Looking skyward

Twenty years ago, on a clear blue day much like this one, I sat in a sunny social studies classroom at Central Junior High and stared raptly at a TV screen that mirrored the sky beyond the 10-foot windows just a few feet from my desk. I was ten years old, and my fellow 6th graders and I had been preparing for this day for weeks. For the first time in the history of space travel, a teacher was on the shuttle that was to depart Cape Canaveral on that frigid January afternoon. In the days leading up to the Challenger’s liftoff with Christa McAuliffe on board, we had erected a 7-foot tall paper mache shuttle in one corner of the science classroom; we had studied the sky and all its parts: clouds, stars, planets, air; we had planned our days around Ms. McAuliffe’s lessons from space. Looking back, I can imagine that NASA’s educational endeavor was a science teacher’s dream. It certainly seemed to be Joy’s.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve known my friend Joy for 20 years. Have I mentioned that our first meeting was as student and teacher? She was THE teacher–the first whose opinion about my efforts and abilities truly mattered to me. It was my brief semester-long stay in her class that marked the beginning of my life as a student. It was then that I stopped doing mediocre work and started engaging. You might say Joy inspired me to set my sights higher, to look up. That’s certainly what we were all doing on January 28, 1986–looking up.

I wasn’t in Joy’s classroom as the Challenger sat gleaming in the Florida sun awaiting takeoff. I was in social studies with her good friend Donna, but on that afternoon the subjects had united for the event, and I’m sure, although I don’t remember, that we’d been anticipating Christa McAuliffe’s foray into space with activities and discussions in social studies as well. When the shuttle finally took to the sky we were awed. We cheered and clapped, even though no one really knew what was happening, even when the screen went silent and the plumes of smoke split into multiple directions and plummeted toward the ocean. After what seemed like an eternity of silence–no sound from the sky, the crowd watching with us on television, the announcer who had recently been narrating the event–the door of Donna’s classroom flew open and Joy ran into the room.

When I think about the Challenger two images come to mind: the forked white smoke against the blue sky, which played over and over on the news for days; and Joy standing in the doorway of Donna’s classroom. I think she might have been crying, and I think she said something like, “It’s over! It’s over, turn off the television.” While I’m sure they must have talked to us about the explosion, made efforts to help us deal with the horror, and attempted to bring closure to the chaos that was once our biggest class project, what they said has faded to static, and all the minutes after have dimmed. For me the end of the Challenger lies in that single moment, that open door, my teacher standing there. It is one of my saddest memories.

Tonight as I listen to rebroadcasts of Christa McAuliffe’s flight preparation, interviews with the crew, and the doomed flight itself, I cannot escape the image of Joy standing in the doorway of the social studies classroom. She was 32 years old–just a few months older than I am now–and had been teaching for 10 years, just as I have. I wonder what was going through her mind as she looked at us, if she was thinking about what she would say to us when the smoke cleared, and if she was so overcome by her own grief and disappointment that she didn’t even know if she had room for ours. I find myself thinking about a morning in my own classroom, 15 years after the Challenger went down, when I stood in a similar doorway and looked at the worried faces of my students who had heard rumors that our country was under attack, and I remember the dread that filled me as I braced myself and walked into that room wondering what the hell I could possibly say or do to ease my own fears, much less theirs, as the twin towers fell in New York. For the first time in 20 years as I see these familiar images once again–the ominous fork of white smoke, the smiling face of Christa McAuliffe, the worried figure of my friend in the classroom door–my heart breaks in a new way because I suddenly see these tragic events through new eyes…a teacher’s eyes. It is a profoundly emotional moment for me, because the view from the other side of the classroom door is all promise and potential and possibility, and it is staring back with a look of expectation that says, “All that I hope to be is in your hands. Teach me. Tell me what comes next.”

I complain a lot about my job, but I don’t say enough that I keep going back every day because I love the ridiculously daunting but always entertaining adventure that is teaching. I look at my kids–awkward, wide-eyed, and clueless, trying to be grown-ups but failing miserably, reflections of all that is good and frightening and right and terribly wrong with the world–and I know I picked the right profession. I may not stay in the classroom for the next 20 years, but I will maintain contact with it, because there is no more important task than uniting children with the tools and resources they need to make informed, educated decisions about the world in which they live. We haven’t discussed it, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Joy feels the same way.

When I was a high school senior Joy left the classroom for a job at our state’s zoo. At the time I was bummed that she wouldn’t be teaching anymore. What was I thinking? That was almost 15 years ago, and since then she has traveled to multiple continents and numerous countries, promoting and observing education; has lead educational trips to Africa and Australia; and has co-founded UNITE (Uganda and North Carolina’s International Teaching for the Environment). I have always been impressed by her job, but UNITE makes me proud of Joy, not only as a friend but also as a fellow educator. Her efforts at bringing together American and Ugandan students and teachers in order to raise awareness of conservation issues and the importance of education are remarkable. Each fall a small team of Ugandan teachers visits NC, and on next Tuesday, Joy and a team of teachers from NC will spend three weeks conducting workshops and visiting schools in Uganda for the fourth year in a row. Joy is proof that being a teacher does not necessarily mean being in a classroom.

Joy and I have a great deal in common as friends. I’d like to think we have some things in common as educators. Back in 1986, as teacher and student, we had the sky in common. When I look at the clouds, or remember the order of the planets, or wonder at the stars, I think of Joy, who helped me navigate and name the parts of the universe when I was just a child, and who now inspires me to be an active and aware part of the universe myself. On Tuesday night when I walk my dog under the night sky I’ll wonder if each plane I see is heading for Uganda, and each morning, in spite of the fears and worries that accompany working in my school, I will try to be the teacher who makes my students want to set their sights higher.

Somewhere in the Universe the Challenger crew applauds us both. Buon viaggio, my friend.

3 thoughts on “Looking skyward

  1. beautiful tribute of a post.
    I was in school as well & after the accident nobody knew what to do. They kept the tv on in the assembly & we all just sat there in shock.
    How wonderful that you & Joy have such a strong relationship. wow

  2. HD, this is an amazing post. When I was young, young I used to hear older people talk about what they were doing when JFK was assassinated. After challenger, I realized that that was our generation’s JFK — where were you when Challenger went down? Most of us were in school, cheering and watching and crying. But I never stopped to think about the teachers who were there shocked and grieving as well as needing to take care of their students.

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