In the Zone

Folks, it’s a beautiful, clear day here on the Florida coast. We have just been given a go for today’s space shuttle launch.

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I grew up in south Florida not too far from Cape Canaveral when the shuttle program was active in the eighties. The heady days of the space race were not yet a distant memory, and Reagan wanted to beat the Russians at star wars. I remember watching morning shuttle launches from my front yard, and I once saw a night launch from a friend’s back patio. It looked like a shooting star momentarily blazing with light, before disappearing into the clouds beyond human sight.

I rode with my parents to Columbia, South Carolina, the day before the competition. After arriving, we got a surprising call in our hotel room: my English teacher was there to attend the contest. I was mortified, but I tried to put her out of my mind. By getting to state, I had already proven that my speech “would fly.”

There was a buzz at my elementary school about the Challenger mission in 1986. It was to be a late morning launch, and everyone in my grade was going outside to view it from our playground field. Even more exciting was the plan for us to take science classes (from outer space!) with Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher to join a shuttle mission. Sadly, those lessons never occurred. Seventy-three seconds after liftoff, Challenger did something no one had ever seen. There was a look of shock and confusion on my classmates’ faces when we witnessed that disastrous launch. Everyone was oddly silent and I—usually a very quiet kid—blurted out: “It’s just the rocket boosters dropping off.” I glanced at my teacher for confirmation. The concern in her eyes told a different story.

*     *     *

T minus nine minutes and counting. Start automatic ground launch sequencer.

*     *     *

My family moved to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1990. One day in tenth grade English class, my teacher announced that we could enter an annual speech contest sponsored by the Optimist Club. My ears perked up. The winner, if one made it to the state competition, would receive a college scholarship. The theme that year was: “I can make a difference.” I felt immediately that I wanted to enter the contest. I went home and talked to my Pop. He was a preacher and had recently helped me prepare an oral book report on The Red Badge of Courage. It had been so well received that the students spontaneously clapped when I stepped from the podium. I wondered aloud to Pop, “What could I do that would be unique for this speech competition?” We came up with the idea of doing something on Christa McAuliffe because I had been inspired by her bravery and the story of the Challenger was close to my heart.

Excitedly, the next day I told my teacher about the idea. She thought it was far too unconventional that I wanted to weave together the shuttle liftoff within the narrative of the speech. Her words, “It will never fly,” echoed in my ears. I cried silently at my seat in class that day as we discussed Shakespeare. My aspirations crushed, I told Pop that night how my teacher had responded. “Write the speech the way you want to,” Pop counseled me. Even if I lost, I would enjoy the process of writing about something meaningful to me.

*     *     *

T minus two minutes. Crew members close and lock their visors.

*     *     *

I soon girded myself for the school-wide contest. Clutching my speech on the podium and reading it word for word, I was constantly aware of my teacher’s glare from the back of the room. She was one of the judges. Because he was a preacher and active in the local Toastmaster’s club, Pop had also been recruited as a judge. It was comforting to see a friendly face in the crowd.

I paced outside the classroom where the judges convened after I delivered that first speech. All of the students were gone for the day and the hallway was unusually quiet and dim. Suddenly one of the judges came out. Putting on her sunglasses to go home, she called out as she briskly strode toward the door: “You won, Lindsey.” My heart raced. I knew I had a lot of work to do on the speech. And I knew my teacher was not going to help me because I had defied her. That night, Pop told me he would be my coach for the rest of the competition.

*     *     *

T minus fifty seconds. Orbiter transfers from ground to internal power.

*     *     *

Pop and I only had a couple of weeks to revise the speech for the city contest. On a road trip to one of his church lectures, I pulled out the speech and we chopped it up. Pop called it: “Cutting the dead wood.” We were relentless. Every word had to convey something vital. Nothing extraneous was left on the page. We started going to his church at night when it was empty. I rehearsed from the stage and he patiently directed me. Timing was crucial: a few seconds over time and I would be immediately disqualified.

The city contest was held in the banquet hall of a local restaurant. There were about fifteen kids in the contest and I was pretty tense. Only the top male and female competitors would advance to the next round. Pop was busy that night and could not attend the event, but my English teacher had come which only heightened my consternation. I stared at my shrimp and baked potato as they got cold because I was far too anxious about hearing the results to enjoy the free dinner. Winning that round was more of a relief than anything else. I felt that my speech had been vindicated and my teacher proven incorrect (in person).

*     *     *

T minus thirty-one seconds. Ground launch sequencer is go for auto sequence start.

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The county contest was held at The Citadel, the storied military university. That location was more than a little intimidating to me. There were armed security checkpoints at every entrance. Cadets in uniform looked stern as they marched across campus. The local Optimist Club leaders were at the event to arrange travel for the winners to the state capital for the final round. The stakes were high. However, I was feeling more comfortable with the speech. Pop had continued to coach me, and I was heartened to learn that there were only a few competitors in this round. Thankfully, my teacher decided to stay home. As I delivered the speech, I felt like my speech might be going against the grain. I could not read the judges’ faces as I meandered through each phrase. Standing stiffly as the winners were named, I was exceedingly proud to make my way to the finals. My whole family had attended this round, and the Optimist Club was going to pay for our hotel stay in Columbia, South Carolina. It felt significant that I was representing my school and my city in the upstate.

*     *     *

T minus sixteen seconds and counting. Activate launch pad sound suppression system.

