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I lived in Central FL and was in 5th grade as well. I had been to several launches in person and you could always see them in the sky where I lived so I knew where to look. That morning, I was scheduled for the gifted program after attendance and stuff and was walking over to another part of the school. I knew Challenger was launching that day so I stopped for a minute while outside between buildings to see if it had gone up. Sure enough, I saw the familiar trail of smoke it makes and could see how the SRBs had separated. I thought there was something definitely different about it but didn’t worry too much and kind of thought that’s weird to myself.
So, like a minute later I’m the first to walk into my classroom and the TV is off but the radio is on and my teacher is just full on sobbing. She’s trying to talk but can’t quite spit it out because she’s crying so much. Finally, a few other kids start filtering in and she composes herself enough to tell us that the Challenger had exploded. It turns out that when I looked up in the sky was the immediate aftermath of the accident as the trails were still well defined and hadn’t begun diffusing yet. To this day, I can picture that image of the smoke trails and the paths the SRBs took except my image is different than most of the iconic photos you see on the internet because I was looking at them from a different angle so the perspective of those twisting ropes is different.
Anyway, I was sad about the explosion and I remember it all very well but I guess I was a little too young for it to really break me up or anything. What affected me most was actually seeing my favorite teacher crying like that. I had never seen a “grown up” losing it like that before. I think I still thought of grown ups as just being so much older and bigger and foreign to my world that it just never occurred to me that they could be that sad. It was actually kind of scary at first because it was like some crazy shit is going on right now and I had no idea what to do. Luckily, she pulled it together but, as a gifted teacher, she had all these activities planned to go with McAuliffe in space and we were going to watch her lessons live so I’m sure she was more invested and it just hit her that much harder.
Anyway, just adding my Challenger story.