A Monday in Pittsburgh: Teaching after Tragedy

I have to go into the classroom in less than three hours. I still have no idea what I’m going to do. I am still processing the events that occurred in Pittsburgh on Saturday.

I feel disconnected as a person in this community. It’s a byproduct of a precarious job situation that makes me feel like a mercenary. I am isolated from friends and family. I’ll likely be moving on from Pittsburgh in a few months. In short, my stockpile of resources for emotional labor was already in short supply before Saturday.

However, I have deep roots in Pittsburgh. My grandparents immigrated to Pittsburgh in the early 1900s. My father was born in 1925. He grew up in Squirrel Hill. I still remember his stories about moving from apartment to apartment in Squirrel Hill because his parents couldn’t pay the rent during the Great Depression. I remember his stories about going to Hebrew school, going to synagogue, and other aspects of Jewish life in Pittsburgh. Many of the details of my father’s stories have faded from my memory.

My girlfriend called me Saturday morning with the news of what was happening here in Pittsburgh. When I got off the phone, I texted my mom and told her to put on the news. One of the first things my mom responded with was the fact that my father attended synagogue at the Tree of Life.

As I write this post, the Jewish community in Pittsburgh is preparing for 11 funerals. Many of the funeral arrangements are being done by the Ralph Schugar Chapel. At the moment I write this post, their website has exceeded its bandwidth. I remember going to that funeral home almost 30 years ago for my grandfather’s funeral. The funeral home is across the street from the supermarket where I shop. The building isn’t an abstract thing I’ll see on the news, but a very real thing.

Right after the attack on Pearl Harbor my father went to the recruiter in Pittsburgh and enlisted in the army. He was 16 years old. He was underage. When my grandfather found out, he went right down to the recruiter and got my father out of his enlistment. Like I said, the roots run deep in Pittsburgh. My grandfather had the local connections to pull his son out of the army.

Eventually my father was drafted in 1944. He served stateside during the war. He was stationed for a while at a prisoner of war camp in Texas. When I was younger, he told me stories of the German soldiers from the Afrika Korps that were in prison there. My father could speak German. He’d tell me everything these Nazis would say. How Hitler and Germany would prevail. He didn’t go into combat, but he saw Nazis. Eventually he transferred to Long Island where he worked in a hospital. There he saw soldiers coming back wounded from the European theater.

I share my father’s experiences of service during World War II because I am dumbfounded by the current state of our country. I still can’t process it. We occupy a moment in time where killing Nazis in a video game is political. A moment where we are in the wrong if we don’t acknowledge both sides. Where Fascism is on the rise and isn’t hidden. Where a sitting President (and his allies) invoke anti-Semitic and nationalistic tropes in speeches and tweets. It’s a time where Fascism is cool. I routinely see students with haircuts that look like they could have been inspired by an SS recruitment poster. I remember last year seeing a student with an expensive high-fashion backpack with double lightning bolts all over it and skull and crossbones.

I’m writing all of this because I need to think through writing. I don’t know what I will do when I go into the classroom. It isn’t an abstract thing. It will be very concrete when I drive onto campus. I’ll see that the flags have been lowered. I’ve seen flags lowered on campus often in my short time here at the university where I work. I remember thinking when the flags were lowered in honor of John McCain that there was something comforting about it because it was a normal protocol and not in light of a tragedy. Today, I’ll drive on to campus and see the flags, and I will know that they are lowered because of something that happened here in Pittsburgh. They are lowered to honor lives lost a few miles away.

I work for a Catholic university. It has strong ties to Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. The library’s special collections are especially strong when it comes to Judaism and the Holocaust. In the past I’ve had students that have worked specifically with those collections. There are connections between the school where I work and the larger history of Judaism other than just occupying space in a city where an act of anti-Semitic violence occurred.

On the surface, there are plenty of reasons to go into the classroom and address what happened on Saturday. However, I don’t know what to do. I also don’t have the emotional energy to do it. Still, I recognize the fact that if these conversations don’t happen in my classroom, then they likely will not happen at all. A few weeks ago student died in an accident on campus. As I talked to my students, it was very clear what had happened wasn’t addressed in any of their classes. I’m tired of this emotional labor. I’m tired of the expectation that small classes mean that I am the one to address these issues. That small classes mean I am the tip of the spear for retention. I don’t have it in me. Not for today.

However, I’ll have to say something.

One thing that I could do is address this violent attack in the context of what I have been teaching. However, I teach first year writing classes for the most part. It would be a stretch. Our theme in the writing classes has been built around art and visual culture. There isn’t an easy framework to the classes to contextualize and talk about these issues without a lot of work. In my honors class it might be a little bit easier. We’ve spent the semester talking about history and memory. We read plays by August Wilson. We have talked about Pittsburgh and its many communities. It would be less of a stretch.

I read a few articles and blog posts about teaching in the wake of this tragedy. One piece I read discussed the need to process one’s thoughts and feelings before going into the classroom. In part, this is what I’ve done in front of all of you who have taken the time to read this. I can’t say that processing my thoughts through writing has helped me at all. A key takeaway from what I’ve read is the need for planning in advance; these issues can’t be addressed on the fly in the classroom.

I don’t have any advice because I’ve not processed all of these events myself. The best I can do right now is link to resources that I’ve read in the past 36 hours. I hope these resources or helpful for you.

Feel free to share other helpful teaching resources with us. I’ll update the post with any more that I receive.

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