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As the state competition neared, Pop and I were in full rehearsal mode. Every night that it was available, we went to the church to practice. The speech narrative was trimmed and honed. Only a single page of notes could be carried onstage during the seven-minute speech. I could not fit the entire speech on a single page, so I made sure the speech was totally committed to memory. Using scotch tape, I affixed a picture of the Challenger that I had cut from a magazine to my page of notes for inspiration. Pop directed me to move from behind the lectern at two pivotal moments in the speech. He advised, “You should only move for emphasis of specific words. Don’t move around just for the sake of it.” We timed the speech relentlessly and plugged in moments of pause to underscore important phrases. Christa McAuliffe’s quote, “I touch the future, I teach,” was the idea I wanted to leave with the audience.

When the shuttle Challenger exploded, the elevated expectations for NASA were temporarily grounded. The shuttle program would never again invoke the kind of hopeful anticipation that it did in its heyday.

As we worked, Pop and I became like a single entity. In between recitations, he told me stories about speeches of his that won trophies and times when he was “in the zone.” “What does that mean?” I asked. “You want to be so familiar with your speech that it becomes part of you,” he clarified. “It’s like watching Dan Marino on the football field. It’s fourth down and the Dolphins must score to win. He knows precisely where to throw the ball before Mark Duper even gets there.” Sports metaphors were a favorite of his. “Watch Marino drop back. Those seconds right before he heaves the ball are crucial. The nights when he can’t miss: he’s in the zone. Everything—the ball, the receiver, the timing—flows together flawlessly,” Pop explained. “Could I ever achieve that?” I wondered. Could I be like Dan Marino in the Orange Bowl: oblivious to the noise, moving through time and space in a harmonious energy?

*     *     *

T minus ten seconds. Activate main engine hydrogen burn off system.

*     *     *

I rode with my parents to Columbia, South Carolina, the day before the competition. After arriving, we got a surprising call in our hotel room: my English teacher was there to attend the contest. I was mortified, but I tried to put her out of my mind. By getting to state, I had already proven that my speech “would fly.” She had never had a student get this far in the competition, and she was being suspiciously friendly. She tried slyly to praise the speech even though she had not initially supported it.

The morning of the competition, I woke up early to shower and dress. I was wearing a suit with pumps for the first time. Too anxious to eat breakfast, I walked down to the main ballroom after only a cup of coffee. Shockingly, there were hundreds of people gathering, and I saw that there were ten women and ten men competing. The room was much larger than I had anticipated. Most of the seats were filling quickly, and the trophies were prominently placed on a table in the front of the room. The stage was set. My eyes were wide as I left Pop’s side to join the other speakers.

We drew from a bowl for our speaking order. I would compete last! A rush of excitement surged in my chest. Pop had told me that going last was a gift because you got to see the other competitors, and the judges would remember your speech when they convened. I turned around and scanned the crowd for Pop. We locked eyes and I mouthed the words: “I go last.” He nodded and gave me a thumbs-up. I watched the other speakers carefully and calmly. When my name was called, I approached the stage unhurriedly, with confidence. My heart was full and ready to breathe life into this story.

*     *     *

T minus six seconds. Main engines start. 5-4-3-2-1-0. Solid rocket booster ignition. We have liftoff!

*     *     *

When I placed my page of notes onto the podium, I breathed in deeply and looked at the photo of the Challenger taking off. When I began to speak, it was as if time stopped. Immediately, I gained the full attention of the audience. They were visibly moved by the story I was telling! My speech was different from everyone else’s and they were hungry to hear each word. Every time I paused, it was calculated. Each word was stressed with precision. The crowd was like clay in my hands. I moved around the stage with complete ease. No phrase fell flat. Every pass I hurled was caught. I was Dan Marino throwing perfect spirals to Mark Duper and Mark Clayton on a Monday night in the Orange Bowl. I couldn’t miss. The energy inside of me was electric and I was in perfect sync with the universe. My conviction was powerful: I was doing what I was born to do.

*     *     *

When the shuttle Challenger exploded, the elevated expectations for NASA were temporarily grounded. The shuttle program would never again invoke the kind of hopeful anticipation that it did in its heyday. But a little girl in south Florida had been inspired to become an educator and to “make a difference” the way Christa McAuliffe did for her students and school children around the country.

I have long since spent that college scholarship money, and the trophy was lost in a move years ago. But this is what was eternal from that day: When I stepped down off that stage, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that I had won the competition. And yet, strangely, the contest did not matter at all to me anymore. I had been in the zone, and it was the most exhilarating moment of my life. The huge crowd was standing, applauding loudly, and everyone seemed to be surging toward the front of the room. I was searching in the commotion for one person. There was only one person who would understand what I had just experienced. I pushed through the shaking hands and pats on the back. Then my Pop’s face appeared above the people in the aisle. There were tears streaming down from his eyes and a huge smile on his face. He knew. We embraced but said nothing. We just held that moment and laughed joyfully. I had been Marino. The words had flowed and I had been in complete harmony with the story, the audience, the moment. There was nothing more to say.

 

Lindsey R. Swindall, PhD teaches US history and the freshman colloquium at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. She has written numerous books and articles in the field of African American history. Working with actor Grant Cooper, she has developed a dramatization of her biography of Paul Robeson for middle and high school students. She also co-facilitates public discussions about race and US history through the New Jersey Council for the Humanities Public Scholars Project.