Speaking About The Unspeakable

by Shira Leibowitz

There was a time, before Columbine, when school shootings were unimaginable; the very definition of an evil so unspeakable as to be in our minds essentially impossible.

I have never forgotten the seriousness with which my  fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Jackson, defined “evil”. An educator nearing the end of her career, Mrs. Jackson captivated my imagination with the detail, nuance, and emotion with which she conveyed tales of how her family survived the Great Depression. She often had substantive conversations with us about topics connected to character and values. With all she shared, it was her definition of “evil” that most shaped my world views. In response to our class’ use of the term “evil” as slang, dramatizing minor, annoying behaviors, Mrs. Jackson sat us down for one of her serious chats. “Evil,” she said, “would be a terrorist entering a school and shooting children.” The image horrified; representing what we could not imagine as even conceivable. I never again used the word “evil” for anything short of the mass murder of defenseless people.

Then came Columbine. The inconceivable occurred; only at the hands of troubled youth, not terrorists. And this Friday, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

After Columbine, as a relatively new educator and new mother, I was painfully unprepared for the fear of my students and their parents. Hearing students speak about where they would hide if armed attackers entered our school, I recognized the need for reassuring conversation, yet I had no idea what to say. I hastily directed teachers, similarly unprepared, to speak to their students about the tragic event. Sending teachers into a panic and understandably angering our school’s guidance counselor, who recognized how ill-equipped we all were, I was swayed to reverse my directive. We would say nothing. It was the best we had at the time. It wasn’t enough.

This Monday will be different. Never prepared to speak of the unspeakable, sadly, we have more experience. Since the days and weeks after September 11, 2001 school psychologists have rallied with a plethora of resources to help. Compilations of resources guiding parents and educators include: Talking to Kids About Traumatic Events compiled by Michael Fisher of Digigogy and Resources for Talking to Children About Traumatic Events compiled by Edutopia.

Our school’s educational leadership will spend much time this weekend planning ways of supporting our children physically and emotionally. In preparation for our children’s return to school, our faculty will meet at 7:30 AM Monday morning. We will support one another in finding ways of shepherding our children through the difficult emotions we anticipate. We will be in close communication with our on-site security and our security consultants, who quickly on Friday patrolled the perimeter of our campus and stood in close supervision of teachers and students playing outside during recess. We will be in contact with our local police department; who rushed to our school on Friday after news of the shooting to patrol, on high alert. The officer who arrived, visibly emotional, shared that it was his privilege to be able to be present with us and his hope that there was also police presence at his own children’s school. We will  be guided by the wisdom of our school psychologist concerning age-appropriate conversations. We will be supported by our school rabbi who will listen to our pain and provide us with prayers to express the deep emotion we experience. We will grieve. We will express gratitude for the privilege of being alive. We will do our best to strengthen one another so that we may be fully present for our students.

As quickly as we can, we will return our students to comforting routines. Soon, on the surface, school will look as it always has. Students, parents, and teachers will again be concerned about academic challenge, social difficulty, and the range of normal upsets and tribulations that are part and parcel of growing up and of life in schools. And yet; the unimaginable has occurred and the scars will remain. We’ll study our emergency plans more carefully; consider more thoughtfully how to explain lock down drills to our students; and deliberate on what we as schools and as society can do to keep our children safe. I can’t anticipate what our conversations as a school and as a nation will bring. We will do what we can to bring comfort, knowing that we live in a world in which the unimaginable has occurred. We’ll do what we can to find the words to speak about the unspeakable.

Shira Leibowitz is the principal of a Jewish day school.

cross-posted at Sharing Our Blessings

[eJP note: The YU School Partnership website is providing resources and support to Jewish day schools in responding to the Connecticut shooting.]