Though I hadn’t attended mass in many years, in January 1986 I was a token Catholic marooned out of necessity and convenience at a protestant evangelical school. Though admitted to the liberal, gothic-revival Kenyon College, I couldn’t scrape up the money. I was asked all the Catholic questions in theology class and held my own despite being a little fuzzy on transubstantiation. There were rules to navigate at my alma mater regarding alcohol, drugs and tobacco (happily, not when and where to genuflect) – and chapel attendance, hats, the length of skirts, and promiscuity. Not the length – the very occurrence. Sexual inquiry was a key gen-ed requirement in more fortunate co-eds’ curriculum. These poor, nervous students could be seen slinking in their seats at the local theater as cinema was forbidden. No Ferris Buller’s Day Off, Blue Velvet, or Karate Kid II for you! Living off-campus, I ignored their petty commandments. Though I tolerated the prayers at the outset of every lecture, I somehow managed to avoid languishing in Wednesday morning services by submitting forged notes from work.
It was in biology class. I sat near the rear of a long, narrow, sloped, windowless lecture hall – the walls a dated anemic shade of mint green from the decade of Apollo. If it had been a Catholic classroom, there would have been a crucifix for spiritual reference. The subject was the structure and composition of cells. Though the professor was dull, thoroughly weary of his own voice, I was captivated with what occurred in this small universe: nucleus, nucleolus, ribosomes, lysosomes, cytoplasm, chromosome, Golgi.
Abruptly, just to my right, the metal doors crashed open, and a student announced that the space shuttle Challenger just exploded over the Atlantic. I was stunned (Jesus, Joseph, and Mary!) and the class, never a cohesive group and usually interspersed in mute ones and twos, stared at the doors as they banged closed behind the messenger. The professor did not miss a beat. There was not the slightest pause. There was no prayer before we knew anything of failing rubber O-rings. He continued plodding on with mitochondria. There was no moment of silence for Frank, Mike, Ron, Ellison, Judith, Greg, nor even our comrade in education, Christa McAuliffe – people whose vocation was to bring us all a bit closer to, eye to eye with our origins, our creator.
I looked around, wide-eyed, at the evangelicals, the saved. They returned to their notes as if their lack of response was routine. Space was remote, decidedly beyond their small, insular world. No one said, “Wait a minute.” Perhaps our professor thought, “This is biology. Astrophysics is down the hall.” Maybe more facts – additional verification was required. Maybe he was simply having a bad day and could not be bothered. What did we learn there that morning? Even I, vacillating between agnostic and atheist, offered a silent, modest supplication on the spot.
Over the course of the following weeks, as the debris was recovered from the ocean, the disaster, the fireball against the blue sky, the crew’s deaths, were repeated again and again, relentlessly again, in our living room televisions like Warhol Car Crashes. Still, no thoughts and prayers were forthcoming from our professor in subsequent class invocations. Fifteen years later, when the towers fell, huddled with colleagues around the TV in my own faculty lounge, I wondered if my former professor proffered even a limp, half-hearted benediction over this tragedy in his ten-o-clock class.
David Sapp, writer, artist, and professor, lives along the southern shore of Lake Erie in North America. A Pushcart nominee, he was awarded Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Grants for poetry and the visual arts. His poetry and prose appear widely in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.