of his dormmates urinated on his mattress, Bob Bechtel, a 20-year-old student at Swarthmore College, returned to his dorm with a shotgun and used it to shoot and kill fellow student Holmes Strozier.
3 May 4, 1956; Prince George’s County, Maryland. Fiftheen-year-old student Billy Prevatte fatally shot one teacher and injured two others at Maryland Park Junior High after he had been reprimanded by the school.
1 October 2, 1957; New York City, New York. A 16-year old student was shot in the leg by a 15-year old classmate at a city high school.
1 March 4, 1958; New York City, New York. A 17-year-old student shot a boy in the Manual Training High School.
1 May 1, 1958; Massapequa, New York. A 15-year-old high school freshman was shot and killed by a classmate in a washroom of the Massapequa High School.
1 September 24, 1959; New York City, New York. Twenty-seven men and boys and an arsenal were seized in the Bronx as police headed off a gang war resulting from the fatal shooting of a teenager at Morris High School.
2 February 2, 1960; Hartford City, Indiana. Principal Leonard Redden shot and killed two teachers with a shotgun at William Reed Elementary School before fleeing into a remote forest, where he committed suicide.
1 June 7, 1960; Blaine, Minnesota. Lester Betts, a 40-year-old mail-carrier, walked into the office of 33-year-old principal Carson Hammond and shot him to death with a 12-gauge shotgun.
2 October 17, 1961; Denver, Colorado. Tennyson Beard, 14, got into an argument with William Hachmeister, 15, at Morey Junior High School, during which Beard pulled out a .38 caliber revolver and shot at Hachmeister, wounding him. A stray bullet struck Deborah Faith Humphrey, 14, who died from her gunshot wound.
23 School gun casualties between the start of 1950 and 1 August 1966 (13 fatalities, 10 non-fatal injuries with suicides excluded)

Best I could tell, more people were killed and injured in the Parkland high school incident alone than in the first 15-some years that I was in school. Many instances occurred in urban areas, with New York City and Chicago being overrepresented. Most resulted in single casualties, frequently non-fatal ones. And none involved the use of assault weapons resembling the ones used by Whitman in 1966. Which is why I believe 1966 can be considered a turning point, not only for me but also for countless students that followed. And for other victims of gun violence, including the troubled young people whose ill-considered acts could have concluded so differently had they not had such easy access to weapons designed for use by our well-trained soldiers.

On a positive note, I came to conclude that Parkland could be a turning point of another sort. Amid the all-too-familiar images of frightened kids collapsing in the arms of relieved parents and tearful teens carrying flickering candles in the dark, some images emerged that I had not seen in any meaningful way since I came of age in the Sixties. Students as angry activists, and for similar reasons. Many of my generation felt betrayed by adults in positions of power and decided it was time to take matters into their own hands. Particularly when it came to life-and-death issues. Back then, young men were forced by law to fight and die in a war that many felt was immoral by a government that many considered corrupt. Through mass protests and other means, they helped bring about (1) the end of the draft and the establishment of an all-volunteer armed forces, (2) the resignation of President Richard Nixon and (3) disengagement from the Vietnam War.

If my generation could effect such far-reaching change, imagine what a generation endowed with a wealth of technological resources could do. Particularly if mine uses these resources to keep reminding everyone that there was a time when classrooms were not killing fields and that, with leadership from today’s students, it could be like that again.

 

Note: To see what being a teen in the Sixties was like for me, read my short story “Winter Wonderland.” To see why Sandy Hook affected me on a personal level, read my essay “So You Know About Guns?” To learn about upcoming student-led gun control events that you can support, click here. And, if you happen to be a young person, feel free to take what you need from the past. I recommend that you start with “The Port Huron Statement,” written in 1962 by Tom Hayden, a University of Michigan student,

 

Reading DH Lawrence in Grand Rapids, MI

Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for the Secretary of Education slot, speaks at the Grand Rapids, Michigan stop of his USA Thank You Tour last December. (Photo: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

For years after my release, I couldn’t find the right words to describe what it was like to be a five-year-old war refugee from Latvia forced to spend her formative years in the most stifling city in the United States. I thought it would get easier after Gerald Ford, who grew up there, shared the Republican ticket with Richard Nixon and became President once Nixon resigned. I said, “Everyone’s exactly like him there.” But that didn’t work since people kept confusing him with Chevy Chase. Decades later, I insisted it was not by chance that GOP Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin chose to kick off her book tour there. But that didn’t work either since people couldn’t believe such a person could exist and saw her as a Tina Fey impersonator.

Now I’m giving it another go, emboldened by the fact that a hometown gal—which I’m sure is what they still call women back there—is in a position of power as the Secretary of Education, no less. And because it’s the beginning of Banned Books Week. So help me here and imagine emerging me surrounded by a bevy of Betsys. And a bunch of books. And a family where no one even remotely resembles a Jerry or Betsy. And, while you’re doing that, allow me to backtrack a bit.

