I was 9 years old on January 28th, 1986, in Mrs. McMullen’s third grade class. We had one of those awful pods where five classes had been crammed into a giant room, separated by dividers. But there weren’t any dividers that day. The teachers had pushed them all over to the wall so we could turn in our seats to view the tiny television set up over in Mrs. Davis’s room. We were all excited, because we were going to watch the space shuttle Challenger take off.

Now, some of you reading this knew where I was going as soon as you read the date. Because you, too were somewhere on January 28th 1986. You, too, remember exactly what you were doing. Because your lives were marked by that moment. Even if you were personally unaffected by the deaths of the six astronauts and one courageous school teacher, you knew its significance. Your life was thereafter identified by ‘before’ and ‘after’ the explosion. And in recalling that moment, you doubtless recalled other such moments of demarcation, some personal, some very public. JFK’s death. Elvis’s. Nixon’s resignation. The assassination attempt on Reagan. September 11th 2011.

Without prompting, I can tell you that I sat in the middle pod, that even though the teachers closed the curtains, I could barely see the TV because the sun glared through the window right behind it, and that I knew exactly what had happened when the shuttle broke apart, even though they turned down the sound right away. We only watched for a few minutes after that. The principal said something unmemorable over the loudspeaker, the dividers went back up, and we tried to have a normal rest of the day. Except that normal had shifted in a way all of us could feel.

My kids were both born to a post 9/11 world. And so far no disaster has shaken either of their roots to the point of memory. Although Caroline was alive during hurricane Katrina, she was two, and we lived in Lexington, Kentucky. Her preschool class gave all their tzedakah money to the survivors, and she understood what happened at the time, but she doesn’t remember it. And several events in both of my kids’ childhoods have changed them, but they are all personal events, rather than public ones. So they do not yet share with their friends, or even each other, a point of before and after when normal became something else. But it will come. And when it does it will mark us as a family. It will mark us again as a nation.


*Caroline attended Gan Shalom Preschool at the Ohavay Zion synagogue in Lexington, Kentucky. I can’t say enough wonderful things about the program. Among other things, the kids collected tzedakah money, money for charity, and used it to send help those in need.

That’s nice, Jessie, but now I’m distracted. Take me back to where I was.

This post is for the Write On Edge Surprise Prompt featuring a desolately beautiful shuttle launch photo. That pictures is actually from 1999, but I thought immediately of 1986. I have not yet read the other submissions, but I fully expect to see a lot of Challenger memories, because it is January, and because most of us are old enough to remember.


24 thoughts on “Challenger

  1. Love your take one this prompt. I read the first sentence and thought, “That was the day the Shuttle exploded.” I was in 6th grade (eleven) driving back from Chicago. The Bears had just won the Superbowl. We ended up staying in a hotel so to winter weather. The car was a blue Chevy. I will never forget that moment. Though I didn’t understand it then.

    • Our teacher had pumped it so much that we all understood what had just happened. One of the teachers started to cry, and she kept trying to hide it from us students, but couldn’t do it.

  2. Poignant response to this prompt, Jessie. When the assistant principal came on the intercom at my school to announce the explosion, we really thought it was a prank. I watched the news reels so many times that I can still see that image as if it were happening in front of me.

    • It was a surreal moment – as all such moments are, I guess. I think the thing about such tragedies, the one that makes them stick, is that so many people believed they were impossibilities.

  3. This is exactly what I wrote about. It was my first before/after moment. In 2006 I took an Adult Development class during my grad school for education administration. One activity we did was to break up the class into generational groups, each group was asked to write down pivotal moments in history that they all shared and remembered – I suppose we could have defined them as the before/after moments of our lives. I was in the second youngest generation group. We were the only ones (there were either four or five groups in total, I don’t remember exactly) that mentioned the Challenger explosion. The younger group was too young to remember it and the older groups said it was shadowed over by the other events in their lives. The oldest group commented, “That was barely a blip.” What we discovered is that for our group it was our first before/after moment, so although we knew of JFK, the Vietnam war, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Holocaust, and we all lived through 9/11, the Challenger was the first.

    Your post gives me pause because I hate to think that our children have to face a moment like these, but I suppose that is the reality of our existence…

    • I was very young when John Hinkley Jr. shot Reagan. I remember the news on our black and white kitchen TV, and I remember my parents talking about it. But it didn’t really register for me what had happened. I wasn’t changed by that in the way I was by the Challenger.

