for just a moment
we forgot about spelling
and stupid fractions
Twenty years ago (!) when the Challenger exploded, I was in the third grade at a small elementary school in a small town in Florida. Third grade was in portables then, because the school was overcrowded. They were small and dank and I had strep throat like six times that year because of those stupid portables. But on liftoff day I was at school, excited to watch the shuttle like everyone else. And being in the portables gave us a front row view of the launch.
We watched the countdown on a TV at the front of the classroom and then the teacher gathered us up in line to go outside to see the launch. (We shared the same coast with the Kennedy Center and were able to see almost all of the launches – from school, from home, from pretty much anywhere.)
So we trooped out of the portable, excited and jabbering, and went to meet the crowd of the rest of the third graders who were clustered not too far from us. For some reason, my class was late (most likely because my teacher at that time was an idiot, but possibly because we were fooling around and taking too long to get in line). By the time we got outside the explosion had already happened but no one really knew what was going on.
I remember looking up and seeing the divergent trails of smoke and thinking that something definitely wasn’t right. Other launches had never looked like that. Then I immediately began to try and justify why there might be smoke trails spinning off like that. Maybe NASA was really sending several shuttles up and didn’t tell us. But then I noticed that the smoke trails weren’t going any higher. And I saw my teacher crying.
The students were all rushed back into the classrooms as soon as the teachers grasped what had happened. We didn’t quite know what to think or do, but we were instructed to be very quiet and our teacher said a prayer. Even at nine-years-old (or thereabouts) I was resistant to hearing a prayer in a public school, but now that I think about the situation and how horrible it was and how so many young school children had just witnessed it… well, I can forgive that prayer in that pubic school.
And then the day went on. Reading, Math, Lunch, Social Studies, Recess. And it seems like those smoke trails stayed in the sky all day, slowly blowing away with the wind. I don’t know how long they really stayed in the sky. Maybe it’s just that I remembered them there all day, but I could swear that even as we walked to lunch the smoke was there, looming over us, changing the day, and all of us, forever.