When I was in third grade, we learned about The Challenger explosion, which happened 25 years ago today and is the reason why I’m thinking about all of this. In some way, my nine year old mind managed to turn this lesson into a cause for concern, that perhaps something equally as tragic could happen to my beloved teacher or even to me someday when I became a teacher. I managed to convince myself that if I really paid attention and became totally fixated on in, I could somehow prevent further tragedy from happening.
When I got home from school, I told my parents all about what I’d learned. In turn, my dad told me about how he remembered watching it live in the kitchen at my grandmother’s house where we were living at the time (whether I was there with him or not is still unclear. I may have been at pre-school, but he thinks I was there). He was talking to my mom on the phone and told her that it had just blown up, and she didn’t believe him. I have a memory of being in my grandma’s kitchen, of my dad sitting there with the TV on. I can see the coiled phone cord stretched across the room. I just don’t know if that’s the same memory. It’s been driving me kind of crazy for 19 years.
Later, at CCD (religious education for Catholic kids), I remember sitting in the church basement hunched over my workbook. I should have been reading or doing something pertaining to religion, but this whole Challenger thing continued to weigh on my mind. So I did what any other really weird little kid would do: I raised my hand and when the teacher came over, I proceeded to tell her all about the Challenger explosion. She said that was nice, but that I should do my work. Then she walked away.
That seems to be the point where I developed this odd fascination with tragedy. Later that same year, my 3rd grade class learned about the Titanic and I reacted in a similar fashion. It wasn’t so much that I was concerned about preventing future ocean liner crashes as it was that I just felt this sense of urgency to learn as much as I could. To this day, if I see an article or a documentary or anything about the Titanic, I will sit down and read or watch with great interest. The exception to this is the James Cameron film. I saw that four times in 1998 and won’t be upset if I never see it (or hear the song) again.
As time goes on, these tragedies keep happening, and I keep compulsively reading and watching, even when I become annoyed with myself because I want news crews to leave these people alone, but I also really need to know what’s happening. When the massacre at Columbine happened, I was glued to the television. I pretended like it didn’t bother me, but it really did. It scared me. If something like that could happen there, it could surely happen here. I still remember sitting on the back patio with the TV on, trying to do my chemistry homework, but really just watching the public memorial service. By this point, if you didn’t already figure it out or if you don’t know me very well, you have probably started to work out that I’m a bit paranoid. And neurotic.
Columbine still really bothers me. In the summer of 2009, I read a really great nonfiction book by Dave Cullen called, simply, Columbine. Cullen had reported on the events in 1999 and continued to study them over the next ten years. What he discovered was that a lot of what we were told and led to believe wasn’t true at all. That familiar feeling came back to me: If this could happen to a teacher there, this could happen to me. When I was in college, we were often asked in our teacher prep courses what our greatest fears were about the teaching profession. Several of my classmates repeatedly said that school violence and incidents like the one at Columbine were their greatest fear. My thought was that if I knew everything I could possibly know, maybe I could recognize the signs before it was too late. These same feelings stirred up again when the Virginia Tech massacre happened in 2007.
(As an interesting aside, the school where I taught in Virginia gave us school violence presentations at the beginning of every school year, showing us how easy it was to conceal weapons. Yet in 2007, when I reported my concern over the fact that one of my students was bringing bullets to school, I was told that it was fine, that the student was “probably” not a threat. “He only has bullets,” they said. “It’s not like he has a gun.” I asked how long it would be until he brought the gun too. They said nothing in response and did nothing about the situation. How frustrating!)
Like most of the nation, I’m sure, I spent days consuming every detail that I possibly could about 9/11. The human story interested me more than anything, and ten years later, I am still completely fascinated by “where were you” stories and the way so many people shared a singular experience in so many different ways. I get annoyed with the History Channel because they’ve been playing the same documentaries and specials for years. They now cease to teach me anything new, but I really want to learn more. I don’t know what it is about the way my mind works, but I can’t shake this need to understand (anything — not just 9/11). Even when I think I do, I still want to know more.
With the exception of the Titanic, all of these things (and others that I haven’t mentioned) happened in my lifetime. This fascination with tragedy and devastation that I’ve developed (case in point: as I’m writing this, I’m listening to/watching the Al Jazeera English live stream of the protests in Egypt) seems to be continually giving way to an increased interest in history. This isn’t new, per se. After English, history was always my favorite subject in school. The problem is that I’m really picky about it. Certain things really interest me while others don’t in any way. Some didn’t use to capture my attention, but over time they’ve started to.
The whole JFK assassination had always interested me. I’d heard my dad talk about where he was, telling me about all the teachers crying at recess and how they got a day off school for the day of mourning. Sometimes I just wake up and that sense of urgency propels me to start reading immediately. That’s basically what happened two years ago with the JFK assassination, and then my interest in the controversy surrounding it became an interest in the whole family. Thankfully there is no shortage of information about the Kennedys.
My grandma always had this tendency to read pretty much everything and learn all of this “stuff” that really served no purpose but to entertain her and/or satisfy her love of learning. I’ve started to realize that I’m becoming my Gram more and more in this sense (and others). When I was in college, she gave me this old, tattered copy of Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, who was a lawyer involved in the Manson Family trials. That book scared the absolute crap out of me and gave me the creeps the entire time I read it.
And now, since 2005, I haven’t been able to stop reading about the Manson Family. Clearly this isn’t from a point of adoration, but more from a point of legitmate interest. What is it that makes people DO things like that?
Though I’ve never formally studied it (it would never fit into my schedule in high school or college), it seems that psychology is an underlying interest here, too.
Most recently, I started reading an American history book that I’d purchased over the summer. Then I, a graduate of Susquehanna University, located on the Susquehanna River, drove my family and a few of my friends nuts for two days by asking ALL of them, “Hey, did you know that the Susquehanna was once a major contendor for the seat of national government?” The “location on the Potomac” was ultimately chosen, obviously, but maybe Pennsylvania Ave. was named in an attempt to appease the disappointed Pennsylvanians of the time.
But I mean, really, did you know that?