  4. The Challenger disaster is one of the BIG bullet points in my life. I was a 20 something mom and my workplace came to a standstill as we gathered round a TV and watched the coverage. This was one of my reactions to the picture as well. I’m glad you commemorated the event with your posts. Important. Life Changing.

  5. While the Reagan shooting was something that my grade 8 or 9 history teacher made a big deal by rolling a tv into our (Canadian) classroom, it was the downing of a Korean Airliner in the mid 80s that marked a shift for me. My father at the time was big into the peace movement (and no nukes), I think there was a woman he was pursuing or some such thing. Anyway, I was dragged along to the walks and talks, and had a heightened awareness of the dangers of the world.

    I was at summer camp, I am still trying to figure out how I found out about the incident, which was likely more of a blip than I made it. I was pretty sure that a nuclear war would begin at any moment.

    Weird thing is, bigger things have happened before and after that event, including the shuttle which I remember being sickened over, especially for the teacher that was aboard, and her students who were so suddenly changed forever too.

    Great piece of writing. I can’t wait to read more …

    • I think it has to do with what you realize about the event. Those people died suddenly. Anyone can die suddenly. The world is so big, and we are so small. I can totally see how the Korean airliner would have bugged you. Air disasters are traumatic because, among other things, they so rarely leave survivors.

  6. I remember where I was too. I was in 9th grade (I’m so ancient, LOL) and we went silent. There was a morbid sense of silence the rest of the day too.

    • We were pretty quiet, too. Our teacher eventually just read to us that afternoon to distract us. It’s hard when there’s absolutely nothing to say. And really, what could be said was already being spoken, so there was this empty place where all of us in the world couldn’t replace those people with talking.

    • I think every nation has different markers, just as every generation does. It’s like the epicenter of a crisis sends out reverberations that echo so far and no more. Sometimes that distance is a national boundary, sometimes it’s an international one. Sometimes it’s related to age or economics. Any combination of factors can serve to mark a collective consciousness.

  7. Great post! JFK’s assassination was my first before/after. A friend called me on the phone and told me about it saying “A Negro killed the president.” I don’t know why she thought that, but I remember thinking “Don’t let it be true that he’s dead, but if it is true – don’t let it be a black man that killed him.” Even as a pre-teen who had never met a black person, I knew the repercussions for them would be terrible.

    • It’s strange the rumors that swirl around a tragedy, even in the internet age. (I know the JFK era wasn’t an internet one, but those kinds of misinformation and misunderstanding do seem to persist.)

  8. You know, oddly enough, even thought I was definitely old enough to remember Challenger, I don’t remember where I was when it happened. In class, I assume? I guess my mind doesn’t work that way. I do remember, though, the first event that happened for which I felt like the world had really changed: the fall of the Berlin Wall. That seemed like such a huge landmark, and it was hard to imagine what was going to happen next.

    • Yes! I wanted to be a Russian protestor that summer. We were heading for the fall of communism, and I thought it was so romantic. And my mother – the last living hippie – kept assuring me that protests are actually dirty and dangerous (and she would know).

  9. I remember the Challenger explosion, I was still in college, and the instructors turned the classroom televisions on and we watched the news coverage instead of doing classwork. Both of my children are old enough that they remember 9/11. How sad that we often mark history through tragedies.

    • I know. I was so glad Annabelle remembered the Berlin Wall, because I had gotten stuck in a ‘tragedy rut’, where I couldn’t remember the GOOD things that marked my generation!

  10. Great take on the prompt! I wish I remembered the Challenger incident better than I do (or maybe I don’t wish that), but I was a little bit younger. I do remember the sadness surrounding it, and the fact that I still wanted to be an astronaut even after that!

    It’s hard for me to imagine growing up in a post-9/11 world, like our kids are, since it was such a defining event for us. When bin Laden was killed, I was watching the news coverage with my hubby, and he pointed out that most of the GWU kids in the crowd gathering outside the White House were young children at the time of the attacks. That just about blew my mind.

    • A decade IS such a long time. For a little while, I thought Bin Laden’s death might be that first thing that marked my kids’ lives, but it passed in a couple of weeks of discussion.

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