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Staff column

By JOHN SERFUSTINI
Sun Advocate associate editor

Sputnik and me

All it did was orbit overhead every 90 minutes and emit a steady "beep-beep-beep." That's not a lot, but it was enough to scare the hell out of the whole United States.

We're talking about Sputnik, the basketball-sized satellite launched 55 years ago, Oct. 4, 1957. It was the Russians, godless communists, who did it. Godless. Communists.

"Do you think there's a bomb in it?" my mother asked my father. "No," my dad replied, although I suspect today that he was just being considerate of my nine-year-old wild imagination.

It did not take too much imagination among adults, though, to predict that someday a rocket capable of putting a little object in orbit would evolve into a rocket able to send a much bigger object - say, an H-Bomb - screaming from Siberia to the U.S. It was a wake-up alarm, and Congress and President Eisenhower did not hit the snooze button on this one.

Within a year, Congress passed and the president signed the National Defense Education Act, a politically savvy way of funneling money and expertise into schools at all levels under the aegis of defense spending. Sputnik's little "beep-beep" was code for "You Americans aren't so smart, after all."

As if Sputnik were not enough, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics launched Laika, the first dog to orbit the Earth, less than a month later. The poor little stray female died in orbit. Originally they said she had been euthanized before she suffocated from oxygen depletion. Much later it was learned she probably died from overheating soon after achieving orbit.

Either way, it showed what we were up against: dog-killing, godless communists who were technologically superior to us.

Up until Sputnik, school in the 1950s was pretty much routine and boring.

Then, near the end of my fourth grade year, about six months after the satellite, something different happened. I was led into a room and interviewed by some guy who was not my teacher or principal. "This isn't a test. We're just going to ask some fun questions to see what you think," he said. So he asked some hypotheticals, on the order of, "The box drawn on this paper is a playground. Let's say you lost a quarter somewhere in the playground. Draw a picture that shows how you would look for it."

I never heard another word about it, but when I started sixth grade a little more than a year later, I encountered the biggest change of all. I was in a class that was being taught subjects that other classes weren't getting. French. (Pourquois? Je ne sais pas.) Typing. It also seemed they were teaching math as fast as we could take it.

It was the NDEA in action, I discovered later. We were being pushed and challenged, and it was fun through eighth grade.

So now, a half century later, I listen to the debate about education and education funding and the role of the federal and state government in the classroom. And I find myself wondering if it could happen again - if someone in some foreign country comes up with a knock-your-socks-off technology that scares us half to death and puts education in the forefront of our consciousness again.




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