Poor Reception

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How we loved Christa McAuliffe. We loved the TV movie about her almost as much. We had dreamed of ourselves lifting off to probe Mars or the music of the outer spheres.

But our abiding narratives are deathward—and have been since at least those first westerns, the Old Testament and the Iliad—all about clout, turf, sexual property rights, and how to look good dying. And America—from Wounded Knee to lynching-bees, from the Knights of Labor to the Ku Klux Klan, from Haymarket and Homestead to Harlan County and the Black Hole of Ludlow, from race riots and Ghost Dance Wars to Hell's Angels, Black Panthers, Attica, and Altamont—has a history of violence as gaudy as any in the industrialized world.

Oddly enough, we now blame television for promoting this violence among our youth, whereas once upon an earlier time we blamed the public schools for tantrum-yoga culture that measures everyone by his or her ability to produce wealth and morally condemns anyone who fails to prosper, blames its angry incoherence not on itself but on anything else, from original sin to recessive genes, alien abduction, demonic possession, Arab terrorists, Madonna, and the designated hitter. But I digress.

How we loved Christa McAuliffe, the schoolteacher who left New Hampshire for the stars in our stead, on board the Challenger. We loved the TV movie about her almost as much. We had perhaps dreamed of ourselves as lifting off to probe either Mars or the music of the outer spheres.

On January 28, 1986, with the children of America watching on television, for 73 seconds McAuliffe was airborne. And then the seven Challenger astronauts were dead. And Peggy Noonan wrote a lovely eulogy for the president to lip-synch. And everybody talked about O-rings in the solid booster rocket. And maybe that's what happens to teachers in the real Darwinian world when they put on airs.

The 1990 ABC docudrama Challenger was a meticulous account of the six-month NASA training period for those seven astronauts. It hurt to watch. It seems to me unfair of the producers to have cast Karen Allen as McAuliffe. In the opinion of many of us, Indiana Jones went downhill after Raiders of the Lost Ark because Allen wasn't in the sequels. Frizzy-haired and freckled, with a smile like a field of sunflowers, she so much embodied McAuliffe's eagerness to please, to experience, to share, that we ached all over again. No wonder everybody was always giving her an apple. Not that the Challenger space shuttle wasn't an equal-opportunity disaster. The flight deck was also stacked with another woman, a Japanese American from Hawaii, and only the second African American ever to be sent into outer space, Ronald McNair—perhaps the most complex of the astronauts, a sax player, a karate black belt, and a laser physicist.

Education is in increments, not explosions. It's about making distinctions and connections; about surprise, wonder, passion, and regret; about citizenship and critical intelligence.

As the docudrama moved these astronauts around, however, from Houston to Huntsville to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, and introduced both their families and their contractors (Lockheed, Rockwell, Morton-Thiokol) and advised us of gale winds that forced recovery vessels back to port, of the lowest temperatures ever for a shuttle liftoff, of so much solid ice at the launching site that it looked on the TV monitors "like something out of Dr. Zhivago," we were also moving around some mythic baggage. The rest of them were pros; this was their career. McAuliffe was an amateur, a stranger in this strange, boy's-book land so full of hardware and mysticism, Sputniks, and Star Wars. And thus, when they slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God, she was our innocence. To gravity's rainbow we lost our teacher and were no longer permitted to be children. That's narrative: No school tomorrow.

This, I admit, is a harsh reading. But education is in increments, not explosions. It has been better served by television as a 24-hour machine for grinding out narrative, novelty, and distraction, surprise and empathy and news and laughs, an electronic classroom of high-culture snippets and vulgar celebrity, a place to celebrate and a place to mourn, a circus and a wishing well, than by television as a representation of what teaching really feels like. Via public television, that remedial seriousness, we commune with the spoon-billed bee-eaters and the midwife toads. From the networks, we ought to have learned to recognize the predators and parasites in Washington and on Wall Street. Commercials themselves are a crash course in advanced capitalism: overproduction and forced consumption. Whereas the humble little red schoolhouse or concrete bunker, well, when it's not about baby-sitting and vocational guidance and guns and drugs and pregnancy and AIDS, it's about making distinctions and connections; about surprise, wonder, passion, and regret; about citizenship and critical intelligence.

After serving her time in public schools from Oakland, California, to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, my wife ended up in a Manhattan private school for girls and still feels guilty about it but is nonetheless determined to teach internal contradictions to the daughters of the ruling class. Which explains her long afternoons of coaching debate or running off to another symposium on multiculturalism, her longer nights of planning and grading, those frantic phone calls from seniors needing college recommendations, the predawn spice smells of Chinese or Mexican food for a classroom banquet after the latest Third World survey, the missing weekends when she's gone to Washington with busloads of the best and brightest for a protest demonstration or to Bard College to bring back a whole new way to teach reading, her disappearance for two years into meetings of the committee on faculty development and evaluation as if into the black hole of a dead star, those summers she spends pretending to look at palaces and pyramids while secretly dreaming up entire new curricula. So many children, in the kitchen, in the garden, on the stoop, their eyes the true color of Byzantine icons, of smoke and flame.

Before we were married, I thought history was what white men did in the daytime. Imagine, then, living with a Braudelian, an Annaliste: Weather, she will explain, and infant-mortality statistics; the compass and commode; plague and gunpowder, sewage and forks, the Inquisition and the invisible hand; the Paris Commune, the Industrial Revolution, gunboat diplomacy, women's suffrage; surplus value, false consciousness, bad faith, brainwashing, and foot binding. On the occasion of her birthday several years ago, her 8th graders staged a surprise party in the classroom, and this is what they sang to her, just like Judy Collins:

As we go marching, marching
in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens
a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance
that the sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing:
"Bread and roses! Bread and roses!"

There is, of course, a second verse:

As we go marching, marching,
we battle too for men,
For they are women's children,
and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated
from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies;
give us bread, but give us roses!

This, alas, is the sort of education we seldom hear about on television, where no teacher ever seems to have more than one class, instead of the usual seven, as well as the sort of education we seem to have stopped insisting on in the true colors of the scorching day.

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