I didn't write about Colorado last week. It was too recent, too raw. I didn't think I had anything to add. I saw memorials on FaceBook, Op-eds about gun violence and violent movies, and all I could do was nod my head. There didn't seem to be anything else to say.
A week later, I'm still not sure what there is to say, but I do find myself still thinking of the victims and their families as the story fades from the headlines. I respond to stories like this as a mother--what would it mean to get that phone call that one's child was among the victims? Or was the accused? My heart went out to the woman too fragile herself to hear the news that her daughter had been killed--she later miscarried in the aftermath of the night's trauma. I read of another woman who gave birth as her husband received care in the same hospital--he has suffered a brain injury, and they lack health insurance to care for their suddenly transformed family. What if that were my daughter, my son?
Of course I can't answer that question--no one who hasn’t faced that particular reality can. But there's another question that I think I can raise, even if that one too is, for the moment, unanswerable. What would it be like to face this trauma without health insurance? How can a civilized country even allow such a thing to happen?
The story of this past weekend, of course, was the opening of the London Olympics. Like so many others, I watched the opening ceremonies and enjoyed the self-deprecating humor that threaded through the celebrations. As a children's literature scholar I particularly enjoyed the segment that celebrated the Great Ormond Street Hospital, recipient of all the proceeds from J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan. Great Britain's children's literature heritage took center stage for a moment as J.K. Rowling read from Peter Pan and dozens of Mary Poppinses did battle with a monstrous Lord Voldemort. I was delighted that the particular part of England's literary legacy that we celebrated was its wonderful literature for children. And, while it might have seemed incongruous to American viewers, it made perfect sense to me that this celebration followed immediately from a brief paean to the National Health. Imagine, if you will, raising children without ever wondering if you could afford to take them to the doctor; if you would need a referral to get them to a specialist; if your child's recovery from a horrific tragedy would bankrupt you.
I know the National Health isn't perfect--few things in this world are, after all. It's a human institution and a bureaucracy and has all the flaws inherent in such things. But it represents an ideal--universal health--that, at least in the abstract, it's hard not to embrace. Who wouldn't want us all to be healthy?
Again, I approach this issue as a parent, and I know there are many other ways of looking at it. But at the most basic level it seems to me that we have a choice--a choice between seeing children as a promise to the future that we all have a responsibility to support, and seeing them as an economic drag. When it comes to schooling, this country long ago made the choice to think of children as a promise to the future, and we built a system of public education that we all supported through our taxes. We've seen some erosion of support for public education of late, but I think we still, as a society, generally agree that it's our responsibility to make sure all children have the opportunity to be educated. What use is that opportunity, though, if children aren't healthy? How can you learn if you're sick?
To study children's literature is to become acutely aware, I think, of the inequities among children in this world--too many of whom face hunger, poverty, or dangerous living conditions, all of which may make reading a luxury that's too far out of reach. The children of Peter Pan and Mary Poppins, celebrated in the Olympic Ceremonies, are a distinct minority in this world--privileged, safe, and healthy. The adventures they have are adventures of choice--Wendy, Michael, and John, in Peter Pan, choose fly off to Neverland to explore its dangers, while the children of Mary Poppins safely accompany their nanny in her explorations of a magical world. As I mourn the victims of the Aurora shootings, I wish more children faced violence, danger, and poverty only in their imaginations.