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Pittsburgh police officer hosts adult short story class in Homewood

Pittsburgh Police officer Dave Shifren leads a short story reading group in Homewood every Wednesday. Some of his regular participants include (left to right) Chuck Hier, Bill Rawlings, Gwendolyn Young, and Emily Lippert.
Glynis Board
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh Police officer Dave Shifren leads a short story reading group in Homewood every Wednesday. Some of his regular participants include (left to right) Chuck Hier, Bill Rawlings, Gwendolyn Young, and Emily Lippert.

Week after week, the allure of continuous learning brings adults to the University of Pittsburgh's Community Engagement Center on Homewood Avenue. They come to study short stories in a class offered by a Pittsburgh police officer.

The short story Pittsburgh police officer Dave Shifren chose to read to the class recently was “Bullet to the Brain,” by Tobias Wolff — first published in The New Yorker in 1995. The story details the last day of a jaded and cynical book critic who unwittingly interrupts a bank robbery.

Spoiler alert: The main character Anders’ brain catches the titular bullet, and as it travels through his brain, the narrative shifts into a surreal and poetic stream of consciousness. Anders is flooded by a random memory that might offer insight into formative life experience.

This group of half a dozen adult learners listened while Shifren read, then sank into reflection and shared their own hard-won life lessons.

“I think as you get older,” longtime Homewood resident Gwendolyn Young said, “life can get better instead of worse. And so — knock on wood — that's what I find at this point in time in my life.”

Young used to be the principal of Holy Rosary School in Homewood. She loves to read and comes to stay mentally sharp and find meaningful engagement with her community. Like many participants, she’s had a career as an educator and appreciates how active learning can impact individuals and communities.

“If you become a lifelong learner and you're learning all along the way,” Young said, “you're better able to communicate and be in relationship with others in you, around you and in society.”

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Shifren, who leads the class, also comes to learn.

“If you're not learning, you're not teaching,” Shifren said. “and every class, there's something that I hear that I hadn't thought of and which I kind of try to take away.”

Shifren is a community relations officer with the Pittsburgh police. He joined the force in 2013, but had several careers before that: college instructor, school teacher back in New Jersey near Brooklyn where he’s from, screenwriter, and novelist. In fact, it was while doing field research for a novel that he explored Pittsburgh’s police academy. That’s when he decided to join the force — at 58 years old.

“So, I joined at that time for that reason. Book research. But it was so interesting," Shifren said. "What I learned in the academy, that I went ahead and became a cop and have been at it now for a while. So, that was my entry through writing. Became a police officer.”

Since joining the force, he’s undertaken efforts to increase positive police interactions with the community. In 2016, he started the Pittsburgh Police Chess Club for kids 8-16. Then, in 2021, he pitched collaborating with the University of Pittsburgh to offer this particular course. He says he was inspired by a woman he met on duty who was reading a book. She told him certain books helped her get through rehab.

“We get in this discussion, this kind of literary discussion about characterization and dialogue and plots and theme and suspense and all the things you can talk about,” Shifren said.

He pitched starting a reading group to his sergeant soon after.

“I'm here as a police officer,” Shifren said, “And it allows citizens, community members, to see me as a person and not just as a cop only.”

So, for Shifren, the impact of these weekly lunchtime meetings is twofold — they help affirm the notion that a person is something more than just the suit or uniform they’re wearing. At the same time, it provides a venue to learn and connect over art — and all the power of reflection that comes with that.

Glynis comes from a long line of Pittsburgh editors and has 16 years of experience reporting, producing and editing in the broadcasting industry. She holds a Master's in Education and a Bachelor of Arts from West Virginia University. She also spent a year with West Virginia University as an adjunct journalism professor.