My fifth and sixth grade science teacher was Mrs. Cackley. She was a great teacher, the kind almost everyone likes. She was on the young side of middle age, trim and active. She was enthusiastic about teaching and had little trouble controlling her classes. She was tragically widowed and openly shared with us her experiences of watching her husband as he was electrocuted while sandblasting their boat. She was unapologetically religious is that way that just made her a really nice, compassionate person. Yet she was not overly prudish -- during an anatomy lesson she called testicles "balls" so we would know without question what she was talking about -- and let us giggle a bit. A few years after she was no longer my teacher, she remarried and I went to her wedding on my own because I just thought so much of her and I wanted to see her happy. Then later she moved away because her new husband, a pastor, was called to a new church. I've never seen her again -- I don't even know if she's still alive -- but I've thought of her often.
There's a reason I tell you this.
I was a sophomore in high school, in Spanish class. It was a small section, I think there were only twelve of us. I was wearing a red paisley flannel shirt. The counsellor knocked on the door, came in and gave the teacher, Mrs. Dietrich, a piece of paper. We watched her read it and watched her face change and her hand go to her throat. Apparently the note said not to make an announcement, not to disrupt class but Mrs. Dietrich, bless her heart, couldn't do it. She told us that there had been a problem with the space shuttle launch and that Challenger had exploded and all aboard were lost. It was sickening. I don't remember how the rest of the day went; I don't even remember how the rest of Spanish class went. I do remember seeing the crash replayed on the television in the library, which had been set up so some people could watch the launch in real time. I remember some of the girls were crying. They were thinking of the astronauts and particularly of Krista McAuliffe. I was thinking of her, too, but mostly I was thinking about Mrs. Cackley.
When the program began, the call went out for nominations for the first non-astronaut. It was to be a teacher, with an emphasis on science teachers. I was so excited when I heard about it. I knew the perfect candidate -- Mrs. Cackley! She probably wasn't too old, she took great care of herself -- she would be great! And I could think of no one who could better translate an experience like that into a first-rate education opportunity. I went so far as to write a draft of a nomination letter. Eventually I decided that the odds were stacked against her -- they wouldn't pick a teacher from such a small, rural place. They would want someone to take their experiences back to a big school within a large population base. Or maybe the chosen candidate wouldn't return to a regular classroom at all, but start out on the lecture circuit going from school to school all over the country a giving presentations at all-school assemblies. That was all probably true but, in all honesty, high school and teenage life got in the way and I set it aside. In the end, I never mailed the letter.
Twenty-five years ago today, I was never so glad that I failed to follow through. But I knew somewhere there were students who had followed through and had just watched their beloved Mrs. McAuliffe flash brilliantly in the sky and just... cease. I knew I wouldn't have been able to deal with that.
Whenever the subject of Challenger comes up, I see the explosion in my mind's eye and the astronauts walking in slow motion towards the shuttle like they show on the news these days. But even though those images are burned into my memory, they're big, abstract things that seem very far away. The things that really make my heart hurt are the thought that it might have been Mrs. Cackley -- I wanted it to be her! -- and the look on Mrs. Dietrich's face when she read the note. Because those were my teachers -- the ones that had a direct effect on my life. That's close to home. That's real. That's why they started a Teacher In Space program to begin with.
I hope you're well, Mrs. Cackley. I hope you've had a rich, wonderful 25 years. I'm so glad you've had them.