A crisis can end what you thought was ongoing. My husband and I moved to Wisconsin eleven years ago with our two young daughters, to take jobs teaching at UWM. We put down roots here. We made the kind of ‘family of choice’ you make when your family of origin lives thousands of miles away: people we celebrate holidays and life events with; friends whose names I put on emergency contact forms.
The son of a small town high school basketball coach, my husband had moved nineteen times before I met him in graduate school. Together, we moved three more times for academic positions. When we got to Milwaukee, he declared that he wanted to stay here: no more moving around. That seemed like a good idea, at the time.
It felt like coming into something, like making a life. Sometimes things shifted as we grew away from friends, or as new people came into our lives. Occasionally there would be going-away parties as someone moved on. But the bass line of community steadied us.
We moved here when our older daughter was 4. Now 16, she has had the same best friend since. I lucked out, rediscovering an old friend who had moved to Madison. We reconnected and now text each other several times a day, frequently meeting up halfway between our two cities. She and her partner are the goddess mothers of our two daughters. We frequently congratulate one and other on our good fortune, knowing that a friendship like ours is rare.
My mother, now 80, tells me that hardest thing about living a long time is all the people she has lost along the way. I imagine her in her tall apartment building in Manhattan, the lights in the other apartments blinking out, one by one. That is the crisis of my mother’s old age.
But the crisis we are now experiencing at the University of Wisconsin is not a matter of inevitable aging and loss. It is a crisis caused by intentional political action: the assassination by a thousand cuts of the once-vaunted system of public education in our state. This crisis has been deliberately manufactured by a decade of declining state investment in public education, by legislative assaults on public employees, and by the targeting of education in a kind of open season called austerity. And this imposed austerity threatens the horizons of many communities in our state.
There have been predictions about people fleeing Wisconsin. And that is happening: people leave and are not replaced, like the windows in a tall building going dark. The lecturer whose position was discontinued; the administrative assistant who took early retirement; the professor who looked for and found a position in another state. Some of them might have left even without the war against public education. But all of them would not have.
My scholarly research is about the history of migration. I have found that it is rare for people to opt, for no particular reason, to leave their homes. No: people flee wars and economic deprivation, they depart because of repression against them or out of fear for the future. When things are bad, people look for something better. When he was coaching high school basketball in small town Arkansas, my father-in-law often had to move on after a bad season, or to pursue a job in a school with better resources for the team.
A steady home provides an anchor even for people who choose to leave. Home defines us, remaining a place of imaginative and actual return. But when a lot of people leave, when there is a mass exodus of university workers and public school teachers from the state that changes things at home.
It’s easy to focus on the ones leaving: their reasons for going, how things worked out in the new place; whether it was better. Immigration historians like me do it all the time. I hadn’t thought all that much about what happens to the people and places left behind. Now I am staring that question right in the eyes.
The gathering exodus of university and public school workers promises to transform our public institutions. Not only that: it will and is changing the lives of people in our state. People like me: as friends and colleagues leave and talk about going, I find myself being more careful about reaching out and making connections, wondering if it is worth it. When students come into my office, inspired to pursue jobs teaching history, I want to both encourage and caution them. It’s a good life, I want to tell them. Or: it was.
The human networks we create are vulnerable. In my mother’s story, mainly to the inexorable forces of time and mortality. In Wisconsin, the destruction is willful and locally sourced. We all lose when talented and committed people flee the state, or when promising students realize that it would be unwise to pursue a career in teaching.
As my mother’s story points out, part of living a long life is mourning those who don’t. In Wisconsin right now, we are faced with mourning the possibilities that have been deliberately erased from our collective horizons.