Viktors Jurģis, Middle Age
My father, Viktors Jurģis, at the time he revisited Lady Chatterley in Grand Rapids.

In 1928, when DH Lawrence had Lady Chatterley’s Lover privately printed in Italy and Alfred A. Knopf published a censored abridgement in the States, my father was an undergrad studying the likes of philosophy and theology at the University of Latvia.

In 1930, when Lawrence died and US Senator Bronson M Cutting proposed amending the Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act to end US Customs censorship of imported books and Senator Reed Smoot opposed that, threatening to read obscene passages from Lady Chatterley and such on the Senate floor, my father was starting what he believed was the best job in the world, or at least Latvia: reading books by day–at the beach, if he chose–and screening films by night. If he had to ban one now and then, well, that was simply how it went in most civilized countries.

The first banned book my father placed in our basement bookcase and I found

In 1959, when my father was 52 and I was 15 and we lived in Grand Rapids, Grove Press published an unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley and the post office promptly confiscated copies. Owner Barney Rosset sued the New York City postmaster and won. And won again on federal appeal. My father then legally bought the book, probably for 50 cents, curious to see if he would still ban it as a more circumspect middle-aged man. I don’t recall his conclusion or whether he even cared to share it with me.

What I do remember is him stashing the controversial novel in a small bookcase, one of several unused pieces of furniture brought over from our previous house and stored in the basement. Soon, Lady Chatterley was joined by John Cleland’s Fanny Hill and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, the remainder of the trio whose ban Rosset’s attorney Charles Rembar had managed to get overturned. Other tantalizing titles subsequently appeared, most notably Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue, written by the notorious Marquis de Sade.

Our conservative, Christian-Reformed neighbors, I’m sure, would have been appalled had they known that a seemingly decent man was leaving smut out where a teenaged girl could find it, but—even at the time—his actions seemed reasonable to me. My father had always drawn a clear distinction between what one chooses to read and how one chooses to behave. And left no doubt about the latter.

Still, I approached the basement books hesitantly, not sure whether reading would be right or wrong. On the one hand, their location suggested that they weren’t fit for the coffee table; on the other, the fact that they weren’t under lock and key suggested that this merely meant caveat lector. In the end, the inherent demand characteristics of all books—Open! Read!—prevailed. And I had access to more than a dictionary to explain the titillating terms that I had overheard.

Naturally, I focused on the raunchiest parts first. But—ever the critic—it wasn’t long before I became distracted by elements of context and style. What modern girl wouldn’t roll her eyes while reading something similar to, say, the following from Lady Chatterley’s Lover?

Whilst all her womb was open and soft, and softly clamoring, like a sea-anemone under the tide, clamoring for him to come in again and make a fulfillment for her.

And whilst the tone of Tropic of Cancer was far more modern, what girl who occasionally read Seventeen and Glamour, as well, would want her sex scenes served up with some seriously repulsive stuff?

“You’re cancer and delirium,” she said over the phone the other day. She’s got it now, the cancer and delirium, and soon you’ll have to pick the scabs.

In 1964, I left conservative, Christian-Reformed Gand Rapids for The University of Michigan, which put me smack in the middle of a full-blown socio-political and sexual revolution. There, I read Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus and other erotica, but that was immaterial. With the invasion of Vietnam underway and the Roe v. Wade ruling nine years in the future, the obscenities concerning me were those related to war and a woman’s right to control her own body. I wonder whether that wasn’t so with my father, as well. Salacious literature mattered less in light of the wholesale slaughter of civilians and annihilation of nations Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin had undertaken,

Given that reasoning, I could expect that those who would like to restrict what today’s youth reads would also be focused on more pressing matters. After all, we are only one careless tweet away from nuclear war with North Korea. But, as Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has said, the current administration can “walk and chew gum” at the same time. And one never knows what will attract our president’s attention. So it’s not that hard to imagine a man who hardly ever reads suddenly coming out in support of the reinstatement of censorship. With Betsy DeVos standing at his side. After all, one previous education secretary of a similar mindset—Terrel Bell during Ronald Reagan’s administration—tried to ban “controversial” books that had come to be considered classics. Books like The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies and Slaughterhouse-Five.

So, even though—or perhaps precisely because—I am deeply concerned about the current geopolitical crisis, I must speak out during Banned Books Week. Because I believe that we would be far better off if we had people in positions of power who were well-read men capable of rationally reconsidering previous positions and literate women who had been allowed to grow up thinking for themselves.

Grove Books owner Barney Rosset in 1967. (Source: The New Yorker)

Note: Parts of this piece first appeared in “Lady Chatterley, My Father and Me,” posted in 2012 while I was Online Editor at Little Patuxent Review. It also suggests various ways to celebrate Banned Books Week.