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People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

I woke to Katie Curic and Matt Laurer’s breaking news of another set of “possible” bombings in London. I remember the last time I heard breaking news from this duo…

I was teaching a first period general music class at Kettering Middle School. I had a birthday chain hanging in my classroom, given to me by one of my students. I tore off 9/11 and commented that I had two weeks until my birthday. We were watching a video which I had forgotten to rewind from another class the day before. As the tape rewound, Katie and Matt were busy chatting away and I told the class, “Let’s spend some time with Katie and Matt. If we’re lucky Al Roker will be on.” About that time, Katie said she had breaking news – a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Within seconds she had live coverage. I figured it was a small plane – but the damage looked pretty severe.

I stepped through the connecting class room door to Ann Snyder’s room as she was finishing her attendance check, and told her to turn on the television. We checked out the scene and then stood chatting in the doorway, keeping an eye on our darlings. “How could a plane not miss that tower?” We had not discussed the probability of this when suddenly, the classes both yelled out – a second plane had crashed into the other tower. Ann and I both looked at one another without saying a word. Finally, Ann said what I was fearing – “We’re being attacked.”
I called the front office who was unaware of this. Immediately, Mrs. Gray, the principal was in my classroom. She waited before issuing a call to all the classroom teachers to let them determine whether or not to watch this. I decided my television was not going silent. Each class of students and I watched the day’s events unfold – Washington evacuated, the Pentagon and the field in Pennsylvania. We watched the towers glide down towards the earth with that hideous cloud of smoke and debris covering that area of the city.

Within an hour, parents from the air force base were retrieving their children from school. Normally, there is nothing but drama and hysterical speculation during a crises – and even more so from middle school students. That day, even my most verbal and toughest students were stunned into silence. They did not comment. They watched the television. Some would ask questions, but for the most part, they remained silent.

One day, back in 1986, I had my students in the library of Northside High School to work on a general music assignment. The audio-video lady was in her room and I watched the preparations for the Challenger’s lift off. I asked her if she minded me bringing the class in to watch and she agreed. As a child, I can remember sitting on my great-grandfather’s lap watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. When my great-grandfather was my age, Wilbur & Orville Wright had flown for the first time. Armstrong was my hero then and I had no idea that our paths would cross 30 years later. I pointed out to the students Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher to go into space, as she waved and smiled as she walked to her mission. I can remember seeing the camera zoom in on her parents, Mr. & Mrs. Corrigan, and how thrilled and proud they looked. Having not seen a shuttle take off, I did not notice anything out of the ordinary. What I did notice was the expression on the Corrigans’ faces as someone stepped up to say something to them. Then, there was an announcement that there had been a malfunction and the Corrigans were immediately escorted through the crowd, unnoticed by those who stood staring up at the trail of smoke. In 1996, I got to meet Mrs. Corrigan at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum and she signed two of her books I had purchased for former teachers. Inside each one she wrote – “Thanking you for touching Darin’s life. Keep reaching for the stars.”

How different the scene was from the Challenger to the Twin Towers. As the second tower fell, I remembered how I loved sitting up inside the observation mall that had a 360 degree view. How magnificent that view was and to think that it was no more.

Later that afternoon of 9/11, while teaching a private lesson, there was a boom louder than anything I had ever heard. The walls of my townhouse shook, books shifted on cases, pictures moved, and my heart stopped. There had been rumors at school that Wright -Patterson Air Force Base was also a target and that was the first thing that came to mind. The student, parent and I immediately went outside, joined by other families from the townhouse community. The sky was so beautiful – a painful reminder of the sky about 700 miles away to the east. Later we learned the “boom” was a sonic boom! A sound I had only heard described by my grandparents.

That night, I drove to Brody and Sue McDonald’s for dinner. The gas station prices had shot up and the lines were streaking around the corners from every direction. Panic had set in. Kroger Supermarket lines were jammed and overflowing and I finally ran to a small convenience store down the street. I sat with Brody and Sue McDonald after dinner to watch President Bush address the nation. His words were disappointing and uneventful. How different were his bland words from those spoken by President Reagan in 1986 – they were comforting, commanding and poetic.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d planned to speak to you tonight to report on the state of the Union, but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans. Today is a day for mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.

Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But we’ve never lost an astronaut in flight; we’ve never had a tragedy like this. And perhaps we’ve forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle. But they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together.

[To] the families of the seven: we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, “Give me a challenge, and I’ll meet it with joy.” They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us. We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for 25 years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.

And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.

I’ve always had great faith in and respect for our space program, and what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way freedom is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute. We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue. I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA or who worked on this mission and tell them: ““Your dedication and professionalism have moved an impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it. ”

There’ s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and an historian later said, ““He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.” Well today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”

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July 2005
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