The Day Before the Day I Became a Writer


January 28, 1986.

Millions of Americans, including thousands of school children, watched the Space Shuttle Challenger lift-off, carrying with it America’s first civilian teach into space.

Seventy-three seconds later, the shuttle exploded.

Those who watched, whether in Florida or elsewhere via TV screens, stared, transfixed by the plumes of white smoke mixed with traces of red against the backdrop of beautiful blue sky.

Seconds passed by. News announcers stuttered. Disbelief and shock slowly turned to horror.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

Where were you when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded?

In January 1986, I was an 8th grade student at Harrisonburg Elementary School in rural Harrisonburg, Louisiana. My life revolved totally around the things happening at school, such as which girl liked which boy or if the school’s basketball team won the most recent game or when the next math test might be given. Outside of school, I enjoyed episodes of The Cosby Show or listening to the latest Whitney Houston ballad. I definitely wasn’t interested in the evening news.

This doesn’t mean that I was totally oblivious. I was aware enough to recognize the names of important world leaders: President Ronald Reagan, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher or Russia’s Mikhail Gorbachev. But I didn’t really see how what they did affected me or why I should be concerned with events that happened anywhere outside the tiny brick school building where I spent the majority of my time.

But on January 28, 1986, all of that changed …

Many of the details of my personal experiences from that day have long faded over the 34 years that have passed since the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded.

I do recall after school feeling mildly annoyed that there was nothing on TV except breaking news reports having something to do with a space shuttle, but I snapped it off without ever sitting down to listen.

Just minutes later, the phone rang. I answered and heard my friend’s voice on the other end:

Paige, have you heard? The space shuttle exploded! All of the astronauts were killed!


The news hit me as if a bombshell had detonated right there in my bedroom. Surely not! I couldn’t believe her words … and yet, as I slowly switched the TV back on, I could see for myself that my friend was right. As the images replayed again and again, I stared at the TV screen, trying to make sense of what I was seeing.

Seven astronauts smiling and waving to the small group of family and friends as they walked toward their waiting spacecraft. The giant white shuttle, pointed heavenward. The gradual lifting of the shuttle. The white trail of smoke against the brilliant blue winter sky. The explosion. One trail of smoke turned into two, before fading completely into the atmosphere.

I felt sick to my stomach, yet I was unable to turn my face away from the TV. All I wanted was for the story to be false, for it all to be a big mistake, for the newscasters to announce that somehow all the  astronauts survived.

I was 13 years old …  and it was the first time I can ever recall being emotionally affected by a national tragedy. It was the first time I can remember being part of a national mourning.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

January 29, 1986

Class, today’s writing assignment is to write about yesterday’s tragedy with the Space Shuttle Challenger. You can choose whether to write a factual record of the event or you can write down your emotional reaction to what happened.

My 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. Swayze, frequently gave out writing assignments. Normally our class offered up complaints and spent more time searching for paper and pencils than we didn’t writing.

This day was different. No one complained. No one wasted time searching for a pencil. Instead we wrote. And for what seemed like an eternity, the only sound to be heard in that classroom was that of pencils scratching across pages of loose leaf paper.

I don’t recall whether or not these essays were turned in that day, or if we spent several days editing those first drafts. Perhaps this was a bigger graded assignment, or maybe it was just counted as a daily activity and checked for completion. I’ve forgotten these insignificant details.

But what I do remember is the time I spent writing and how it felt to put all of my emotions down on that white sheet of paper. I remember how while I wrote I thought about being able to see a glimpse of every American on board that shuttle. The astronauts included whites, blacks, Asians, men and women, and a teacher. There was even a man with the last name Smith. It was as if we all were on that space shuttle together.

As I wrote about the sorrow of the tragedy, I came to realize something I never really knew before: writing can be cathartic to the soul. As I wrote, I owned my grief and began to come to terms with it. I didn’t know it that morning, but I would never again experience a sorrow in my life without writing my way through it.

A week or so later, my English teacher, Mrs. Swayze, announced that a small number of the essays written about the Challenger tragedy would be published in our tiny school’s newspaper. Mine was one of those essays chosen.

When my little essay was published, I learned something I never knew before: writers have a power to effect others. My friends read the essay and told me that my words helped them feel better. Teachers at the school came by and told me how they read my essay aloud to their classes. Some of them hugged me and thanked me for sharing my comforting thoughts. Writing, I realized, was a way to connect with other people.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

Somewhere, among all the boxes where I’ve packed up the bits and pieces of my childhood, there remains a tattered copy of that old school newspaper.

Every five or six years, I will happen across it as I search for something else I know must be tossed in those boxes of school yearbooks and 4-H ribbons and other items that tell the story of who I was before I grew into an adult.

Whenever I see that school newspaper, I take a moment to pick it up. As I reread that essay written by a 13-year-old girl, tears well up in my eyes. I am transported back to that January so long ago, remembering the hours I sat watching the tragedy replayed on the TV screen. In my mind, I can hear the scribbling of my pencil as I tried to write about that deep, sorrowful pain, trying to make sense of something that simply didn’t make sense.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

January 28, 1986 was a day of national tragedy.

It also happened to be the day before the day when I became a writer.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

And He who sits on the Throne said … “Write, for these words are faithful and true.”     ~Revelation 21:5


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