I was in fourth grade at Myrtle Schumann Elementary School in Orono, Minn., when the Challenger exploded. I didn't see the shuttle explode live on TV. We were in our class doing our usual lessons as word of the disaster spread. I remember a little kid named Jason broke the news to me personally.
JASON: Did you hear about the space shuttle?
JASON: It EXPLODED.
ME: Like a bomb?
JASON: Uh-huh. AN EXPLOSION.
ME: Yeah. Cool!
Another teacher eventually came into our classroom and brought us over to the library, which had the only functional TV set in the school and which sat perched atop a black caddy so that it could be wheeled around. They showed replays of the explosion over and over again, and there was a fundamental disconnect between how the kids watched the explosion and how the teachers watched it. The teachers, of course, were horrified. There was one of their own on that ship. And when you're a grownup, things like that naturally hit you harder. Once you're 30 years old and you've experienced loved ones dying and you've witnessed the birth of your own children, you can't help but be more affected by tragedy, by death. You understand the stakes. You have a much better appreciation for the hugeness of life. I have three kids now and I feel bad even killing an ant these days. That ant may have had a family. I kill him anyway, but the thought does occur to me. I take no joy in that ant's passing.
So the grownups were already in a state of shock and grief that day. The kids, meanwhile, reacted as if they were watching the Fourth of July. There were definitely some oohs when the TV showed the initial burst of flame. Jason openly said, "That's awesome!" before being shouted down by a girl in our class. I don't think that girl was actually terrified by the footage. I think she was just trying to score points with the teachers. The kids, being kids, had no real frame of reference to process what had happened. It was just a shuttle, packed with people they didn't know, blowing up. So many of us reacted in a remarkably inappropriate fashion. I remember WANTING to see the explosion. I had heard so much about it before getting to the library that I was downright excited when I finally saw the thing burst into flames. That was wrong of me, but that's how fourth graders sometimes think. They're morons.
I kept that thought in the back of my head the day I told my oldest kid about the Newtown massacre. My wife and I had an entire weekend to figure out what to say and what not to say to our kids about the Sandy Hook shootings. We have a 7-year-old, a 4-year-old, and a 1-year-old. The 1-year-old was easy because you can tell babies anything you like. You can read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich to them if you want. They're not gonna remember a thing. And the 4-year-old was still in pre-school. Pre-schoolers are smart in their own ways, but they're still relatively ignorant. If they're focused on playing with a train, you could tell them that the president is here to kidnap them RIGHT NOW and they'd still ignore you. You don't have to say anything to them about anything.
But once kids are old enough for elementary school, you can't shield them from the news. They're old enough to know what the news means and aware enough to take an interest in it. My wife and I knew we had to talk to our kid before she got to school on Monday because if we didn't, a kid like my old friend Jason would run up to her and tell her how awesome it was that a school got riddled with bullets. I didn't want her reacting to this the way I'd reacted to bad things as a grade schooler. I also worried that she would hear shitloads of bad information. You think the Post has dubious sourcing? It's a paragon of journalistic standards compared with what you hear from Brayden McDipshit in the math lab. I took my kid outside, away from the other two kids, and told her I had to talk to her.