scattered memories of challenger

what i remember is all of the adults in my life going into the den and shutting the door.

that’s not actually an accurate memory, as it was my mother and ann, our cleaner, and then, later, my dad. but that’s the memory. the adults in a room with the door shut and me, age 4 1/2, on the other side of it.

this was the year after The Year Everyone Died– my friend from next door, my mother’s grandfather, my father’s boss– so we were already, then, somewhat a house in mourning. or, at the very least, a house that had spent a lot of the previous year avoiding discussion of grief and death whilst living submerged within it.

please know: this is a post with no judgment. because the thing with grief and loss and death is you do your best in navigating them, from within a culture that is perhaps uniquely hostile towards all of those things.

this was, not perhaps coincidentally, a winter my mother spent most of in quite ill health, fighting an unending bout with bronchitis turned pneumonia. so she was home from work that day.

when i ask her, she remembers she was lying on the couch in the den watching tv when my father called her from work to tell her the news about challenger, unfolding on another channel, and she called ann into the room to watch.

at some point, someone closed the door.

so what i remember of that particular day isn’t so much the historical event as the feeling of being shut out of it. its inaccessibility.

clearly, something was going on, something too adult for me, so adult, apparently, that– in memory– i put all the adults i knew in that room. in memory, my aunt and grandparents came over and were in the room too. the reality was that, with my father’s return home upon his lunch break, there were only three.

i don’t remember talking about challenger at all in nursery school, though surely we must’ve. this was The Teacher in Space. it was a huge big deal for schools around the country and, even in nursery schools, i imagine there must have been some talk about how a teacher was going to space.

but i remember none of that.

what i remember is the photograph of christa macauliffe that hung behind the receptionist’s desk in the school office at balmoral elementary.

i entered elementary school in fall 1986, months after the disaster.

i don’t remember spending much time in the principal’s office until the following year, when my first grade teacher seemed to settle upon me as her nemesis and focused all her energies on dismantling my confidence, exuberance, and love of learning.

on multiple occasions, when i would raise my hand to ask a question, she would tell me to lower it and– i kid you not– tell me not to ask so many questions because it was more important for the boys to learn.

admittedly, i was maybe a little high strung and not the calmest, most lady-like kid…

but when jimmy luke asked to borrow my pencil and i said no, it was i who was taken to the principal’s office and told to call my grandmother and told to tell her to tell me to behave in class.

what i remember about waiting in the lobby of the school office, waiting for the room in which i would place this phone call to become available, was that the receptionist’s phone had this literally bananas shape to it, that i’d never before seen on a phone.

and this completely blew my young mind, because i couldn’t figure out how it could be a phone when it didn’t look like the phones i knew.

i’ve also a very vivid memory of a fellow student being taken into another room for corporal punishment once while i was waiting there. like, they called the coach in to come and administer the strap and the probably 5th or 6th grade Black kid (because this elementary school was K-6) walked in, head down, and then the white coach walked in behind him, belt in hand, and quietly pulling the door closed.

i remember knowing what that coach was going to do to that kid and knowing it was bad. i, apparently, clocked the racial dynamics, and i remember i sat outside awaiting sounds, bracing for the pain this child was undoubtedly experiencing, but i don’t remember hearing any.

the last thing i remember is that, over that receptionist’s desk (and i should say i found her to be a very lovely, kind woman during my many visits to the principal’s office that year), there was this portrait of christa mcauliffe.

i don’t remember asking who she was. if my memory is correct– and it may well not be– i already knew who she was. if only in that way that you know things just because they’re out there in the ether and you encounter them through repetition and, gradually, you gain some sense of what or who they are though you don’t really know the story.

so, my feeling is that by the time i was a first grader in the principal’s office waiting for the phone room to become free so i could call my grandmother and tell her to tell me to stop misbehaving because it was very important for the boys to learn, i already knew about christa mcauliffe.

i don’t think there’s any real significance to all those things being jumbled together in that way. i write about them because it’s the jumble that interests me.

the way the (young) mind clamps down on certain parts of historical experience. what it keeps versus what it lets go, and how what is kept weaves in with lived experience so that the two are inseparable.

Christa McAuliffe tries out the commander’s seat on the flight deck of a shuttle simulator at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, Sept. 13, 1985. McAuliffe is scheduled for a space flight on the Space Shuttle Challenger in January, 1986. (AP Photo)

but also how invisibly these dynamics– so vital to our experience of what it is to be alive– persist.

you would not know nor would you have any reason to think i was so affected by challenger as a child if i’d not written about it here.

you would not know i’ve talked about it on multiple occasions in therapy, particularly when trying to untangle experiences of death and grief in my own life since.

you could be my biographer and think you know everything about me and write the whole story of my life and know things my family and closest friends don’t even know while still entirely leaving out this bit.

though i do wonder if this bit is quite crucial.

because, in retrospect, this bit captures so many of the things that my research and writing and thinking have spent the last two decades (or, arguably, my whole life) circling around.

