Margaux in Med School

I'm just an average American med student... ok, well, sort of. That's me, top right -- and below that my dog! Isn't she cute? You know she is. Watch the dog...Be the dog!

Saturday, January 28, 2006

When I wanted to be an astronaut

Today is a personally interesting day in history for me. It is the 20th anniversary of the Challenger explosion. 20 years ago, in 1986, I was about 7 years old. My life revolved around school, my two best friends and when they would next be coming over, and of course, candy. Every seven year old's primary mission in life involves candy. If you had asked me what I wanted to be in 1986 when I grew up, I probably would have said ballerina, then astronaut. If I could've been a prima ballerina in space, that would probably have been the ideal (plus plenty of money for candy). Picture a dancing princess leia, and you are in the ballpark of many of my earliest fantasies.

Even at seven, I liked the idea of being a girl in space. Of flying through the air in one of those cumbersome white suits (ok, maybe with a tutu -- I was seven). Regardless, even if I hadn't harbored a secret space-shuttle desire, I was certainly aware of Challenger. Every teacher everywhere was atwitter with the Challenger mission. It was the first space mission where a teacher would be going up, a woman teacher no less. It was huge, it was inspirational.

Students paid rapt attention as their instructors detailed the historic importance and role that educators would play in the world of the future. The world that is in fact now the present. At that time, still within spitting distance of the 1970's space odyssey movies, and practically on top of the star wars franchise, the world seemed rife with endless possibilities. Perhaps in just a few decades we would be commuting to Mars. Perhaps we would get our vegetables from hydroponic farms in orbit. Who knew?

We had won the space race to the moon, this was the modern age of space travel, ushering in a new era when even everyday teachers would fly up for the experience, just to better instruct their students. It was in this very theme that several of the maverick teachers in my elementary school convinced the principal to have students watch the broadcast live from the classroom.

We crammed our way into the third grade classrooms, full of awe at the spacious surroundings and times-tables on the wall that we would be learning next year. We sat on the carpet to watch one of the two tvs the school had purchased for educational programming. We watched as the astronauts got onto the shuttle. They waved to the crowd and the reporters were absolutely aglow with the excitement of an impending shuttle launch. They spent a lot of time on the young teacher. She was vibrant, full of life. With curly brown hair and lively bright eyes, they cut often to her smiling husband and children, waiting patiently in the audience for their mother's debut. If anything, this was the family - friendly version of NASA. Scientists and teacher all loaded up and the countdown began. The classroom hushed.

That day will live in infamy for me. My mother told me once that she would always remember the day that Kennedy died, even though she was young, because when someone came in to tell her teacher, her teacher began weeping. For me, the looks on those teacher's faces as they watched the Challenger, was like viewing a similarly palpable wave of devestation.

As most of you know, the shuttle began to catch fire and explode. It happened in seconds really, and was an eerily beautiful sight of red and orange lighting up the screen. However, like most emotionally intense moments in one's life, you are never more aware of detail. I remember not only the visually stunning spectacle of the Challenger explosion, but the feel of the orange schoolroom carpet under my knees, and the way the girl in pigtails next to me seemed frozen in shock with her mouth open. The teachers too, paused for a moment, all three of them open mouthed in disbelief at the sight of their hero, their heroine, exploding before their very eyes.
One began to cry as the other two quickly ran towards the television to shut it off, realizing almost immediately what the 60-odd seven and eight years olds had just witnessed.

Much like Sept. 11th was the end of feeling safe for most of America 15 years later, Challenger represented the end of security, the end of safety, for so many of us that day. It served as a stark reminder of the fragility of life, the unpredictable whims of nature, and the unknowable force of fate in all our lives. How could we assume the world would protect us, if we could be lively and waving just moments before the heavens and an icy shuttle ripped us apart?

The challenger mission is a blip in many people's history books, too far back for most college students to recall, and one of too many upsets to innocence in the baby boomer generation. Yet, despite that, for many of us in the between, it is unforgettable. I know that the next year when before, many us harbored the dream of space, third grade dawned with a renewed interest in other careers. None of us in that room wished to ever again so tempt fate by daring to leave the Earth. It seems in a world that is often unfair and frequently without reason, we must learn these lessons again and again. When I wanted to be an astronaut, the world seemed just. When I realized I did not, it became clear that perhaps we can only try to make the world just.

remembrance, and well wishes for the families of the Challenger victims.


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