The View from Mrs. Thompson’s – Revised and Revisited

“The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” is probably my favorite of DFW’s journalistic essays.  So real and so raw and so true.  It was one of the first pieces I wrote about, then I came back to the piece after several more readings.  Here is the updated Letter:

Dear Dave,

It was just another cold[1] January morning in 1986 in Mrs. K’s fourth grade classroom.  Mrs. K was at the chalkboard, likely beginning the day’s lessons as it was maybe nine o’clock in the morning, when another adult – presumably a secretary from the main office – came into the room and whispered something into her ear.  Mrs. K turned to the class after this other adult left the room and told us students in words I can no longer remember that the Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded shortly after liftoff, killing all seven members of the crew including New Hampshire school teacher, Christa McAuliffe.  Being ten-year-olds, I don’t think we really knew what to do with this information.  I was, at the time, probably the kid most interested in NASA and our space program of any in the room[2], but simply hearing the words uttered by our shocked and dismayed teacher had little impact on me.  It would not be until I went home that afternoon that I would first see the images of the disintegration of the shuttle into a large plume of combustible gases and debris.  Photos covered the front page of the local evening paper, and the 6 o’clock news ran and reran the video footage.  Even watching the clip over and over on television and seeing photos in newspapers and magazines everywhere could not bring the gravity of the event home to my pre-adolescent brain.  At recess that day and for a week or more afterward, many of my classmates resorted to one of the few coping mechanisms available to fourth graders – humor.  We made jokes about things we could not fully understand.

It was almost 7 o’clock in the evening in late April of 1992.  Dinner had been eaten and my homework was either finished or being put off until later.[3]  I sat with my family watching television, only to have the broadcast interrupted by breaking news.  Earlier that afternoon, most likely unbeknownst to me[4], the “not guilty” verdict had been handed down in the trial of four LAPD officers accused of using excessive force in the videotaped beating of Rodney King.  Helicopters hovered with cameras poised over the intersection of Florence and Normandy as the gathering crowd of disgruntled citizen turned into a riotous mob.  A semi-truck, hauling a load of sand, became trapped in the intersection.  After watching Reginald Denny, the driver tragically stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time, pulled from the cab of his truck and have his head bashed in with cinder blocks after being beaten and kicked to the ground, I fled to the safety of my room unable to endure what I just witnessed broadcasted live on television.  Oh my gosh, I thought.  What the heck is happening?[5]  The next day, the riots were all anybody could talk about at school.  Unfounded rumors spread around campus about how close the riots were coming to our small town of Redlands.  For the next few days, I stared at horrific images on television of storefronts on fire and mobs looting department and grocery stores.  We remained removed from the violence by at least an hour’s drive, but those images burned themselves into my memory, haunting me for the days and weeks that followed.

It was early one afternoon in April of 1999.  I had finished my morning classes[6] and walked back to my dorm room to write a literary analysis paper that was due later in the week.  I don’t work well in total silence, so I turned on my roommate’s television simply to provide some background noise as I wrote.  I didn’t really intend to watch whatever show I found; I just wanted to break the silence[7] and have something other than my computer screen to look at from time to time.  However on this particular day there was not a soap opera, talk show, or small claims courtroom show to be watched; on every network was news coverage of the massacre unfolding at Columbine High School, near Littleton, Colorado.  All I remember seeing were the aerial views of the cafeteria and library building with police cars and ambulances in the periphery and ground shots of students running from the campus into the nearby fields.  I was rather engrossed in my essay and the volume on the television was turned down too low to really hear the newscaster reporting the events, so the gravity of the moment didn’t hit me until later when I heard others talking about what they had seen and heard on television.  As the news became clearer and the reality set in, an uneasiness settled over me for the next few days.  But it wasn’t until I myself became a teacher a few years later and realized the possibility that it could one day be one of my students who interrupts regularly scheduled programming with breaking news of a similar massacre that I truly understood what had taken place that morning.

