The Challenger Explosion Is the Day My Brain Broke

Life continued to move on for others after this tragedy, but something within me grinded to a halt

Bassey Ikpi
Published in
8 min readAug 16, 2019


Illustration: Anshika Khullar

I remember it as 1984.

I remember it as the third grade, three months before the new tire swing on the playground. Before the contest to see who could spin the fastest and the longest, during recess, began. Before I stood in front of the class and threw up all over Mrs. Zeroski’s shoes.

Google tells me that it was 1986 when it happened. Says that it was probably Mrs. Moelling in the fifth grade. But I remember it as part of 1984, the year it all began to fall apart, so I will tell it the way I remember it. With the faces and people who stain my memory. What is truth if it’s not the place where reality and memory meet?

I remember everything as 1984. As eight years old. As third grade. As a year of disappointment and heaviness and worry and everything in my brain switching from steady and somewhat okay to enveloping me in a sadness I didn’t understand.

I remember that each classroom had a television in it so we could watch historic moments as they happened and this was undeniably one. All of us, overwhelmed with excitement, giggles and chatter ricocheting off the walls. I remember our teacher tried to quiet us, tried to sneak in a lesson, tried to tie what we were about to watch into a teachable moment, but she couldn’t hide her excitement either. Finally, she gave up and switched on the TV.

I remember Tom Brokaw’s heavy, beautifully enunciated tenor describing the space mission we were about to witness. I may or may not have had a crush on him; I perked up whenever his voice rang from the TV at home. But today wasn’t about Tom Brokaw. It was about the first teacher in space: Christa McAuliffe. The entire world was waiting in anticipation and my class was no different. We sat at our desks transfixed, and watched the astronauts walk across the plank to the space shuttle, waving and smiling. The camera zoomed in on Christa McAuliffe. She looked so normal — like any teacher at my school. When she smiled into the camera, I remember smiling back.

The crew walked to the entrance of the space shuttle and then turned and waved one last…