The day that Gen X grew up


It was 20 years ago this week that my generation, the Xers of slacking, hip-hop and dot-com foolery, stopped being children.

Many of us, including myself, were in middle school, while others still played in sandboxes on that freezing clear morning in January 1986. But just as my parents had seen the promise of their generation "born in this century, tempered by war" cut down by gunfire in Dallas, my own had seen the hopes of President John F. Kennedy's "New Frontier" extinguished in a horrific plume of flame off the coast of Florida.

The space shuttle Challenger disaster served as the first memory of national mourning for those of us born too late for Vietnam and Kent State, too young to remember President Richard M. Nixon's resignation in 1974.

I wasn't sent home from school early, as my mother was in November 1963, but did spend that day, as she had, in front of the television with my family. Later at school and for weeks afterward, any discussion of the Challenger began with the same question: "Where were you when you heard?"

We use that question not only to find comfort in collective grief but to pinpoint a generation's understanding of itself.

"Where were you when" makes us witnesses to history and characters in a chapter of its passing. It forces us to accept our own story as part of a larger national tale. It is a tale in which children raised on the space-bound dreams of Star Wars can see a real-life launch go horribly wrong, in which a school teacher just like ours can touch the sky with her whole community watching and never come home.

Looking back, Christa McAuliffe and her crewmates were a window into the social concerns of our future. Over half the Challenger crew were women and minorities, paving the way for our national dialogue on diversity. Ms. McAuliffe's presence as a civilian representative on a government mission hinted at later struggles over what levels of participation and accountability citizens would expect in national affairs. Most of all, the destruction of the Challenger rang a symbolic death knell on the fundamentalism of the Cold War into which we had been born. It showed that even our nation's largest achievements could be undone by something as mundane as an O-ring and that we, like the Soviets, like everyone, were both human and flawed.

It's possible to accept that generational divides are both the invention of marketers and useful tools in distinguishing the disciples of Lil Jon from those of John Lennon. They also stave off our feelings of irrelevancy as we become the adults mystified about the state of "kids these days."

At their best, generations do the same work as maturity: helping us feel part of a history larger than our own.

It would be years before America would mourn collectively again, years before Oklahoma City, Columbine and 9/11.

I remember where I was on each of those days, just as I remember the Challenger and seventh-grade Spanish period. Our teacher, well known around school for not speaking English during class, tried to explain what had happened, making imaginary plumes of flame with her hands, drawing a fireball on the chalkboard, hoping the barrier of language would lessen the impact. But when she broke down and told us, it was too late. We had grown up anyway.

Kevin Smokler is editor of "Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times." He lives in San Francisco. His e-mail is

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