Former friends, colleagues recall McAuliffe's love of teaching

New Hampshire Union Leader
January 26. 2013 7:22PM
Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space, shares the name of the McAulliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord with astronaut Alan Shepard. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

Twenty-seven years after the Challenger space shuttle explosion, no one can say for sure what Christa McAuliffe would have done with her life had the tragedy not claimed it. But friends and former colleagues agree her days would have been dedicated to improving the lives of children through education.

"I'm sure she would have been pulled in many directions," says Mary Liscombe, director of the McAuliffe Center in Framingham, Mass., and a classmate of then-Christa Corrigan at Framingham State College, Class of 1970. "She loved teaching. As a social studies teacher, she had a passion for politics. I'm not sure anyone could say for sure, but whatever she chose to do in life, I believe it would have been tied to education in some way."

On Jan. 28, 1986, the Challenger exploded just 73 seconds after lifting off from launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The accident, broadcast live on television, claimed the lives of all seven crew members, including McAuliffe, a social studies teacher at Concord High School. She had been selected to kick off NASA's Teacher In Space Project.

In the years since the tragedy, science centers and schools bearing her name have sprung up across the country. Awards and prizes are handed out in her honor. In terms of inspiring students and teachers around the world, her mission was a success.

But what if Challenger's mission had been a success and the first Teacher in Space returned home to Concord? After the likely parade and celebrations had passed, what might the last decades have held for her?

"I am positive she would have returned to teaching here," said Lise Bofinger, a biology instructor at Concord High School and former McAuliffe colleague. "From everything I remember about her, she loved being an educator. The sense in the building at the time was she was coming back to teach, and everyone looked forward to it. She had been gone about a year already for training."

Chris Markis, a social studies teacher at Concord High, was brought in to fill McAuliffe's position while she trained with NASA.

"I knew her while I was doing my internship here. It's a small community," said Markis. "She was a very positive person, very upbeat, with lots of energy. Always willing to try new things."

It's that side of her, the one willing to try new methods of reaching students, that her former department chairman remembers most.

"I remember some media people coming into her class to take a picture, and it was so staged," said Tom Herbert, now retired, who was McAuliffe's supervisor during her days on staff there. "They saw the student desks in a circle in the room and decided to put them in straight rows because it looked funny to them. But she didn't want to teach them in rows, she liked to be able to address and see each student.

"I have to believe she would have been back there teaching," said Herbert. "She loved it too much."

Said Liscombe: "She started having the students read from the journals of historical figures because she felt they could learn more from the actual writings of these people. She was really ahead of her time when it came to teaching approaches like that."

In August of 2012, the Christa McAuliffe School opened in Concord, the first educational institution in the Granite State to carry her name. Principal Kristen Gallo said the school won't hold a ceremony to mark the anniversary on Monday.

"We continue to make a conscious choice as a school not to focus on Christa's death," said Gallo. "Rather, we choose to focus on the accomplishments of her life. She was an educator, a leader, an explorer and an inspiration to all. We aspire to provide authentic learning opportunities to all students in her honor."

Gallo was in high school when she heard the news about Challenger. She never knew McAuliffe, but shares the same passion for educating students.

"It is absolutely a great honor to be the principal of the Christa McAuliffe School," said Gallo. "Christa's famous quote - 'I touch the future. I teach' - is alive in the halls and classrooms throughout our school. Our students are nurtured and supported every day by an exceptionally intelligent and caring staff. I am certain that Christa would be honored by the efforts our students put forth every day to become better citizens and contributors to a safe, positive and engaging school community."

There are no special events planned Monday at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, according to executive director Jeanne Gerulskis.

"We are working on a more permanent display that we hope to have ready later this year," said Gerulskis. "It will be along the lines of a reading room, dedicated both to Christa and Alan Shepard, where people can go and sit and learn more about their lives and accomplishments. We're going to contact educators, members of the media, family members, people connected with them to ask them to be a part of this."

Gerulskis said the display and room could be ready by May.

McAuliffe's two children have children of their own now, which would make Christa a grandmother.

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