McAuliffe dedicates her shuttle flight to the `common man'
Concord, N.H. — FOR the Concord, N.H., Lions Club, it was too good to be true. More than six months ago the group planned the biggest parade in Concord's history -- little knowing that the day before the big event, one of their townspeople would be chosen as America's first private-citizen passenger to fly in space.
So Saturday, Concord high school teacher Susan Christa McAuliffe -- decked out in a NASA flight suit -- led the parade down the streets of Concord.
The whole city turned out for the event -- with signs, flags, and bunting in abundance.
Early that morning, a young boy said, ``You want to get to Mrs. McAuliffe's house? Follow me!'' -- and he practically sprinted ahead of my car for five blocks down a quiet, residential street before pointing out an attractive, dark-brown two-story with balloons in the trees and police cars jamming the street in front.
You're going to like Mrs. McAuliffe, the young boy says, ``She's really nice.''
Mrs. McAuliffe emerges from the house, beset by cameramen, reporters, policemen, and hangers-on. Despite the crowd, the dark-haired McAuliffe is all smiles and vibrancy as she steps to the motorcade amid cheers and clapping from neighbors across the street -- and I'm reminded that almost every townsperson I've spoken with has commented on McAuliffe's energy and enthusiasm for teaching and life.
A police escort delivers her to a press conference at a local hotel. Afterwards in a Monitor interview, in a suite away from the cameras, lights, and crowds, McAuliffe says one of her main objects in applying for the Teacher-in-Space program is to show that ``ordinary people can make a contribution, too.''
McAuliffe, who calls herself the first ``ordinary person'' to fly in space, has specialized in the social history of the common man. Not Mark Twain's common man (``too common to be a man'') but all those ``good people who lived and worked in our history, and who you never hear about,'' she says.
She says she hopes her trip will help ``empower'' the ordinary citizen. ``I grew up in the Kennedy era,'' she says. ``And back then we were taught that the ordinary person could make a difference. You could join VISTA -- be in the Peace Corps. You could change things. I still feel that.''
Though McAuliffe and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are not making it a big point, there may be some further poetic justice in the fact that the first private-citizen passenger into space should be a female who teaches a self-designed history course entitled ``The American Woman.''
The subject is close to McAuliffe's heart. As a junior high school teacher in Bow, N.H., in the late '70s, she had been thinking about such a course. She says she had been finding that ``women as a group -- because they were not making military or political decisions -- had been left out of history.''
Through diaries, journals, and new scholarship on the subject, McAuliffe began to discover ``many unknown women who lived very substantial lives -- and not just Betsy Ross or Mamie Eisenhower.''
In 1982, a move six miles north to Concord High School allowed her to teach a course in women's studies. In fact, it was her research into 18th-century women who crossed the US in Conestoga wagons that inspired McAuliffe to apply to NASA. She saw these women as kindred spirits. For her, ``the early astronauts are the modern explorers. They went out for a purpose and brought something back.'' Explorers have always been followed by other people, she says. ``I look on myself as one of the first of the `oth er people.' ''
McAuliffe plans to keep a three-part journal of her experiences -- a thematic journey detailing the flight before, during, and after -- in which she can share it with a wider audience of US, and possibly, overseas students.
McAuliffe, who teaches history, economics, and law, is not using her first moments in the limelight for self-promotion. She's giving her profession a boost instead. She says it is appropriate that a teacher be the first citizen into space: ``When you think of the number of people we influence in a lifetime . . . it's a lot. We don't get the respect we deserve. I hope this program will help students think about teaching as a career -- see that teacher's are doing something wonderf ul.''
While such issues as low pay, low status, and undesirable working conditions bother McAuliffe, she also thinks school teaching in America suffers from another big problem -- the myth of immediate results.
``The public is used to thinking in terms of immediate payback,'' McAuliffe says. ``My husband, for example, is an attorney -- and his cases get decided quickly.'' In teaching, however, ``it might be years before something you say to a student begins to sparkle and grow,'' she says. ``People need to start seeing education as a process -- one worth supporting.''
To her fellow workers, McAuliffe is a ``teacher par excellence.''
``She exemplifies what American education needs today,'' says teacher Steve Jones. She is ``someone who strikes the right balance between solid subject matter and an engaging, human approach. That's how a master teacher keeps kids listening.''
McAuliffe says that in teaching she ``simply tries to give students a connection to something in their lives.'' In economics class she had students take up an actual business, bank, or community project; in her law course, students are sure to spend up to 50 percent of their time either in a real or moot court; in history she might have students interview older citizens to find out what being a teenager was like in the 1920s.
``You don't want students to get too complacent. You want them to be surprised,'' she says.
One of her students, Philip Braley, says his teacher is ``the kind of person who always tries to do new things. She lives . . . she's vibrant.'' Braley took an economics course from McAuliffe last year and notes: ``She livened up a subject I personally think is boring. And she is no push-over.''
Student Ann Tousignant says: ``She brings things down to earth. She always has stories and anecdotes to go along with the material.''
``She makes history a living experience,'' says Bob Silva, assistant principal at Concord High. ``That's why she's a perfect choice for the shuttle. She'll explain her experiences to young people -- really connect with them.'' McAuliffe's husband Steve, an attorney in Concord, says his wife spent weeks filling out the application for the program. He thinks Christa was selected because ``she's unpretentious, and a nice person people will be able to identify with.'' He and Christa were high school sweet hearts in Framingham, Mass.
Mrs. McAuliffe has also promised to take one of her 8-year-old son Steve's pet frogs into space. ``Not a real one,'' she quickly adds, ``but one of the ceramic or stuffed frogs. He's been collecting them for years.''
The whole town is ``pleased and tickled'' for McAuliffe, says Concord High School administrator Mark Roth. ``She had the makings from the word go -- she's bright, articulate, `into it.' ''
New Hampshire natives are quick to point out that McAuliffe is the second Granite State native to be a ``first in space.'' In 1961 Allan Shepard, from Derry, was America's first man in space.
Townspeople also point to McAuliffe's unmistakable salt-of-the-earth New England characteristics. ``She's simple and warm,'' says Vernon Cassin, a Concord businessman, ``but she's also clever -- a thinker.'' Cassin feels McAuliffe's ``flexibility'' will help her communicate well with US teachers in other parts of the country. He also says McAuliffe's ``simplicity'' will make it easier to relate to people abroad.
The trip does, in fact, have its global implications for McAuliffe. She is especially looking forward to seeing the earth without any national boundaries -- a non-political view she says she wants to communicate to students. Here she returns to her common-man theme.
``The common people are rarely the ones to start wars,'' she says. In trying to foster international awareness in her pupils, ``it's always good for them to think about the possibility of having something in common with the people of other countries. What better way than from space to do that?''
Despite the national attention she is receiving, McAuliffe says she won't change much as a person -- won't allow the rest of her life to be anticlimatic.
``I'm a teacher. That's what I do best,'' she says. ``That's what I intend to keep doing. Right now I can't wait to share the trip.''