What I Learned 30 Years Ago When the Challenger Shuttle Blew Up

space-shuttle-challengerjpg-ff9375e2f0d3b75cOn the day of the Challenger explosion I was teaching at the Henry K. Oliver School in Lawrence.
Having lost my first bid for school committee at 18 years old, I had been offered a position as a substitute teacher and oddly enough, made a permanent substitute almost immediately by Superintendent Gene Thayer.
My 6th grade class was watching the television, as was every classroom at the Oliver. The kids were happy to have lessons canceled for half the day so they could watch the shuttle liftoff, but mostly because they didn’t have to do math and social studies. 
As the shuttle took off, I started talking to the students about the importance of space travel, when all of sudden the unthinkable happened right before everyone’s eyes.
Pay attention now, because every single word of this is true.
Without missing a beat, most of my kids started laughing and high fiving each other in celebration.
“YO SNAP! HAAA HAAA, DID YOU SEE THAT? WOW!” they said giggling and laughing about how “cool” the site of a space shuttle blowing up on TV was. One kid said he couldn’t wait to get home and tell his mother what he saw at school that day, it was the most “DOPE” thing he had ever seen.
 I’m sure my mom (Dorothy Duggan-Incropera, who was the school nurse at the time) can tell you what she experienced in the building that day as well. I recall her story being a little more detailed than mine. 
The teachers and the administrators on the other hand, were all sad, moped around and whispered about how the kids were just behaving this way because they were “in shock” by what they had seen. Other teachers made excuses, saying that the kids just didn’t understand how tragic it was. Not one of them bothered to face the reality that the kids behaving this way weren’t in shock, and they weren’t in “denial of their feelings”. They just didn’t care. These were inner city Lawrence kids who saw more violence in a month, than every teacher and administrator combined could see in a lifetime. 
I bet you can guess what the faculty did the next day.
In true boiler plate fashion, they held an assembly where the principal explained how “serious and tragic” the event was, that it was nothing to laugh about, and encouraged kids to “share their feelings”. They also offered “counseling” for the poor children, because it had to be traumatizing for them to have seen such a thing on television.
Kids were encouraged to “show how sad they were” by “maybe” writing letters to the dead astronauts families, color pictures, and “really let them know how much you care”.

Yeah, they were not only coaching the kids on how they were supposed to react to such an event, but they were also coaching kids on how they were supposed to feel about such things … as if telling them they are supposed to care will make them want to care.
But it failed. It failed because, as the kids complied, drawing and writing letters in the classroom after the assembly, (it was way better than doing math, they said) they were laughing and joking and making gestures of an explosion with their hands . They were also begging me to put the TV back on, so they could watch the replay on the news over and over.
I learned a lot in the short time I taught in the Lawrence Public Schools.
Especially being only a few years older than the kids I was teaching. But, I think I learned the most on the day the space shuttle Challenger blew up. 
The kids knew there is the fake reality (or social construct) in school where they were expected to be sad, or behave a certain way in the presence of adults, when in reality most of them really couldn’t care less.
The kids also knew that there is a real world out there. A world that really is tragic and shocking, especially to those living in the tougher neighborhoods of inner cities like Lawrence.
To them, some far away tragedy that had no bearing on their daily lives seemed to be a little less tragic than it was for the adults around them.
For them, it seemed like this was all a big distraction from the real tragedies they had (and sadly some still have) to go home to when school is over. A reality that nobody seemed to care about doing anything about, because nothing has changed in those neighborhoods or those schools since the day of Challenger disaster.
Here we are 30 years later, and as the news is abuzz about the anniversary I can’t help but look back and see that the people who run our inner city schools today are just as out of touch with the real world as the administrators were back then. I also can’t help but look at those same Lawrence neighborhoods today and feel the sadness that they are no safer today than they were for my students at the Oliver School back then. 
If you compare the overall state of our public education system today, to that of 30 years (and trillions of dollars) ago, it’s easy to see where it all went wrong. It’s easy to see why kids in public schools are still failing, and why they are failing in higher numbers with lower standards.
As tragic as the space shuttle disaster was for the country, for the families of the astronauts, the people who work in the space program, and those who knew the victims, that day was a social event for many of the kids in my classroom, and indeed the school. It’s hard to imagine the reaction was any different in any of the other schools in Lawrence at the time. 
Public schools have lost their focus on teaching subjects like math, history, science and English, and spend far too much time on feel good assemblies about the space shuttle, bullying, saving the planet, or anything else. The more math, science, history, and English a public school can expose inner city kids to, and the less lecturing about feelings they can engage in, the better chance these kids will have of getting out of violent neighborhoods and make a better life for their future. 
That’s what I learned on the day the space shuttle Challenger blew up.