On Innocence Lost, From the Eyes of Gen X
The smoke twisted and turned across the sky in a fluffy white cotton candy stream. I didn’t know what it was supposed to look like – should it look like this? I looked to my teacher’s eyes and I knew – something was wrong. The Challenger was broken.
But there I sat among the neat rows of 4th graders, in our Crayola-colored chairs, waiting for the explanation. Instead, we heard gasps on location in Florida. And we stared in silence at the television cart that only minutes before had been wheeled in for the momentous occasion.
For weeks we’d talked about the Challenger’s impending launch. Christa McAullife would be on board — a curly-haired, common school teacher whose smiling face we’d come to recognize. We’d read about her selection in our Weekly Reader and watched video of her training at Space Camp. And now she was . . . where? Our eyes stayed locked on the swirling smoke until Mrs. Seeger turned off the television set.
“Well, we won’t know what happened for a while, so we better get back to our social studies.” And then she finished by saying we could check back later. And that was all. I found this somehow reassuring. “We can check back later.” But the television was left off that day. And I wondered about it through lunch and recess. Everyone was okay, I decided. We couldn’t see the astronauts, but they were there — they’d parachuted to safety, I just knew it. Just like the end of a Sunday night Disney movie, there’d be a happy ending, an uplifting swell of music — only without the chimpanzees or Don Knotts.
Instead, I’d learn by evening that Christa McAullife and all six astronauts perished that day — in real-time, right before our eyes. And other classrooms across the nation watched it too.
Today, I hardly know of a person my age who can’t recall that day, the day the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. Perhaps it’s my own generation’s 9-11 or Kennedy being shot – that clear moment in time that you can mark on a calendar, that very instance when the world felt really scary for the first time and the life-as-we-know-it bubble burst.
For years I’d been carefully stored in a safe little snow globe in Anytown, USA. Sometimes people died before their time, this I knew, but I was either unaware or not affected enough to take heart of these occurrences. Murder and war were hardly in my vocabulary. My dad was a Vietnam vet, my grandfather survived the second world war, my parents took shelter under their school desks for bomb drills — but these things were also in our history books and, therefore, not of our modern times it seemed.
And evil? What was evil? I’ll tell you what were evil. Children of the Corn were evil. More on that later. Oh, I wasn’t completely unaware that bad things lurked behind dark corners. In the mornings, I used to eat my cereal beside missing paperboys on milk cartons. So I’d chew my Rice Chex and ponder what happened to them. They disappeared. But where and with whom? Maybe with a dad or uncle, I’d think – sad because they miss their moms, but living on the road in an RV like the Return from Witch Mountain orphans.
Or maybe like on the movie Savannah Smiles — maybe kidnapped and having the time of their lives. And maybe, like Savannah, they’d decide their kidnappers took better care of them than their wealthy, detached parents did.
Much later I heard Adam’s story. Adam Walsh was kidnapped from a shopping mall in Florida. His head was found in a canal. That’s the detail I remember. That horrible detail. How did I know this? I can’t say. Thankfully, we only had four TV stations in the early ‘80s, which kept us well insulated. And the news shows only came on twice – and I was in bed during one of them. And even still, even then, I believed that those horrible things that I now knew could happen could only happen if you lived in a far off city.
That’s why, in the summer before I turned nine, when a three-year-old neighbor girl disappeared from her backyard, I wasn’t really worried. It was dark and she’d been missing for an hour. Soon neighbors were out walking the blocks, calling her name.
My brother and I hopped on our bikes and pedaled to a nearby park at the edge of town. There we traveled up and down a dimly lit stretch of gravel road, along rows and rows of corn. I was terrified. As I yelled the girl’s name, I worried more for my own safety. The darkness, the endless rows of corn that seemed to converge into a dark hole — I hadn’t seen Children of the Corn, but I knew about it from friends and had watched previews on TV. Something could happen to me. Some form of evil lives out there. And that “out there”, the evil concocted by Hollywood, felt more real to me than the evil that actually existed among us, the human kind, the kind that would snatch children away from their sandboxes.
The neighbor girl was soon found – asleep inside a doghouse. But for days I couldn’t shut my eyes at night in fear of the demons inside the cornfield.
I don’t often cry at anything. And it’s felt like years since I’ve all-out bawled. Yet I’ve cried nearly every day since I heard the news of the Newtown murders last Friday. Every day something different hits me. And I don’t even watch television. But it finds me anyway.
One day, I cried while reading of firefighters traveling from New York to stand outside a young victim’s funeral – he wanted to someday join their ranks. One day, I cried at the very sight of a flag at half-mast. One day, I cried after seeing my daughter’s pure joy over where the Elf on the Shelf emerged that morning – with the sinking realization that many miles away there were elves on the shelves that hadn’t moved since Thursday.
One day, it was after reading that the young Newtown victims were going to make gingerbread houses that afternoon. For days I’ve obsessed over this. Having a strong connection to my own childhood, reading this sort of detail sends me immediately back to that place in life. In first grade, just knowing I’d be making gingerbread houses with my classmates on Friday would’ve made my whole week. By Wednesday, I would’ve practically peed myself in anticipation of the coming event, and on Thursday night I would’ve stayed awake strategizing how I’d turn gumdrops into shingles and use candy canes for fence posts.
I remain optimistic that healing can occur over time, that families will pull together, that the community of Newtown will endure. But I will continue to grieve for the loss of innocence, which is forever – for the children who witnessed things they wouldn’t even be allowed to see on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, for those who lost siblings, for those who lost friends, for those who lost teachers – and on and on to every young child who heard the story from cautious parents and friends at schools hundreds of miles away.
Last Friday, I wanted to gather up my children, ages five and three, and store them away in the same little snow globe where I once lived — at least until they’re 12. Along the way, a beloved pet may die, an elderly relative might get sick, and I will help them grieve and experience loss as a part of life. But I will hope and pray with all my might that they’ll never hear what happened inside that school. I want their lives to feel safe and their innocence left in tact. I want them to believe that teachers, like astronauts, are invincible like superheroes.
And each day, when I kiss them goodbye and send them away to school, I want them to believe they’ll always come back.