It was just before 7 o’clock when the phone rang on that September morning in 2001.  My morning routine of making lunches for my wife and me was interrupted by my mother-in-law calling to tell us the news that a passenger jetliner had just crashed into one of the World Trade Center Twin Towers.  After hanging up the phone, I told my wife, who was in the bedroom finishing getting ready for the day, then found myself in the bathroom sick to my stomach.  Having received no word from the school we both taught at, we assumed our day would proceed as normal and we gathered our belongings and prepared to leave.  As we did so, we could hear our next door neighbor yelling to someone unseen about a plane bound for Los Angeles had been hijacked.  We left the house a few minutes later.

We had only moved into our new condo in easternVenturaCountya week prior to the Horror, so our cable television had not yet been connected.  The only means of getting initial information of the day’s events was news radio that we tuned in to during our one-mile drive to the small K-12 private school we both taught at, my wife teaching first grade and me teaching high school English.  The reporting was a jumbled mess; the newscasters were obviously overwhelmed with a mix of actual news and unfounded hearsay.  We arrived at school a few minutes later with little more knowledge of what was happening than when we had left the house.  Once at work, we heard bits and pieces of the news from fellow teachers and parents arriving to drop off their children.  A second plane had hit the other tower.  Another had crashed into the Pentagon.  Rumors and falsehoods of other crashes and other hijackings swirled about as it seemed no one knew what was really happening.

Just before the morning bell was about to ring, the principal came over the intercom to announce that everyone was to report to the auditorium.  Before the day had even started, it was over; school was cancelled.  The office staff manned the phones to contact parents to come get their kids, many of whom had just arrived at home after dropping them off.  We teachers supervised the students as they were picked up a few at a time.  The school counselor had laid out long strips of butcher paper for the kids to draw on, using the artistic outlet as both a distraction from boredom and a means of catharsis.  A teacher had plugged in a radio out of earshot from the students and tuned it to the news, which was still scattered and chaotic at best.  I think we teachers were more scared than the kids were, but we had to keep our game faces on, at least until after they left.  One of my students, a sophomore if I remember right, was thrilled to get to go home early, but bummed out that her friends at other schools might not be so lucky.  She jokingly said she might call in a bomb threat to her friends’ school to get them out of class for the day.  I gave her my mean teacher look[8] that effectively scared the bejesus out of her.

In less than an hour, the auditorium was cleared of students.  In the now empty room, the faculty and staff circled up, the principal said a quick prayer and then sent us home.  He said to plan on a regular day tomorrow, unless we heard otherwise.  With no television at home, my wife and I drove over to her parents’ house – they lived about ten minutes from us – to watch the news.  NBC’s Tom Brokaw narrated the events as the smoke-filled skyline loomed in the background.  We watched the Towers collapse.  We saw the burning hole in the side of the Pentagon.  We viewed the aerial shots of the crater inPennsylvania.  The hands on the clock moved unnoticed, and the actual series of events became clearer as we stayed glued to the screen.  After a while, Mr. Brokaw wasn’t telling us much we hadn’t heard already, but we couldn’t turn it off.

When the actual attack seemed to be over and there was a bit of a lull in the news broadcast, we finally switched off the television to go get something to eat.  I’m sure there was plenty of food in the house, but it seemed easier to drive over to Wendy’s for some burgers instead.[9]  There was an odd vibe in the dining room.    In most Southern California fast food joints, people keep to themselves or talk quietly to those at their table.  But on this warm September afternoon, everyone was quick to share the latest news they had heard from this or that source.

As we picked at our burgers and fries – as hungry as we were, no one really felt much like eating – a bit of reality began to sink in at our table.  What would this day’s events mean for our future?  Not just as in the grand scheme of things, but for us at that table.  I was still in my mid-twenties at the time, meaning I could be called upon to serve in the armed forces should Congress reinstitute the draft.  The same was true of my wife’s younger brother who was just a sophomore in college.  If our nation decided to retaliate against this as-of-yet unknown enemy who provoked us on such a large scale, would I find myself on the frontlines?  Would I do the honorable thing and serve should my number be called?  Or leave everything here behind and hide in Canada until this inevitable war was over?  After all, we did have relatives there.  Was this just the beginning of future attacks?  Not more than a few weeks prior I had heard reports out of the Middle East of a suicide bomber blowing up a pizzeria, killing and wounding scores of civilians.  Would our restaurants and shopping malls turn into war zones?

