My Mentor, Colleague, and Friend

On this 31st anniversary of the Challenger disaster, I am reposting my words from 6 years ago today.

Memories flood back at the most interesting and unpredictable times. Last Sunday I was heading through security at the airport on the way to Washington D.C. for ASCD’s Leadership Institute for Legislative Advocacy. After pulling my shoes off and pitching them into a plastic carton, I noticed a TSA officer who was a former student years ago. After the usual pleasantries, Cory surprised me by saying that he thought of me recently. Today is the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster and the passing of my friend and mentor Christa McAuliffe. I was a second year teacher when Cory was my student, just two years away from my student teaching year with Christa at Concord High in New Hampshire. Cory remembered the tragedy and like all students in my school, he knew our relationship.

Christa was a natural teacher. She would often arrive last minute to school, her hair still wet, holding her daughter Caroline by the hand, while rushing to the Concord High daycare program on the other side of the school. She was always ready for instruction, never giving any clue of the frenetic working-Mom life she led.

When I heard that Christa was selected from over 11,000 applicants to be the first teacher in space, I was not surprised. Christa was smart, hard-working, ambitious and a quick study. I remember watching her on the Johnny Carson Show thinking that she was as natural in front of millions of viewers as she was in front of 25 high school juniors. I wrote to her in when she was in space training, utilizing a special code on the envelope that would slip through the thousands of other well wishers. Christa promised to come to my school and speak about her adventures.

Of course, our school was watching with great anticipation on that fateful day, January 28, 1986. I was looking forward to watching Christa’s lessons in space and admiring her friendly and direct teaching style. Like her Tonight Show experience and all of the media attention, I knew that Christa’s confidence and intelligence would shine through without a hint of trepidation. Unfortunately, none of us would ever experience that.

Not surprisingly, Christa’s contribution to our field was significant after her death. She was not able to offer her own talent beyond that terrible January day, but her legacy remains. Teachers around the country have identified with her famous quote, I touch the future. I teach. Many young men and women chose to become teachers due to the attention Christa gave to our profession. A number of schools have been built throughout the country with her name on them and conferences are named in her honor, including our well known New Hampshire technology conference. Many grants have been established in Christa’s honor as well.

I hope this difficult anniversary brings attention to the fine work of teachers everywhere and to communities who value teaching and learning and believe in strong community partnership. Christa’s example to all of us will endure.

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