My life isn’t playing out the way I thought it would. My life isn’t bad in any way; it’s just different than I imagined it would be. I’m different than I thought I would be. I haven’t studied in France, eaten gelato in Italy, or visited my pen pal in Japan. I haven’t witnessed a space shuttle launch, driven a convertible, or lived alone.
And in all fairness, I have accomplished things I had never imagined. Riding six buses a day as I put myself through college. Reading a personal essay on NPR. Navigating the road to Hana in Maui. Becoming married at 22.
Generally, I am happy and content with my life’s choices. But, there are lingering doubts, nagging questions of “What if?”. What if I had made different choices along the way? Attended a different college? Traveled internationally? Dated a different guy?
I think of Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” and I know exactly where the fork in the road occurred in my life. It was during middle school and the year I didn’t attend Space Camp. United States Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama - the place future astronauts go for a preview of life as an astronaut.
When I was in fourth grade, the space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing the entire crew. One member, Christa McAuliffe, would have been the first teacher in space. Although it wasn’t the way she had intended, she did teach and inspire me. I decided I wanted to be an astronaut. Space had intrigued Christa, but she wasn’t a military officer or a pilot. She was a regular person. She did it. I could too. I was going to be the first woman to walk on the moon; it hadn’t been done before, why not me? I studied mission dates and statistics. I knew the names of the seven Mercury astronauts. I learned acronyms that astronauts use on a daily basis - EVM was an extra-vehicular maneuver and SRBs were the Solid Rocket Boosters.
I needed to go to Space Camp. I needed to begin my training. My parents told me if I wanted to attend Space Camp, I would have to pay for it myself. For years, I saved my money until finally I mailed away my registration paperwork and a cashier’s check. I bought a duffle bag and engraved luggage tags.
I had months to wait. And get anxious. And get scared.
My mom didn’t want me to go. She was nervous and afraid. Except for a few times at Grandma’s house, I had never slept away from home. Traveling across the country by myself was a big step for me, and our family.
I allowed the scary “what if’s” to get the best of me. “What if my luggage got lost?” “What if I didn’t make any friends during my week at Space Camp?” “What if the week’s activities were so difficult and challenging, I didn’t enjoy myself?” “What if I wasn’t smart enough or clever enough?” “What if I didn’t have what it takes to be an astronaut?”
So I canceled. I got back most of my money, and to save face, I concocted a story that Space Camp had made an error in my reservation. Better to blame them than myself. Or my mom.
I cancelled my dream. And I became someone I wasn’t proud of - a coward and a liar. And to this day, I’m not convinced I made the right decision.
What if I had gone to Space Camp? Would it have propelled me to keep working toward my astronaut goal? Would I now be actively involved in astronaut training in Houston, Texas instead of teaching fourth grade in Los Angeles, California? Maybe I would have spent the week there and realized I didn’t want to risk my life by going into outer space. Maybe I would have become a teacher anyway. But at least I wouldn’t have this irritating, fly-buzzing-around-my-head feeling of, “What if?”
I tried to console myself. I didn’t need to go to Space Camp. People became astronauts before a place like Space Camp even existed. I would prepare myself for my future career by reading, learning, and studying.
Then, during my junior year of high school, I volunteered in a fifth grade classroom. I met a boy named Silas. We sat together in the back of the room, working side-by-side on multiplication facts and writing complete sentences. My work with Silas was monumental. He became more respectful in class. His spelling test grades improved. His handwriting became neater. And I remembered Christa McAuliffe’s words: “I touch the future. I teach.” Maybe I didn’t need to go to space to make a difference.
Once again I picked the safer alternative. I am an elementary school teacher.