historical disaster and trauma. american death, grief, and feeling. and stories of lives– those of others and our own– and the intersections of all of that in memory.

it’s a story of grief and loss and coping and midi skirts is how i described the jackie book to my editor a week or so ago, and i stand by that. because all those things do actually awkwardly sit all together, not just in my book but in life.

there was a cruel tweet the other day about how extra jackie was because, after her husband’s murder, at the air force base back in the DMV, before the return to the white house, she was already planning the funeral.

reading that tweet, i was struck by the sexism evident in it. and the cruelty, but also how unforgiving we as a culture are of the ways in which people attempt to cope in traumatic circumstances. and i thought about how, when my grandfather died, both my grandmother and i immediately dyed our hair.

i don’t know that we wanted to be resplendent for the funeral (though hair is armor and funerals are public performances, so that’s legit if so) so much as we want to take control of something and our hair color was what presented itself most immediately.

thinking about jackie after her husband’s murder, after she experienced looking into her husband’s face as he was murdered, her shocking proximity to this violence (which i think we often, as a culture, choose to collectively ignore), it makes total sense that funeral planning and administrative tasks would serve in a similar capacity.

after a traumatic loss of control, exerting control somewhere, anywhere, in your life lends comfort.

when you read about children’s impressions of john kennedy’s murder, the thing that comes up often is that, for many of them, it was the first time they saw the adults around them cry.

when i think about challenger, i have one or two other memories of my own aloneness that i choose to leave out of the story i’m telling here, but what i mostly remember is all of the adults being behind a closed door.

the thing about history is it just happens. and we all navigate it as best we can as it does.

that’s not anything original, what i’m saying, because we’re all in the midst of it in a possibly heightened way now. but we’ve been in it all along, whether we were aware of it or not.

life is fragile and we are uncomfortably tethered to others and events, reliant upon people and things inherently unreliable.

things happen, history happens, and we don’t always know what it means when it does. we just pick up the pieces of story we’ve got and try to put them together and maybe we realize it’s going to be too much for young minds so we shut the door, and that’s an entirely valid response.

but there’s prices to be paid for all of this– for the doors we shut, the stories we put together, the stories we tell, the portraits we put on walls, the people we let ask questions in class. small prices sometimes but bigger ones too.

1985 Barbara Morgan (2Nd From Right) Training With Christa Mcauliffe And Crew In The Zero-G Aircraft, (Photo By Nasa/Getty Images)

the thing is: it’s entirely possible this is just the story i’ve told myself and nothing like how it happened.

a story i’ve made up from bits and pieces of my childhood daily life and stitched together in a way that feels authentic to how it felt whilst still maybe capturing very little of what really happened.

a story, in turn, that i’m kind of arguing here is somehow crucial to who i am now and what i write about.

9/85- Houston, Texas: L to R- Space teachers Christa McAuliffe and Barbara Morgan try out the cockpit simulator at the Johnson Space Center. Boston Herald photo by Arthur Pollock

my mother wondered yesterday who i would be if they’d pulled me out of college after that first awful semester, after my grandmother died– something that, in retrospect i can see, likely re-ignited much of the unprocessed grief and trauma and loneliness from The Year Everyone Died.

and i do not know.

probably nowhere near as good a writer, since that first awful year in college was one in which i submerged my pain in reading and tore through every book i could find.

the things that happen are the things that make us. take away one and we’re a whole other person.

which is wild, but also maybe encouraging. and not necessarily an argument that i would be a whole other person if the door had been left open or the portrait had been dolly parton instead of christa mcauliff or if i’d been 19 or 9 when jackie died rather than nearly 13. but also maybe kind of it is?

i was torn between whether to title this “scattered thoughts…” or “scattered memories…” and maybe they are actually, to me, rather one in the same. memory informing thoughts, thoughts shaped through memory– however unintentionally false or riddled with inaccuracies– all taken forward, propelling us on into whoever we are becoming, in the face of all that has already happened and all that will, disastrous, yes, but also the unexpected and joyful turns of event, all of it, that still lay ahead.

we do not know, nor will we ever, what will happen next– which can read as a threat but also as a promise. the promise of writing and teaching and learning and exploration and going and returning and becoming.

where you’re holding on, clinging to the edge with all your exhausted might and the stubs of your nails, and yet still you keep going, keep throwing words on the page and love into the universe, because it’s exciting and also it’s what you’re supposed to do but equally also because there’s always the hope it could be wonderful, always– no matter how awful, how disastrous, how ruinous it gets– still there’s the possibility of more, which means there’s the possibility of it getting better, which means there’s hope. and hope is the fuel, and also the glue.

that sounds so irredeemably cheesy, but it’s where this piece has landed. so there you go.

One thought on “scattered memories of challenger

  1. Pingback: incredibly detailed but nonetheless vague scrambled memories stemming from silent lunch [life-writing, 2] | finding jackie

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