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The Challenger disaster and its impact on Generation-X

I recently read an article that attempted to explain why the young leaders and workers of today distrust those in authority. It is my belief that every generation seems to question the wisdom of the generation before it. (Think of the 1960s slogan, "Don't trust anyone over the age of 30" as an example.)

I recently read an article that attempted to explain why the young leaders and workers of today distrust those in authority. It is my belief that every generation seems to question the wisdom of the generation before it. (Think of the 1960s slogan, “Don’t trust anyone over the age of 30” as an example.)

There is no denying that the anti-authority trait exists in young professionals today. But what caused it to be so prevalent that it is beginning to define the next generation of leadership? Here is my take.

Ask anyone from my father’s generation where they were when President Kennedy was assassinated, and they will weave stories of their location and emotion at an event that forever changed each of them.

Generation X had that type of moment. However, it isn’t acknowledged anymore, and it certainly didn’t get significant recognition when its 20th anniversary passed last year. But, I think it had an impact on my generation that has never been fully understood.

I was in Mrs. Schiphorst’s fifth-grade class at Hite Elementary, sitting in the second row from the window, in the second seat from the front. It was a sunny January day. We were reviewing our math homework from the night before.

While other classes were watching the drama unfold on classroom TVs, Mrs. Schiphorst decreed our lessons were more important than what was being watched by schoolchildren nationwide that day — fractions before pleasure, you know.

Mrs. Reece, the principal, entered our classroom. Mrs. Reece was always stern and serious, but her eyes that day seemed to flash concern and sadness.

She called our teacher to her and whispered something brief, but something in that exchange caused Mrs. Schiphorst’s demeanor to match that of Mrs. Reece.

It became clear to me that we were not going to be working on fractions anymore. I had seen the same look in their eyes before. In September of the previous year, I was dismissed from class to the principal’s office to be told that my grandfather had lost his battle with cancer. I saw it again 30 days later when I was told my other grandfather died of a heart attack.

In my 11-year-old mind, someone was leaving that room to be told someone else had died. I mentally began handicapping the race for which poor soul was to receive the bad news. But we all were about to receive the bad news.

Mrs. Reece stepped forward to address the class. Without any preamble she said, “There has been an accident with the space shuttle.” Mrs. Reece asked Mrs. Schiphorst to turn on the television.

For the first time, 31 confused fifth-graders in Middletown heard the words “throttle up,” then we saw the unthinkable.

In any other circumstance, the Challenger’s explosion would not have warranted a visit from the principal, however this disaster resonated with every elementary school student across the country. Unlike in 2003 when the Columbia broke up on re-entry, many school-aged children didn’t even know it had occurred. What was different?

The difference, of course, was Christa McAuliffe. In the months leading up to the Challenger’s launch, Christa was everywhere. She was in our Weekly Readers, she was on television. Our teachers talked about her in glowing terms.

We were going to get lessons about science from space. Her picture hung on our classroom bulletin board. The “teacher in space” program wasn’t just for her. It was for all of us.

NASA and the American school system worked together to build up our hopes. Even though we never met her, we knew her.

Christa McAuliffe was our friend, and she was dead.

The young leaders of today experienced a trauma 21 years ago. I am not making an excuse, but maybe the scene that played out all over America on Jan. 28, 1986, can give some insight as to why young professionals openly express a distrust of authority.

You see, to millions of school-aged kids, “authority” started a media blitz, raised our hopes and expectations, made us fall in love with a teacher from Concord, N.H., put her in a spaceship — and killed her.

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Copyright by B. Todd Bright. All rights reserved.