Twenty-eight years ago I was given an assignment in my eighth grade history class. Write a report about an explorer. This was the time when I was starting to find my writer voice. I had written a time travel story for English class and had been published in the local newspaper. I wasn’t going to do the same old same old. Instead I chose to write about space pioneer Christa McAuliffe, who known as the first teacher in space. It was a program where a teacher would train with the astronauts and go into space on the spaceship Challenger. From space she would teach millions of children from video feed. It was revolutionary and exciting for everyone, especially her family and students in New Hampshire.
I wrote my report and sparked the imagination of my teacher Ellen Quagliaroli who decided that we would write a proclamation and send it to McAuliffe. We added a small sheet of paper with all of our names signed on it and asked if she could take it into space with her. We sent it off in the mail and waited.
It was a clear day when the shuttle Challenger was ready to take off. There were many people watching the live launch on television. I was not one of them. It seems, I am never supposed to see tragedies on TV as they happen. A student ran into our classroom and told us that the Challenger had exploded. We watched the replay of the launch over and over again. It looked like fireworks, like it was supposed to happen that way, until we realized exactly what had happened. That tragic day will forever be marked in my life.
The following day a newspaper reporter came to my school to interview students and to see how we were coping with the tragic news. During lunch my teacher called three of us students into the hallway outside the lunch room. The reporter was there. The teacher was holding a large envelope. I opened it with shaky hands, after all it was my report that got us following this event. Inside was a signed picture of Christa McAuliffe and a letter explaining why she couldn’t take our paper into space and how pleased she was that we were learning from her.
“It’s eerie how she got our letter, wrote back and now she’s not here,” I said. It was to be the quote heard around the country. Eerie became a buzz word and once the story hit the newsstands life became a crazy whirlwind of activity. The following day the AP wire picked up the story and relatives of mine started calling the house. Reporters called the house. I have copies of the story from Tampa to Texas. There was no way to know how many letters McAuliffe sent out like this.
At school all of the major local news stations arrived with cameras wanting to interview me and my classmates. Then CBS News landed a helicopter on the soccer field at the school. After interview after interview (one with Gale King, BFF to Oprah), things started to settle down. That night I was on the national news with Dan Rather. I said something. My name wasn’t mentioned, but within a minute of it airing family friends from Mars Hill, Maine called my parents to say they had just seen me on the evening news.
Maybe that’s where my love of journalism comes from. Connecting people near and far through a story. The original documents were framed and put in what is now, the New England Air Museum. It was a tragic time, but also an exciting time for an eighth grader who only wanted to write a good report on an explorer.