January 28, 1986.
Millions of Americans watch horror as the Space Shuttle Challenger explodes 1 minute and 13 seconds after lift-off.
It was the winter of my 8th grade year. I was more concerned with my jr. high life of school, homework and which girl liked which boy than I was with anything else. I listened to Whitney Houston and watched Family Ties or The Cosby Show, and only barely paid attention to what the nightly news reported about President Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev and other leaders might be doing around the world.
But all of that changed on the day the Challenger exploded.
I recall coming home from school and feeling mildly annoyed that nothing was on TV except breaking news reports. I never sat down to listen to what the latest world tragedy might be. I just dashed off to my bedroom to start my homework.
It wasn’t long before a friend called me.
Paige, have you heard? A space shuttle exploded! It killed all the astronauts, including the one that was a teacher!
Overwhelmed with feelings of guilt, I could barely concentrate on what my friend was telling me. Moments later I hung up the phone, switched the TV back on and watched the images replay again and again. The group of seven astronauts smiling and waving to the small group of family and friends as they walked toward the shuttle. The giant white shuttle, pointed heavenward. The gradual lifting of the shuttle leaving behind a white trail of smoke against the brilliant blue winter sky. The explosion causing one trail to turn into two.
I felt sick to my stomach, yet I was unable to turn my face away from the TV. All I wanted was for the story to be false, for it all to be a big mistake, for the astronauts to have somehow survived the explosion.
But it was true. The shuttle exploded, leaving nothing behind but the shock and grief. The entire nation mourned.
I was 13 years old … and it was the first time I can ever recall being emotionally affected by a national tragedy.
January 29, 1986
Class, today’s writing assignment is to write about yesterday’s tragedy with the Space Shuttle Challenger. You can record the event or write down your reaction.
My 8th grade English teacher gave out the assignment, and for a long time nothing could be heard but pencils scratching across loose leaf paper. I don’t recall whether or not these essays were turned in that day or if we spent several days editing those first drafts. I don’t recall if it was intended as a bigger graded assignment, or if it was just counted as a daily activity and checked for completion.
But I do remember the time I spent writing that day, and how I wrote about being able to see a bit of every American on board that shuttle … whites, blacks, Asians, men, women and even a teacher. I wrote about the sorrow of the tragedy, and how as Americans we all lost something on that awful morning.
Up until then, I never knew writing could be cathartic to the soul.
A week or so later, Mrs. Swayze announced that a small number of the essays written about the Challenger tragedy would be published in our tiny school’s newspaper. Mine was one of the essays chosen. It was the first time when something I wrote was published and read by others. I recall the comments I received from friends and even other teachers at the school, telling me how they felt comforted by the words I had written.
Up until then, I never knew how gratifying it was to have readers who found a measure of enjoyment or got some sort of pleasure from reading my thoughts.
Somewhere, among all the boxes where I’ve packed up the scraps and pieces of my childhood, there remains a copy of that old school newspaper. Every five or six years, I will happen across it as I search for something else I know must be tossed in with the boxes of school yearbooks and 4-H ribbons and other items that tell the story of who I was before I grew into an adult.
Whenever I do, I always take a moment to pause and reread that essay. Tears well up in my eyes as I am transported back to that January so long ago, remembering the hours I sat watching the tragedy replayed on the TV screen and the scribbling of my pencil as I tried to write about that deep, sorrowful pain and what it meant to me and to my nation.
January 28, 1986 was a day of national tragedy and sorrow. It was a day when I grew up just a little bit more, realizing for the first time that world events affected me as an individual and as an American citizen.
It also happened to be the day before the day when I became a writer.
And He who sits on the Throne said … “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” ~Revelation 21:5