For Mrs. Barkman

The space shuttle exploded sometime between the end of Algebra 1 and the beginning of English. We were at lunch, eating sandwiches and flirting madly as the shuttle burned. I found out in the hallway on the way to class. “Did you hear?” “Have you heard?” The news was almost gossip. When our English teacher – Mrs. Barkman, impossibly old – let us in, her eyes were red-rimmed and glistening.

“I imagine you’ve all heard,” she snapped. We watched the fiery footage, then she promptly told us to spend the period writing about the disaster. If memory serves, Mrs. Barkman just sat at the front of the class, stunned.

I was 14. During what remained of our 53 minutes, I wrote a well-reasoned piece about how the astronauts knew the risks they were taking and how sometimes progress requires setbacks. I explained that while it was sad, it wasn’t really *that* sad because, you know, space travel is dangerous.

I wasn’t unmoved, exactly; I was more caught off-guard. The disaster felt unreal and distant. The space shuttle was so much bigger than me that I couldn’t really see it.

Today, as Notre Dame de Paris burned, I could see all too clearly. I remembered my moments there: climbing the bell towers with students; savoring ice cream nearby with friends; exploring the interior with family; kissing lovers in the shadows of the buttresses; sitting in quiet awe of the hushed silence that kept the space holy even as tourists paraded through. Today, I felt the history in the stones as they tumbled, knew the destruction of the stories, understood the devastation of a people. Today, the fire at Notre Dame rose in me until my tears flowed for what we have lost, for what we can lose, for what we will, inevitably, lose.

Today, 33 years after Mrs Barkman wept, I mourn with her. Together, across the years, we weep for the unflagging courage of our dreams and for the devastation of their loss.

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15 thoughts on “For Mrs. Barkman

  1. Your voice…. spiritual, reflective, inspiring….as always, you touch so many with your words, caring and ability to bring a voice to those who are not so literal. A warm embrace to you my friend…. miss you!!

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  2. It was so hard to hear the news about Norte Dame since I, too, have memories of visiting it.
    You wrote today, about Notre Dame, as a way that’s so different than when the Challenger exploded. It’s funny how different events hit us depending on where we are in our lives.

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  3. Life is about growth and perspective – and often the pain these incur. You could not see at 14 what Mrs. Barkman saw, simply being at a different vantage point. Now you feel it. She, like the cathedral, was “impossibly old.” You write of love in the cathedral’s shadows; you were destined for teaching, in your teacher’s shadow … it is not so strange that the fiery loss which moved her should move you afresh now, in mourning the cathedral’s burning. In you they are connected: “Until my tears flowed for what we have lost, for what we can lose, for what we will, inevitably, lose.” How well, how very well, that encapsulates the beauty, the pain, the continuum of life.

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  4. “until my tears flowed for what we have lost, for what we can lose, for what we will, inevitably, lose.” – The inevitability of loss strikes me in this passage. This morning I wondered about how many other times the great cathedral has been at risk of destruction. Like a tree this cathedral has a lineage that outpaces our human lifetimes. It exists on a very different time frame. That said, we mourn what we have had the chance to see and know. We mourn our inability to preserve all things that are precious. This loss reminds us of all the other things we *can* lose and that may be the scariest part of our grieving. Thank you for helping me to think a bit more about this event and how it relates to our now and future.

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  5. I visited Notre Dame in 2015, also w/ students. I was an early career teacher when the Challenger exploded and killed the crew, including the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe. Her death had symbolic meaning. In many ways it has resonated as symbolic of the decline of teaching as a profession. I’m sad about Notre Dame, but was devastated when the Challenger exploded. Notre Dame will be rebuilt. Will teaching be rebuilt? Will we ever recover our sense of wonder embodied by space exploration?

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  6. It is so interesting to read all of the posts about Notre Dame. It’s so unsettling reading about all of the damage, even though most of what I know from Notre Dame is from a Disney movie (!)…

    I was in elementary school when the Challenger blew up. I remember sitting with my class in our auditorium, hearing my teacher gasp before I even realized what had happened. I remember crying with my classmates.

    You bring up an interesting point about how we see different perspectives of tragedies, depending on where we are at in our lives.

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  7. I love the way you wove the two events together, Amanda. Your understanding of connections and personal understandings is so important in this post, and I loved how you brought us into the intimate memories you have of Notre Dame. This is a beautiful post.

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  8. I love the connection you drew between the two disasters. I’ve not thought of the Space Shuttle disaster from a grown up perspective. I remember having to go get a TV from the library to watch the news of it in biology class. These disasters become markers in our personal timeline, which is kind of sad.

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  9. Well, I was struck, as much as anything , by the honesty in this post. It’s hard to write about a response that maybe embarrasses us now. It’s hard not to pretend that as a kid we had the understanding we wish we had. I’m glad your teacher didn’t criticize your response. I think I’ve sometimes challenged a kid’s knee-jerk response, when really they were just “caught off guard,” or hadn’t had time to process thoughtfully.

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  10. The juxtapositions in your first sentence just keep rippling all the way through this slice, the ways that events that don’t seem connected can nonetheless touch each other and, in the process, our selves.

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  11. When the twin towers burned, I felt it was so surreal and unfathomable. As the day went on, teachers’ eyes met mine and we shared a moment of grief, not yet knowing how to tell our students. I saw the smoke billows on TV, but once again, didn’t really tune it all in. Now I can’t look at another image of happy faces on Facebook pictured in front of Notre Dame. It’s such a shared experience of grief and yet also very personal. We all have our own memories. Thanks for this post.

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