Christa McAuliffe's Messenger
Christa’s mother smiles. “I just feel she was doing so much good for those kids,” she says. “If I can help, just by carrying her message, that’s what she was striving for. If you remember at that time, teachers had a bum rap, and she was trying to make everyone know they were important.” She looks at me with an expression that says, It’s clear why I do this.
“I had a good message,” she adds. “And my husband felt the same way. He did a lot of speaking with me, even though he was so ill. It was something we believed in, and we were doing it for her because she wasn’t there. You know, if we weren’t going to do it, who would? Who would make people stop and think, This is important? School is important. Teachers are important. It was something she just couldn’t finish. And those teachers down in Alabama were so pleased to hear the message. You know, I don’t go looking for it. But if a school calls and wants me to talk, there’s no way I should just sit home, not if I can still carry Christa’s message.”
I ask whether she has ever wanted to just stop, to do as others close to Christa have done, to close the curtain on that time.
“Oh,” Grace says, “in my family, everybody was in pain. I mean everybody. I knew they probably wished I’d just left it alone. But look at it this way: It happened. There was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t take it back. So I did what I thought she’d want. Nobody else agreed with me. I didn’t explain myself to anybody. I did what I wanted to do. And Christa would have done what she wanted to do. I haven’t regretted it. I know I helped make people feel good.”
I go with Grace to see the Challenger Learning Center at Framingham State University. The director, Mary Liscombe, was Christa’s college classmate, and the women hug. “I feel Christa on my shoulder every day,” Mary says. She guides me through the center, shows me how students work together in a simulation, landing on Mars and returning to Earth. “There are no failures on these missions,” she says. Later I e-mail her; I ask her what I first asked Christa’s mother.
She wrote back: I, too, wonder how Grace does it. … When Grace is in front of children, she asks them whom they think Christa was flying for. The answer is–for them! Grace touches teachers’ hearts and reminds them to continue to touch the future through the children they teach. Christa lives through her. …
[A colleague] invited Grace and me to her sister-in-law’s funeral. The woman had died when the plane she was traveling in hit the World Trade Center. … Grace and that family shared the bond of having lost loved ones in a tragic and public way. The family surrounded her and embraced her. She was able to comfort them in ways no one else could. They drew strength from her and felt her love and gave love in return. I was so taken by the scene, I almost forgot to breathe. …
I’ve spent the day with another classmate of Christa’s. I was telling her that you’d asked how Grace “does it.” We were both thinking how anniversaries cause us to stop and reflect and remember. Grace does so much more than “just carrying on” in the face of tragedy. I can only hope that she draws love and strength from everyone she meets. Grace epitomizes the graces of forgiveness and love. Maybe it’s just as simple as that.
Before I say goodbye, Grace tells me a story that she thinks will help me understand. “The ones I remember most are the ones where the kids are really deprived,” she says. “There was a school in New Jersey. It’s a tough, tough school. They were a little scared [about] how I would be received. And yet …” Here she stops, and her eyes shine: “… they were the most wonderful audience. The auditorium was packed. The kids didn’t let out a peep. The teachers had taken my book, and each grade had taken a part and done projects. I remember this part so vividly. I was talking about questions children had asked me, and in that big auditorium it was so quiet I heard a little voice: ‘She’s talking about my question!’
“When I drove away, I said, ‘Thank you, Christa, thank you.’”