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An unusually brisk day: An educator’s reflection

“I’m shivering, Mom!”

Even my puffed-up Pittsburgh Steelers winter coat lined with bright yellow, insulated fur-like material didn’t seem to keep me warm.  The attached hood had similar material, and it covered my ears, freckled face, and pink cheeks. My grey-blue eyes watered, and my nose instantly froze like it had just been dipped in liquid nitrogen. It was an unusually brisk day in Orlando, Florida to say the least. It was January 28, 1986.

Mom dropped me off at the car ramp, and I quickly made my way to the third-grade portable, where my friends and I would read books until the first bell rang, indicating it was time for school to begin. Mrs. Healey arrived shortly before the bell. She put her quiet finger to her lips indicating we should walk through the school sidewalks quietly. She whispered to some of my classmates to put on their coats as it was very brisk outside.

“What is brisk, Mrs. Healey?” asked Amy.

“Brisk means it’s so cold and the wind might surprise you,” said Mrs. Healey, gently with a tender smile.

As we walked up the steps to the classroom, we eagerly awaited the day’s work and wondered, as usual, if we would engage in one of Mrs. Healey’s interesting science experiments. We quickly began our practice of cursive writing. As we continued our unit on teddy bears, none of us suspected our lives would change that day.  I had no idea how my future would be touched.

I meticulously cut the shape of my teddy bear. I struggled with the material, old scraps of soggy wallpaper. The scissors, with rubber rings for fingers and rounded edges for safety, made the joints in my hands ache. Still, I was determined to create a perfect bear that would be stuffed with cotton balls and sewn together. Each of us showed off our cutting patterns and felt comfortable inside our warm, cozy classroom, protected from the unusually brisk weather.

As we continued working, the door to our classroom flung wide open, practically bouncing of its own hinges. It was Mrs. Tracy, the hilarious teacher from next door who sometimes read stories aloud to us that were so funny she could barely get through them herself. There was no smile on her face that day. Her eyes pierced our room with deep concern and panic.

“Turn on your television! The space shuttle just exploded!” she exclaimed.

As Mrs. Healey pulled the knob to turn on the television, each of us were puzzled, confused, not even knowing there was a space shuttle launch that day. We normally went outside to watch. Orlando was only 30 miles from the Kennedy Space Center, so we could easily step outside and see a bright glow of orange light trailed by a squiggly line of white smoke until the shuttle disappeared from the naked eye’s view and into the heights of space. Mrs. Healey didn’t take us outside that day, however.  It was unusually brisk … and so was the classroom at the very moment the television images appeared.

Peter Jennings, the news anchor for ABC, was reporting. He narrated what had just happened minutes before, and the shuttle launch was replayed for the entire nation to see. The countdown from 10 appeared normal. The camera zoomed in on the mist forming at the base of the three black engines. Sparks. Lift off! The shuttle Challenger had cleared the tower. This would have been the part when we scurried outside to see it rise above the horizon.

“It looks like a regular shuttle launch,” someone said.

After 76 seconds, before our very eyes, the shuttle broke apart and was engulfed by an enormous white plume of smoke with tints of orange and yellow at the center. The camera zoomed closer on bits of the aircraft that were falling from the sky, straight to the earth.  Immediately, my stomach turned, especially when I saw Mrs. Healey wipe the tears streaming from both of her eyes. Pure silence.

“Flight dynamics looking carefully at the situation,” declared a NASA official on the television. “Obviously a major malfunction.”

“What’s a malfunction, Mrs. Healey?” asked someone near the front of the room.

“It means something went wrong,” claimed Mrs. Healey, desperately trying to comfort yet inform.

“We are getting reports that the vehicle has exploded,” continued the NASA official.

ABC News replayed the shuttle launch and its explosion for the rest of that day, into the night, and for many days to come. The vision of that plume of smoke and debris falling from the sky, splashing into the Atlantic Ocean, are forever cemented in my mind. Throughout the chaos of the explosion, however, I came to know a special woman to whom Peter Jennings introduced us through that television.

Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from New Hampshire, won a contest created by President Ronald Regan called Teacher in Space. Tens of thousands of teachers from across the country submitted applications to be the first ever private citizen to travel to space. President Regan said, “one of America’s finest, a teacher,” would ride the shuttle Challenger into space.

I asked, “Mrs. Healey, did you apply for that contest?”

“No, Bryan. But, Mrs. Kivett did. That’s why I have tears in my eyes, thinking it could have been one of my friends aboard that shuttle today.” Mrs. Kivett was my kindergarten teacher and knowing that stirred my stomach even further.

As we learned more about Christa, we learned she had planned to teach some lessons from space when she got there. She had a unique New Hampshire accent, and I was intrigued to hear her speak as ABC replayed former interviews of her that led up to the shuttle launch. She was endearing nonetheless. Her bouncing curly hair complimented her dark brown, very kind eyes. She had slight wrinkles next to her eyes when she smiled, but her smile somehow comforted me that day. Those wrinkles showed just how much she loved to smile.

One of Christa’s interviews depicted her saying that she was not frightened at all to go to space and very excited to travel onboard the space shuttle. Hearing that reassured me how brave she was, and my nine-year-old spirit was gradually calmed. Her final words in one of the interviews have stuck with me since that day, more than 32 years ago. The interviewer asked why she became a teacher.

“I touch the future; I teach,” Christa declared.

I somehow knew exactly what she meant. It was an ah-ha moment for me. I don’t think any of my other classmates understood it like I did. I knew that she meant being a teacher was the best way of shaping the generations of tomorrow. While I loved teaching my classmates, as Mrs. Puryea let me do in second grade, this was the year I heard my calling. After 20 years as an educator, I realize how I am among the honorable fleet of America’s only true finest. Looking in the mirror at the slight wrinkles near my grey-blue eyes, I hear Christa affirming that I too touch the future, because I teach.

Bryan Zugelder

Bryan Zugelder is Assistant Professor of Elementary Education and Teacher Leadership at East Carolina University (ECU). Prior to joining the faculty at ECU, he was the State Director for the NC New Teacher Support Program (NC NTSP) at the UNC System Office, Executive Director of Undergraduate Affairs and Partnerships and Director of the Office of Clinical Experiences in the College of Education and Human Performance at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

During his 20 year career in education, he has served as an elementary classroom teacher, professional development consultant, Reading First professional development coordinator, assessment project manager at the Florida Department of Education, and higher education administrator. He has received more than $15M in grant funding and currently serves as the Lead Researcher for the NC NTSP, now administratively housed at ECU. He has published in the areas of teacher education, teacher development, and teacher leadership. Zugelder received a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education, Master of Science in Educational Leadership, and Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership.