The Radar: An Educator's Response to the Pittsburgh Tragedy

We are honored to share this blog entry and we realize it isn’t typical for an AdmitAll post. Lauren Lieberman’s words below are deeply personal, yet also universal. She reminds us that even as school leaders, we are also human and there are times when we have to care for our school communities AND let them care for us. And sometimes seeing the adults in their lives as vulnerable allows students to grow and learn and realize that we all struggle through tragedies together. 

The Radar: An Educator’s Response to the Pittsburgh Tragedy

Lauren Lieberman
Director of College Counseling
Shady Side Academy

When I received a text message from our school counselor this past Monday evening, I showed it to my husband and said, “I’m officially on the radar.”

In the lead up to November 1st (the largest crescendo of work for an ACCIS college counselor), the stress can build, even for the most veteran counselors. But never could I ever have anticipated or planned for what it would feel like to have members of my own community shot and killed in a synagogue just blocks from my home at the Tree of Life synagogue on October 27, 2018. Eleven innocent people senselessly lost their lives in an act of violence, a hate crime against Jews. Though I did not know the victims personally, it felt like an attack on my family.

I felt the warm embrace of my school community around me in that moment, something I was both initially surprised by and immediately grateful for in these past few days. The magnitude of processing this event has been overwhelming at times. My husband and I worked together to try to explain the event to our children, ages 4 and 6. We wrote about our neighborhood for our Facebook friends, and I sat with my high school students who also wrestled with this difficult situation that hit close to home for many of them. My typical optimism and cheery disposition were hard to maintain in the days following this event.

The first Monday back in school after the weekend event, I joined my fellow administrators to talk about plans for grieving this event as a school community. And like we do on a regular basis and have done many times before in moments of crisis, we compiled a list of students to look out for, to keep an extra eye on, and to be sure to connect with for support. There is a collective radar for extra care, people we are especially looking out for during particular periods of time. We planned an open forum discussion for students and faculty after school that day and pulled together a powerful memorial assembly for later in the week. Like many of my students, I questioned my own role, as parent, teacher, and citizen of both my school community and city during this tough time. I stepped forward for an opportunity to share some of my thoughts and feelings in that assembly, a moment that was helpful in my processing and also helped others to build empathy and connection through sharing in this way. The words from that day are shared below. In addition to an outpouring of support and connection from friends, family and college counseling friends, colleagues from across my school came together in ways that I had not seen or felt before. 

The tragic event that has rocked me and my community will continue to shape who I am and who we all are. It was a reminder of how important our work is, beyond the day-to-day of completing applications, wordsmithing essays, and making sure a college list has just the right balance. The work we do in our schools shapes and builds its people – both our students and our colleagues. Coming through this time, I have a newfound appreciation for the ways in which we, as college counselors, connect people together. And as we head into the Thanksgiving season, I am profoundly grateful for many things, including the always-present collective radar that allows us to give and receive support.

Assembly Speech / Thoughts on Tree of Life
Delivered October 31st, 2018

I have spent the better part of these past few days thinking about and trying to process the horrific event that occurred in our city, in my neighborhood, in my community this past weekend. While I have certainly wrestled with all of the dark, sad, and devastating themes, I am, by nature, someone who looks for the good in people and situations. How people process tragedy and grief varies greatly. I have seen this week those who process by crying, by writing, by taking action. I have seen friends process by talking, by protesting, by being quiet, by pushing their emotions aside, by staying busy, by eating ice cream. I have chosen to spend some time reflecting on my life in Pittsburgh, the beauty and grace of my community, and I am thankful to be able to share some of this with you today.

So much has been written by others that captures the emotions of the events of this week – most notably a deep and profound sadness for the lives that were lost. For this neighborhood, my neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, this community, the loss is deeply personal and shocking even if you never stepped foot inside Tree of Life or knew any of those who were killed. Most in this community – regardless of faith or background – regularly pass by Tree of Life, have participated in an event there, or know someone connected somehow to the synagogue.  And even if they don’t, they know a place that serves a similar function in their lives – a synagogue, a church, a school. The extreme shock that we are feeling comes from the loss of the sanctity of these places as a safe place for neighbors to come together.

When we moved to our street, just blocks away from Tree of Life, we joined families, couples, and single people who range in age from student through elderly. On our first day in our new home, one of our neighbors brought us the classic Pittsburgh dessert – a Prantl’s burnt almond torte – and we realized, for the first time, that neighborhoods like Squirrel Hill aren’t just in movies. Our neighbors are observant Jews and non-observant Jews, Christians, Muslims and people with no religion at all. There are families who have been in Squirrel Hill for generations and others who have been in this country mere days. The Carnegie Mellon University cross-country & track athletes regularly practice in the middle of our street, while others care for their grandchildren, parents, pets and each other. We walk to our farmers market on Sundays to buy produce but also to see our friends and community, and we jump in when shoveling snow to help out others when needed.

If you are lucky, like I have been, you will come to a point where you have full and complete control over where you live. My husband and I could have chosen to live anywhere else in this world, but chose to and will continue to live in Squirrel Hill. Not just because we have parents, aunts, and uncles in and around the neighborhood.  And not just because there is a large, vibrant Jewish community here.  And not just because there are numerous parks and playgrounds for our children to play at within walking distance. We were drawn to the diversity of this community and the level of grace and respect with which neighbors treat each other.  We are a community of families who take to heart what it means to literally be living in Mr. Rogers' neighborhood and try to continue his legacy in the way we live and treat each other on a daily basis with civility and kindness.

In Jewish tradition, there is a designated week-long mourning period called Shiva, which in Hebrew, is the word for the number 7. This is a designated space created for grieving. It is a time to remember that we have the support of others during times of need. During these times, I have found comfort in hearing the words and stories of others, and it is my hope, that whatever you are feeling, you are reminded that you are not alone.

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