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

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 time before entering. Tom Brokaw told us that they were going inside and getting ready for liftoff. We had studied space travel and NASA in anticipation of this day, so I knew that they would strap themselves in, brace themselves. Our class joined the countdown.

“10–9–8–7–6–5–4–3–2–1.”

“And we have liftoff!”

As the shuttle climbed higher and higher, I could feel my body begin to surge. The room got hot and I could feel myself get light-headed.

I recognized this surge. It was the whirlwind that overcame me on nights I couldn’t sleep. It was me, wild-eyed and energetic, a monster on the playground, smashing the tetherball around the pole, narrowly missing my opponent’s head. It was me, in class, knowing that I had to sit still, be still — those were the rules — but feeling like something was running around inside of me so quickly that I could almost feel my blood sprinting through my veins until I couldn’t take it anymore and would ask to be excused to the bathroom and would run as fast as I could there and back, twice.

It was like that, only multiplied a hundred times and more uncomfortable. This was almost painful; it felt like my blood was rushing around, looking for an exit. I had to shut out the buzzing around me. I closed my eyes, lowered my head, and did my own backwards count to 10, trying to settle my quaking body. When I looked up again, the shuttle was still steady and climbing further and further into the blue of sky. I closed my eyes again, nothing more than a blink.

I was too stunned to think of anything else.

What came next was something I still struggle to make sense of. I can still see the fireball explosion and the puff of smoke, lumpy like a cancerous cloud, like a misshapen, two-headed serpent…

There was a quiet in our classroom, in the school, in the world, for what felt like an eternity — but it must have only been a moment because suddenly, the first child found a gasp and that gasp gave way to sobs that still echo in my ears. Everyone was crying, some with tears running down their face silently, others wailing and weeping. It wasn’t until I noticed that my hands, balled in tight fists on my desk, were soaked that I realized I was crying. I don’t know if I wailed. I do know that my face was wet, and my new glasses held a river, but I think I was silent. I looked over at my teacher, her face white as the smoke and clouds, slumped dead-eyed against the edge of her desk.

I remember fearing that she would faint. I remember wondering if I could lift her. I was too stunned to think of anything else.

On air, Tom Brokaw was attempting to make sense of the thing we had just witnessed. He struggled, his voice heavy with grief and confusion. Then there was a pause and his familiar face fell for a split second before he offered the news he had just learned. “Ladies and gentlemen, there are no survivors.”

There are no survivors.

There are no survivors.

That lived like an echo in my head long after he said it. The teacher pulled herself together enough in time to turn off the TV so we wouldn’t see the wreckage, but it was too late for me. I was already imagining the mangled mess of metal spread on the ground, the pieces of flesh and limbs littered across Florida. I wondered if those who came to watch were sprayed with debris and blood. The quaking in my body returned.

The explosion had triggered something that I wouldn’t have the language to identify for more than a decade.

I can’t imagine we just returned to math and reading groups. I can’t imagine us just rolling into the blacktop for tetherball and soccer at recess. At some point, we went home. At some point, we stopped discussing it. At some point, our lives continued. My life was forever changed. Tom Brokaw’s “There were no survivors” lived in my chest. I didn’t understand who got to choose who survives and who dies. God, I guessed. But what were his criteria? Maybe if I hadn’t blinked at that exact moment, maybe if I hadn’t turned my head or if I had been better at sitting still, those people, that teacher, wouldn’t be dead, those families wouldn’t be in such pain. If I hadn’t looked away. If I hadn’t been so concerned about my own discomfort and taken my eyes off those seven people. If I hadn’t upset Mommy or disappointed Daddy. If I had studied harder for the math test. If I had run faster. If I tried harder. If I was better. If I was better. If I was better there would have been survivors.

The explosion had triggered something that I wouldn’t have the language to identify for more than a decade. At home, I stayed in my room thinking about famine, war, the homeless, and the sick. Listing all the ways I could have prevented the Challenger explosion. At school, I sat in a corner of the playground, my back against the chain-link fence watching the other kids play. I wanted to join them. I wanted to be out there with them, but I couldn’t do it. My brain was too heavy.

I started getting headaches. They would begin at one part of my head then zoom to another. The pain was unbearable and my whole body would wince. But it was also so brief and sudden that I was never sure that I hadn’t just imagined them. My head was sensitive to touch. They would come out of nowhere and then leave just as quickly. When the headaches became more frequent and painful, I decided to tell my parents, even though I wasn’t sure if they would believe me. I didn’t know how to explain the pain and how it connected to the quiet that suddenly followed me. I waited until we were in the car. I told them I wasn’t the only one who had them, in the hopes that this would arouse their concern and not a dismissal or a litany of questions I couldn’t answer. Instead, they asked me if I had been doing drugs with my friends. Confused and stuttering, I replied that I didn’t even know where to get drugs, which only led them to believe I had been considering it.

I hoped the pain would come, so they could at least see what it looked like, how I flinched and cringed with each pop in my skull. I tried to back out of the whole thing and find a way to ignore the comet of pain ricocheting around my head.

No. It’s not my whole head.

No. It’s not a pounding.

It’s like an explosion. Like a cancerous fireball. Like a two-headed serpent. Like an explosion. Like there will be no survivors.

“You said you and your friends have the same problem?”

“No. I mean… yes. I mean, no…”

“Which one?” I could feel the tension build in my shoulders. I began to shake. “Has anyone been offering you drugs?”

I shrunk into myself and allowed quiet to take over. I shook my head no. I shook my head no. I pressed my head against the window and let their voices hit me, flinching ever so slightly as the pain snuck in and set off bundles of agony in my head.

I never mentioned the headaches again.

Months later, in math class, I finished a test early. Normally, I would ask for a bathroom pass so I could sprint down hallways and corridors to get out some of my pent-up energy, but instead I turned my test over and began writing on the blank page. I wrote a list of all the disasters, personal and global, that were my fault. I filled the entire page with the guilt I carried. I wrote of the sadness that filled my days and nights. I wrote about how much it hurt just to be.

I agreed and vowed to myself to keep the chaos I carried to myself.

I was called to the principal’s office later that week and walked in to find my parents seated inside, looking small and anxious. I immediately felt guilty for the worry I was causing, the hours they couldn’t afford to take off of work. My head began to throb.

I shrunk inside myself and swallowed the truth. I told them it was a poem, something I was doing for extra credit. They didn’t believe me, but I wouldn’t give them anything else. The rocket of pain was already exploding in my head. I couldn’t be responsible for creating new worries. I was the oldest, it was my responsibility to be easy. I couldn’t tell them anything else. I was told not to write on my tests anymore. I agreed and vowed to myself to keep the chaos I carried to myself.

A story I told: I jumped off the roof with an umbrella and landed on a kid and broke his arm. This was not true. Despite my tomboy recklessness, there were never any broken bones. Whatever I replaced with that memory must not have had anything to do with bones; maybe it had something to do with breaking or leaping. But what?

What broke?

Excerpted from I’m Telling the Truth But I’m Lying: Essays by Bassey Ikpi. Copyright © 2019. Reprinted by permission from Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins.

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