I’d like to talk about one of the worst days of my life. Seven people died on that day, but I didn’t know any of them. Yes, it was a day that affected millions of people. It happened back in the days before the Internet and cellphones, so most of the country heard about it on the radio, newspaper headlines in huge letters, or co-workers’ horrified faces. Me, I saw the seven people die in real time, right as it happened, live on TV — alone in a room with 25 little children.
I was a young and inexperienced second grade teacher, but this year I was teaching third grade. The school liked the way I’d taught these children the year before, and I was grateful that they asked me to teach these same children again as they entered the third grade. On January 28th 1986, like a lot of classrooms across the country, we’d had a TV put in the room so we could watch a schoolteacher blast off into outer space with astronauts. It was going to be scientific, rousing, special…cool. That’s the way I spoke about it with my kids. We talked abut outer space, about the honor of a regular ole schoolteacher like me, Christa McAuliffe, was given to be able to join astronauts in the Space Shuttle Challenger. That morning, like I did every day, I did all I could to get the children excited about the world, curious and inspired. We were all worked up — me, the children, the TV broadcasters — as we prepared for the countdown and the spectacular take-off. Then it happened.
My initial shock and horror were immediately overtaken by my responsibility to the young hearts and minds around me. On other days, some were angels, some were rascals, but every single day they were my vulnerable charges and I had to immediately shake off my stunned grief and quickly figure out how to help and heal these children. Some were screaming. Some were sobbing. Most sat in confused disbelief.
The children saw what happened. All of us knew what the explosion meant. The first thing I did was gather us in a circle. We pushed the desks to the wall and all pulled our chairs in a circle. I drew the children who were crying to sit close to me. I said let’s all be quiet together. Not like a game, or a challenge, but an invitation to togetherness and a shared experience. We all looked around at each other. I wanted them to know their teacher and a grown-up shared their horror, surprise and sadness. We all experienced that we all shared the experience. I hoped it might be the most healing thing I could do. For them, and for me as well.
Almost 35 years later, now our country, our world, is going through a stunning, grievous crisis. I am not sure what to do for others, for myself. But my instinct is to pull our chairs in a big circle, and look at and to one another for comfort and courage. I taught in the South Bronx, and all of us in that room knew that life can be so scary, life can be so sad. But the fact that we weren’t alone helped. It calmed us and consoled us.
That day was one of the worst of my life, because my little children were so scared and so sad and I didn’t know what to do. But in the end, we had each other. Now, all these decades later, when I remember that day, I remember that circle as much if not more than I remember the explosion. If those fragile little minds could morph their fear and sadness into love, so can we. We can and we will love our way through this.