It’s funny the selective things you remember when you take stock of recalled mental inventory, and how you can re-stitch them into your current narrative. January 28th, 1986 began as any other day in my senior year of high school. I was 15 and still coping with the half-blindness I’d acquired 9 months prior. Like most boys, I had dreams of being an astronaut, or at the very least, being able to fly a plane. Those dreams went the way of my self-confidence and self-esteem when I lost my eye. The only plus that came from my disfigurement was that my gym teacher would never get another opportunity to berate me in front of the class: I got a doctor’s note to sit out gym my senior year.
My senior year curriculum was an eerily prescient harbinger of my life and career to come: I had a writing class and a computer class, the latter I took for college credit. I also had a psychology class, which I enjoyed so much that I started college as a psych major. This class was an elective taught by Mr. R., the first and last class I took with him (though I saw him every day for three years in homeroom). Mr. R. liked to make jokes and tell us stories that, in hindsight, probably weren’t very politically correct. Of course, having a rebellious edge is the best way to get through to teenagers, so we really enjoyed Mr. R. and his classes.
One thing I remember him joking about was the latest NASA mention. “There’s a teacher on it,” he said, “so it’ll probably blow up.” Mr. R. was always making jokes about teachers, and coming from a family of teachers, I’d pretty much heard them all already. He’d tell us he could cash his check on the bus, something my cousin says today. Folks in my family also joked that the space shuttle might explode; their reason was because a Black person was on it. Whenever the shuttle mission would come up, Mr. R. would always casually mention that teacher, and how teachers were just not lucky.
Intro to Psych was 5th period in my schedule--It came right after my 4th period lunch. Senior year was the first time I chose to stay in the school cafeteria during lunch; prior to that, I’d always gone to my aunt’s house to eat the sandwiches I dropped into her fridge before school. I do not recall if I sat in the caf that day, but I do know I did not go anywhere near a TV. I probably accompanied some friends to one of the places they bought lunch, either the “Post Office Store,” so christened because it was across the street from the post office, or “Hold the Roach,” named for reasons you probably don’t want to know.
If memory serves, 5th period started something like 12:19 PM. Had I gone to my aunt’s, I would have known that, during my lunch period, the space shuttle Challenger had disintegrated during launch. All seven astronauts: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, and Mr. R.’s fellow teacher, Christa McAuliffe died at 11:38 AM.
When class started, Mr. R. began by saying solemnly “the Challenger blew up.” We thought he was kidding. How many times had he predicted it would? “No, I’m serious,” he said. “It blew up.”
There’s a big hole in my memory here. I don’t remember the rest of the school day, nor my own nor my fellow students’ reactions. My next recollection is what happened when I got home. My Mom said “a terrible tragedy happened today.” On the TV was the constant replaying of said tragedy. It got played over and over and over, like my generation’s Zapruder film equivalent. I was watching actual death on my TV. Since then, I have seen people die 10 feet away from where I stood, yet I will always remember just how traumatized I was by that footage. I don’t even think I’d seen the Zapruder film at this time, so this was a first for me.
That Mr. R. and my family had “predicted” this, even in jest, freaked me out to no end. It changed the way I wrote and spoke. I have wished violence on lots of people, both in print and in person, yet I’ve never wished something that could feasibly happen. I’d wish that the Moon would fall on the person, or that thing from Alien would bust out of their asses, or, in the case of the author of Twilight in my last post, the offending person would be shot out of a cannon. I can never bring myself to say to someone “I hope you die,” no matter how angry I get. This has nothing to do with my upbringing, so I have to attribute this in some way to my reaction to the Challenger tragedy.
I purposely avoided putting any pictures or links in this piece. You can find all that information on your own. I mean no disrespect—it’s just too much for me to relive at the moment. Still, I am reminded often. My high school is now named after Ronald McNair, and in 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia also tragically disintegrated. In 1999, I worked in Nacogdoches, Texas, where pieces of the Columbia were found, so I saw people I’d met on TV talking about what was found in their front yards. All I could do was turn off the TV and weep, something I am sure I will also do at some point today.