You begin “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” with the word “Synecdoche.”  You describe your hometown of Bloomington, Illinois, as “folks [who] keep to themselves… and watch massive, staggering amounts of television” (133).  Synecdoche:  Your experience that morning was that of the rest of America in microcosm.  We all keep to our own little lives and come into contact with the outside world only vicariously through our television sets.  Events like these that capture the national spotlight are experienced in a detached, surreal manner.  We feel sad or scared, but typically the same way we do when watching a film or our favorite network programs.  We don’t know the full weight of these moments because they take place on the other side of that glass screen.[10]  And when it gets to frightening or overwhelming, we can simply change the channel or turn the set off altogether.  We experience the larger world on our own terms.

Yet when a tragedy of this magnitude descends upon us, we can’t help but gravitate toward each other, even if it is just to watch the news on television in the same room with other human beings.  That which allows us to be isolated and comfortably alone – our televisions – turns into the focal point of our attention and the magnet that brings us together. There is solace and comfort in numbers, even when the others are strangers.  We’ve journeyed many times down those streets and sidewalks to places like Mrs. Thompson’s living room.  We’re not quite sure why, but we find ourselves there coping with the unimaginable turned reality.  Sharing hugs and tears, small talk and silence.  Simply being together.

[1] I don’t know that “cold” is really an appropriate word for it.  Growing up in the Inland Empire of Southern California (about an hour east of Los Angeles), I never experienced a truly cold January morning.  I was perhaps wearing a light jacket over a sweatshirt, but the temperature couldn’t have been any lower than the mid-50’s.

[2] During May of the next year, my parents granted me every NASA-nerd’s dream-come-true by allowing me to go to Space Camp inHuntsville,Alabama.  Despite the news of the Challenger tragedy, I still held onto my dreams of one day being an astronaut.  They put me – by myself – on a plane at LAX to fly over 2000 miles toAlabama, complete with a connecting flight inNashville.  Being a parent now myself, I can’t imagine ever letting either of my kids fly across the country by themselves.

[3] School work always came very easily to me, which allowed me to develop the bad study habits of laziness and procrastination.  I put forth the minimal effort required to get by with grades that kept me out of trouble with my parents.  So homework was usually pretty low on the priority list.

[4] There is a possibility I was aware of this, but being a white teenager in suburbanSouthern California I probably thought very little of it.  I was a good hundred miles from theSimi Valley courthouse and at least fifty to sixty miles from the site of the ensuing riots, so any knowledge of the events was merely abstract and televisual.

[5] Being raised in a conservative Christian home, this was about as bad as my language got, even when muttering words under my breath or just talking in my head.  It wasn’t until years later that I honed the art of the perfectly timed swear word.

[6] Though not naturally a morning person, I sort of grew into one on my college days.  I came to prefer getting up early for a day of classes that tended to end in the mid-afternoon.  By about 1 or 2 o’clock, I would be done and have the afternoon for studying or napping or hanging out with friends.  My roommate, on the other hand, preferred to start his day a bit later.  We often crossed paths at about lunch time; I was ending my day, he was just beginning his.  It worked out well because it often left me alone in the dorm room to get reading and other homework done.

[7] Or drown out the noise of my neighbors’ stereos.  The occupants of the rooms on either side of mine had very little regard for the volume or acceptable time-of-day rules about playing music, nor was the RA very strict in enforcing these rules.  The neighbor on the other side of my wall played very loud Latin music, while the neighbor on the other side of my roommate’s wall played very loud hip-hop and rap.  Our room, at just about any time of the day or night, was a muffled, cacophonous blend of the two genres.  My roommate and I just silently endured the assault on our eardrums.  We didn’t want to cause trouble; the neighbors on both sides were pretty tough-looking dudes.

[8] I have one helluva mean-teacher look, one that quickly earned me the reputation of being the “teacher who never smiles.”  Over the years students have attempted all kinds of shenanigans to get a rise out of me, but I’ve gotten good at keeping a deadpan stare.  In a stressful situation like this, this kind of facial muscle control comes in very handy.

[9] In stressful situations, it’s always easier to pay someone money for inexpensive, low-quality food than it is to stand in front of an open pantry, trying to decide what to make for lunch.

[10] You describe how Duane – the adult son of one of the ladies from your church – keeps reminding everyone in Mrs. Thompson’s living room how like a movie it all seems.