It’s been 30 years since my 8th grade year of school.
I was probably a lot like any other 13 year old girl, growing up in rural north Louisiana, concerned mostly with things happening at school (such as which girl liked which boy) and homework than I was about anything else that might be happening in the world. Whitney Houston’s latest song or the most recent episode of The Cosby Show were far more interesting than what was being reported on the evening news. While I knew enough to recognize the names of important world leaders such as President Ronald Reagan, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher or Russia’s Mikhail Gorbachev, I didn’t really see how what they did affected me or why I should be concerned with events on a grander scale than my small hometown.
But all of that changed one late January day in 1986. Looking back, I realize now, I was never the same again.
January 28, 1986.
Millions of Americans, including thousands of school children, watched the Space Shuttle Challenger lift-off, carrying with it America’s first civilian teach into space.
Seventy-three seconds later, the shuttle exploded.
Those who watched, whether in Florida or elsewhere via TV screens, stared, transfixed by the plumes of white smoke mixed with traces of red against the backdrop of beautiful blue sky.
Seconds passed by. News announcers stuttered. Disbelief and shock slowly turned to horror.
Where were you when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded?
I don’t know with exact certainty. School, no doubt, but as to which class or teacher I guess I’ve long forgotten. Honestly, though, if people were talking about it at school I didn’t listen or know.
I do recall after school that day feeling mildly annoyed that there was nothing on TV except breaking news reports about a space shuttle, but I snapped it off without ever sitting down to listen.
Minutes later, the phone rang. I answered and heard my friend’s voice on the other end:
Paige, have you heard? The space shuttle exploded! All of the astronauts were killed!
The news hit me as if a bombshell had detonated right there in my bedroom. Surely not! I couldn’t believe her words … and yet, as I slowly switched the TV back on, I could see for myself that my friend was right. As the images replayed again and again, I stared at the TV screen, trying to make sense of what I was seeing.
Seven astronauts smiling and waving to the small group of family and friends as they walked toward their waiting spacecraft. The giant white shuttle, pointed heavenward. The gradual lifting of the shuttle. The white trail of smoke against the brilliant blue winter sky. The explosion. One trail of smoke turned into two, before fading completely into the atmosphere.
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 newscasters to announce that somehow all the astronauts survived.
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 choose whether to write a factual record of the event factually or write down your emotional reaction to what happened.
My 8th grade English teacher gave out the assignment, and for a long time the only sound to be heard was that of 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. Perhaps this was a bigger graded assignment, or maybe it was just counted as a daily activity and checked for completion. Some of the details of that school morning are now lost to me.
But I do remember the time I spent writing, how it felt to put all of my emotions down on that white sheet of paper. I wrote about being able to see a tiny bit of every American on board that shuttle … whites, blacks, Asians, men and women, a teacher, even a man with the last name Smith.
As I wrote about the sorrow of the tragedy, I came to realize that as Americans we all lost something on that awful morning.
I also realized something I never knew before. Writing can be cathartic to the soul.
A week or so later, my English teacher, 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 those 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.
Another realization occurred for until then I never knew how gratifying it was to have others identify and relate to my own thoughts just by reading my words. Writing, I realized, was a way to connect with others.
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. 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