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Shuttle Disaster

A final contrail wisps across generations

A Lakewood Elementary teacher draws on her own memories to help students understand the shuttle's loss.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 5, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- Stacie Canner unrolled a giant map of the United States shortly after 10 on Monday morning and turned to the fourth-grade students in her classroom at Lakewood Elementary School.

With a sweeping gesture, she showed them the space shuttle Columbia's scheduled descent from California to Florida.

"What happened to it?" she asked the children.

They answered in unison: "It blew up."

Canner nodded, explaining that parts of the shuttle had landed all over Texas and as far east as Louisiana.

Ten-year-old Kirk Crawford raised his hand.

"I heard on the radio that a long time ago a space shuttle blew up," he said.

Canner nodded again and paused. She explained to the children that the first teacher scheduled to go into space had been aboard the space shuttle Challenger when it exploded in 1986.

Then she told them something that made their eyes widen in surprise.

She had been a fourth-grader just like them when the Challenger burst into flames as it rose in the sky over Cape Canaveral 17 years ago.

In her classroom at 4151 Sixth St. S, she turned the discussion back to the Columbia, but part of her mind stayed on the Challenger. Like teachers throughout Pinellas County and across the country, she had grappled with ways to explain the tragedy to her students since hearing early Saturday that the shuttle had been lost over Texas.

For Canner, 26, the assignment held a special poignancy. Haunted by memories of the January morning when she watched the Challenger explode on television, she recalled the emotions she couldn't put into words as a 9-year-old -- surprise, disbelief, fear -- and knew her students were probably experiencing the same things.

"I was remembering," she said. "I started thinking, 'What did it mean to me? How did it affect me? How did it make me feel?' "

She decided she wanted to give the children a chance to talk about their feelings in the classroom. She also wanted to make sure they hadn't been confused by the barrage of information that had been released over the weekend.

"In the past two years, they've been exposed to so many things they haven't been exposed to before," she said. "They hear so much. I think it gets jumbled up in their minds. They have to get the right answers."

For about an hour, the students read newspaper articles about the disaster and theorized about what might have gone wrong. They did a writing assignment and began work on a poster they plan to send to Kennedy Space Center as a memorial to the seven astronauts.

As part of their discussion, Canner posed a question: Do you think we should continue to explore space?

Some students called out no. Others called out yes. One boy was conflicted.

"We need technology from the other planets, but if we go back up right away, the same thing might happen again," he said.

The child's response led Canner to ask another question: Are the risks of space exploration worth the benefits?

Yes, the children concluded. The astronauts knew the risks when they went up there, one child said, but they were willing to take the risks because they believed in what they were doing.

Later in the day, Canner commented that she had expected her students to be thoughtful about what had happened, but she was surprised at some of their responses. One student in particular touched her heart.

"He mentioned that there is so much tragedy in the world. He said, 'It's sad to see how the world is turning out.'

"I didn't think about things like that when I was 10 years old," she said.

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