Today, the day after Australia Day and the tail end of Official No-Name-Calling Week, marks a solemn anniversary that many have forgotten: 25 years ago, the Challenger space shuttle exploded with six professional astronauts and one schoolteacher on board.
I was in fourth grade, but I wasn’t in school that day. I was scheduled for an operation to treat a hereditary bone condition. The operation was delayed, and I remember that, as I waited, they wouldn’t let me turn on the tv in the room.
Later, I was told that my teacher had broken down as he tried to explain it to the class–my teacher, at my science magnet elementary school, who had applied himself for the Teacher In Space program. My teacher, who could have been ON that doomed shuttle.
He had my classmates make me get-well cards. When I came back to school, on crutches, he taught me how to juggle, so I’d have something to do while he led the other kids in PE.
I remember thinking about what a good teacher I had, and what it would have been like to lose him. Like Christa McAuliffe’s class lost her, in that second.
Christa McAuliffe’s passion for teaching took her into space and immortalized her name forever: her life, her work, and ultimately, her tragic death became historically entangled into one heroic act. My teacher’s impact was a quieter thing, played out on a much smaller scale.
I remember the lengths he went to to give his class meaningful, hands-on access to science–the field trips, the battery experiments, the month of biology which started with pet mealworms and ended in dissecting a pickled fetal pig. I remember going beyond the basal reader to videotape our own re-interpretations of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. I realize, now, that while every other “treatment year” of my bone condition gave me memories of teasing, fear, isolation, and pain, fourth grade stands out to me as my favorite year of school. As I’ve said before in this space, I think I became the teacher I am at least partially because I wanted to be for other kids what I remember Mr. W. being for me.
I’m thinking a lot today about 1986. About Christa McAuliffe, about Mr. W, and also about myself and the teachers around me. With California sinking even further towards the bottom of the school funding pile, as my district threatens to cut our budget another 7 percent and my colleagues at other districts watch classes balloon past 30, and as the soundbites drone on about bad teachers and low test scores…
…the fourth grade teacher down the hall from my office spent last weekend baking 5 dozen “mock rocks” for students to dissect in a geology lesson. One of my paraprofessionals, widely known as one of the most fastidious and germ-conscious people in the history of the school, showed up on Thursday with an entire rotting tree stump cradled in her hands: flicking off the wood lice with a rueful expression, she explained that being in the kindergarten classroom just made you do things you otherwise would never dream of doing. And this weekend, half the school got together on Saturday for a tearful, joyous celebration of a former teacher who passed away over Thanksgiving vacation: our school choir swelled with new, old faces as many–kids and adults–who had learned from her joined in one last song.
I am thinking of Christa McAuliffe’s most famous public statement, now more than ever a rallying cry for the profession I feel lucky to have joined.
“I touch the future. I teach.”