November 16, 2023

Dear Harbor Families, 

In early 2018, I signed the contract to be Harbor’s new Head of School. Emily was 4, Jude was 15 months old, and we had a brand new puppy. We had been living in our house in AU Park, DC for 5 years and had completed some of the more pressing home projects that are often necessary in an old house. We were feeling settled and happy, grateful for all we had and all that was to come.

On a cold day in mid-March, we had good friends visiting from out of town and enjoyed one last fire in the fireplace before spring would be coming. We spent that weekend enjoying time with friends, out and about in the city, and telling stories from high school and beyond, as their teenage kids and our little ones played. We also cleaned up the fireplace and left the ashes in a metal bucket to cool. And after what we thought was enough time, we put them in the trash can outside of our house and continued to enjoy our weekend together.

Fourteen hours after incorrectly disposing of the ashes, we awoke at 6 AM to the fire alarm. Although there wasn’t smoke in the house yet, I remember knowing immediately, after bolting from the bed, that this was a dire emergency. My view from the top of the stairs confirmed a raging fire all across the back of the house, as the old siding went up in flames. The kids’ bedrooms faced that direction, and Bill and I sprung into action to grab the kids from their beds and to run out of the house, our guests right behind us. After counting heads, Bill went back into the house, now smoke-filled, to retrieve the puppy from her crate - which of course was dangerous and unwise - but luckily he managed to achieve his task and both came back out safely.

As my friend and her teenage daughter cared for Emily, Jude, and the puppy in their car parked outside of the house, Bill and I watched the house become engulfed in flames, as they pushed through the rafters and took over. The fire department showed up after what seemed an eternity - but we later calculated to be six minutes. There were neighbors taking videos. Someone gave Bill some pants. And we just stood there together, watching, and in shock.

As the morning light became brighter and the firefighters got the fire under control, one of them asked us to walk around to the back alley to see the house from behind, where the fire had started. As we rounded the corner, we saw the gaping holes that used to be Emily and Jude’s bedrooms, burnt to a crisp, with their toys, books, clothing, and even furniture in a pile of rubble on the outside of the house from when the firefighters attempted to limit the amount of flammable items as they fought the raging flames. I will always remember that moment. And here’s what I will remember the most about it.

The lead firefighter asked us if there was anything in the house that we wanted them to get for us before they went into the final stage of the process, which would be to douse the home in water to ensure that every ember is extinguished (something we should have done with those fireplace ashes, by the way). We stood there for a moment together and then, almost in unison, replied with something like “no, we have everything we need”.

After a few more minutes, we did determine a few items that we wanted them to get for us - my grandfather’s paintings, the passports and birth certificates, and honestly, I think that might have been it. But our overwhelming feeling that morning, and throughout the challenging days and months afterwards, was “we have everything we need”. It was one of the most intense feelings of gratitude I have ever felt, and something I try not to forget.

During the time of our family’s rebuilding, I began my tenure at Harbor. At home, we were coordinating insurance with the architect and builder, and eventually picking out new furniture and fixtures. At work, I was taking time to get to know the Harbor community. I spent focused time with each Board member, teacher, parent, alumni families, and most importantly of course, the kids. I didn’t need a fire experience to remind me that the people are what matters most in an organization, but I think it probably helped. Our intentional relationships, our shared goals, and our focus on what is best for the kids, is what really matters.

To quickly wrap up the story, we thankfully had a good insurance policy and, after staying in a hotel for a couple of weeks, found a rental house that would be our home for a year and nine months, as we rebuilt our home on 49th Street. We moved back in the week of Thanksgiving in 2019. I remember coming home from a Generations Day (which was called Grandparents Day then) at Harbor to the movers finishing up their work, and then hosting our extended family for Thanksgiving dinner two days later.

In the hallway at Harbor, we have been building a “thankful tree”, where teachers and students have been adding leaves to say what they are thankful for. I have two leaves on the tree - “my family”, and “the Harbor community”. It’s everything I need.

I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving as we celebrate this season of gratitude.

Warm regards,

Leah Musico
Head of School

Harbor School