The Challenger

Unless you’ve been underground somewhere, you’ve seen pictures in the last few days of the Challenger as it broke apart thirty years ago on January 28. I’m posting a picture mockup of how my TV might have looked at the time if I had done things differently.

I’ve heard a dozen times this week that it was one of those events when people remember where they were when it happened. I can vouch for that. I was teaching second grade at South Polk Elementary School at Ft. Polk, Louisiana. I worked for Mrs. Morgan, a principal who put a priority on “teachable moments” and seemed amused by how quickly I could shortcut administrative busywork filtered down through her from her superiors in favor of planning meaningful lessons for my young scholars.

In this instance, my students and I had followed the news and become enamored of teacher Christa McAuliffe who would be the first civilian in space. Mrs. Morgan gave permission for me to bring my black and white TV to set up for us to watch. My ever cooperative students (really) helped get through morning routines quickly, and we all settled in to follow the preparation and liftoff. The excitement in the room was palpable.

The second graders counted down with NASA and “oohed” at the liftoff. Seventy-three short seconds into the flight the rocket broke apart. Needless to say, the TV was switched off, and we spent a good part of the rest of the day sharing our shock and grief.

Mrs. Morgan and I talked at the end of the day about the wisdom of my bringing in the TV. Hindsight changes things. We both knew the kids would have heard about the tragedy before the day was over. Our question was whether it was worse for seven-year-olds to have seen it as it happened. We didn’t come up with a definitive answer at the time, but we knew we would not have wanted them to have missed seeing a successful launch in real time. We were both grateful that the children were going home to parents with a military perspective who would let them talk and sort through their feelings.

With thirty years of the hindsight, I think if I had it to do over, I would still bring in the TV. Children can’t be shielded from all the hard things in life, and I think there may be some grown second graders out there who answered this week’s question of “Where were you –?” with “I watched with my classmates and teacher when I was in second grade, and we cried together when it was over.”