Some things you can never forget.
|Imagine what it would be like to be the first.
Not just the first one on the bus in the morning, or the first one in line at the lunch counter, but the first to do something really great, something so important, that you would go down in the history books as doing something amazing, for the very first time.
Chris was going to do that. And the world was going to be watching the whole time.
Chris was my fifth grade teacher’s next door neighbor, and our class was one of the middle school classes chosen to have direct communication with Chris while she was on her mission. We were all excited. We had sent with her a group of beans in different stages of germination. Every day, Chris and her companions were going to photograph our seeds, measure their growth, and send along progress reports on how our little plants were doing. It was a project that we as a class had planned out months before, even before Chris knew that she had been chosen to go.
And now, time had come.
I remember that our normal classes had been canceled that day, in anticipation of the party we would have once our little project, and our good friend Chris, had reached their destination. Our desks had been pushed to the edges of the classroom, and we sat around on the carpet, listening to Ms. Maitland explain all about the modern history of exploration.
We heard stories of Neil Armstrong, who grew up just two towns over from us, and of John Glenn and Allan Sheppard. We read reports from astronauts about what space was like, what it was like to walk on the moon, and to float in space. We watched a short video of astronauts opening their juice pouches and playing with flying globs of liquid Tang. We talked about gravity and weightlessness.
And then, it was time. We all took our seats on the pale blue braided carpet in front of the giant TV that had been brought into the room, just for this occasion. We all sat, glued to the TV and chatting with excitement as reports came in telling us that everything was a go. We all cheered as the announcer mentioned the hundreds of class projects that were on board this mission, knowing that ours was among them. We cheered every time they mentioned our friend’s name.
And then it was time for countdown. The TV started at over a minute, but we held our breath until just after it hit twenty seconds.
We all counted in unison. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six , five, four, three, two, one, liftoff!!!!
We watched as the shuttle took off, into the air. Then we watched in horror, as something went wrong. Then we watched in disbelief, as our principal and a few of the other teachers rushed into the room, and took Ms. Maitland away.
They say that every generation had that one moment from their childhood that they will never forget. My mother used to talk about coming home from her classes in college and being told that Kennedy had been shot. Many of the students that I had when I was teaching still talk about September eleventh, and the day we all stood still, glued to the big-screen TV in the library of the school I was teaching for at the time.
I will never forget January 28th, 1986.
We watched, glued in disbelief as they replayed the video of the smoke engulfing the space shuttle, and the contrails drifting off like twisted branches striving for moving targets just beyond their reach.
We never did see Ms. Maitland again that day.
A substitute and one of the guidance counselors came in and guided us to what was probably the quietest lunch we had eaten all year. At recess, most of us just stood around on the paved part of the playground, wondering what we could do now, knowing that things had changed, but not knowing how those changes were going to affect us.
This was a lady we all knew, who lived in a town we had visited. She was a teacher, just like Ms. Maitland and Ms. Mullen and Mrs. Lembo, and the rest of the teachers in our school. Worst of all, she was a real person to us. When bad things happen to famous people, it does not really affect most fifth-graders.
So by now, you probably know that Chris was Christa McAuliffe, and that the “Big Event” was the launching of the Space Shuttle Challenger.
Some images are permanently burned into our psyche. How we choose to deal with those images is what makes us human.