Last week, an American icon passed on. John Glenn was an astronaut, a senator, and a man who cared deeply for his country. During the space race, Glenn and a handful of other men became a part of the Mercury 7. His contribution was becoming the first American to orbit the Earth. His accomplishments helped NASA and the Apollo missions successfully land a man on the moon, beating the competing U.S.S.R. Later in life he ventured into politics, becoming a state senator for Ohio. Granted, my childlike admiration for astronauts glazed over this. Once an spaceman; always an spaceman.
When I was in 7th grade, Glenn planned to set another record. After convincing NASA of the scientific merit, he would return to space on the space shuttle Discovery and become the oldest living person ever outside our atmosphere. Hearing of his passing swept me back to that day vividly. One of the few moments my childhood knew to grasp on to in detail.
Glenn’s mission was slated to launch early in the afternoon in our time zone. The latest lunch hour had completed and all middle schoolers were now back in a learning environment as I arrived in my science class. As we all took our seats, I continued to antagonize my friend Travis who sat in front of me. It became a routine to pester him and he pretending to beat me down. But then I learned that Senator John Glenn would be blasting off into space during this actual class. No time for shenanigans.
Shortly before the tardy bell pierced our ears, our science teacher entered (we’ll call him Mr. E). As the noise sank to a lull, he began to outline the agenda for that day’s class. We were focusing on genetics if memory holds up (Wonder if remembering that incorrectly can be explained by genetics as well). Sadly, I had trouble in all topics in this class despite a love of science. Outside of the time Mr. E using the Seinfeld episode where Kramer gets a kidney stone, nothing we said or did sunk in. Ok, he also had a laserdisc player that he used. But even the topics I looked forward to became drab and reeked of uninteresting minutiae. It wasn’t a class I enjoyed.
Mere minutes into that day’s material, our social studies teacher from across the hall barges in. Lovable and a bit too manic for most, he asks Mr. E if he has the TV ready for the launch. Mr. E smiles and explains apologetically that we were two days behind in the coursework. His focus was to the current unit and not anything distracting.
The social studies teacher eyes got wide as he stepped back and attempted to reason with Mr. E. It didn’t look good. The silent mass of seated students quietly prayed to observe the launch for a multitude of reasons. Even with another faculty member as our advocate, we were sure that we would emerge victorious.
As the social studies teacher left empty-handed, Mr. E sensed something might follow up this conversation and locked us in the room with him. His hope to prevent our teacher crusader from pursuing the issue further didn’t win out. No one would be barging in though, and that seemed sufficient for the moment.
Despite the percaution, a locked door wasn’t enough. The door was pounded on repeatedly by the social studies teacher as he demanded in a half-joking tone to know if Mr. E was in fact a Communist. If that was the case, he needed to get out of the building so the rest of us could learn and teach unencumbered by ulterior motives (and witness history in the making). The laughs from my classmates became increasingly harder to suppress. The ability to remain concentrated on the forgettable material was all but impossible at that point. It now devolved into a doodle and watch-the-clock kind of afternoon. Get us out of this stuffy environment because outside great things were about to happen in the name of space exploration.
All of this occurred a few years after the apex of my space program obsession. I had books on the Apollo missions, a ton of mission patches from when my uncle worked with NASA, and even involved making a homemade spacesuit for Halloween. It was arguably my favorite thing to read and study (the Titanic a close second). Mr. E’s intentions clearly felt intrusive and misguided. Surely watching a simple and historic (not to mention scientific) shuttle launch merited a break from the curriculum. A science class of all things could discuss the mission and history of the space shuttle while remaining true to the course’s concern: learning about science.
When the pounding on the door ceased, Mr. E. returned to his lesson plan. By this time, few to none of my classmates paid him any attention. The calamity had stirred the monotony and added excitement when least expected.
10 minutes later, the intercom for our classroom screeches to life. The social studies teacher commandeered the principal’s intercom and announced jubilantly that all communists leave the building immediately. Though it wasn’t for sure if this was broadcasted to the whole school, it felt like Mr. E was put on notice.
Mr. E never did cave. We suffered another of his lectures that was as exciting as watching paint dry. Despite his best efforts, we never got caught up. He ended up having to cut things to make sure we didn’t have homework beyond the semester.
Looking back on that year in school, I recall a slew of fond memories from that social studies teacher. For better or worse, he’ll always be remembered as the balls-to-the-wall personality he was known for. Mr. E on the other hand, took a potentially watershed moment for a child and aspiring astronaut and crushed it. If given the opportunity to relive this moment in perfectly clarity, I’m sure my perception of him would only worsen.
John Glenn obviously made it into space and returned safely without the spectators of my 7th grade science class. I assume the launch was full of pomp and circumstance but alas I don’t know. I’m sure YouTube has a rough version of it somewhere, though the prestige of it is lost.
So long John Glenn. You will be missed.