Defining Moments

Most of us have “Where were you?” stories for major world events that we can recall with vivid accuracy — exactly what we were doing, seeing, and feeling at a given moment in history (even as we barely remember what we ate for breakfast just this morning). While personal events may have a more acute impact on each of us individually, these world events become defining moments for a community, a society, a generation.

For my grandparents, they would recall Black Tuesday — the massive stock market crash on October 29, 1929, which precipitated the Great Depression. Financial instability is something my grandparents remained conscious of, forever cautious about saving money and limiting spending. They’d also remember December 7, 1941, when the war raging in Europe touched U.S. soil with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And they would have celebrated the successful field trial of the polio vaccine tested on 1.8 million children, announced on April 12, 1955, which eventually eradicated polio from most of the world.

My parents felt the visceral loss of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, assassinated on November 22, 1963, as his presidential motorcade traveled through Dallas, Texas. Young, handsome, and charismatic, Kennedy provided hope to a nation in the throes of the Cold War, and his death represented a loss of innocence. When Martin Luther King, Jr., was fatally shot on April 4, 1968, it sent shock waves through the nation, causing grief for all who followed King’s leadership of the civil rights movement by advocating nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. They also felt inspiration and hope as Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969.

For me, the Challenger disaster, 9/11, and the legalization of same-sex marriage have been defining moments. For the first, I was a middle school student. Teachers wheeled a television cart into our classroom so we could witness the Challenger launch live, eager to see Christa McAuliffe become the first teacher in space. McAuliffe’s selection by NASA was something we had watched with fascination and admiration that a regular person — a civilian, a teacher, a woman — could go up into space. I recall the shock of the terrifying explosion that killed all crew members just 73 seconds after takeoff. I grew up thinking of space as an endless frontier — demonstrating the value of science and engineering and ambition, offering hope and vast potential. That terrifying day — January 28, 1986 — dampened these hopeful spirits, reminded us of the many risks, and inspired a new generation of astronauts determined to persevere despite challenges.

The events of 9/11 hit closer to home. By then, I was out of school, married, and working at the IBM Research headquarters in Yorktown Heights, New York. On September 11, 2001, I was meant to fly from New York to California, luckily on an afternoon flight. I was up early that morning, scrambling to prepare for a meeting. I threw my suitcase in the car and headed to the lab to get a few hours of work done before driving to JFK airport. My husband called my office around 8:50 a.m. to let me know that there might be flight delays, as there had been an accident. By 9:05, we knew the situation was much more dire. I headed home, and we spent the remainder of that day — and many more — glued to the TV, watching with disbelief and horror as the events of 9/11 unfolded. I have ghastly images forever emblazoned on my mind: planes hitting towers, black smoke against an eerily blue sky, crumbling buildings and falling bodies, soot-covered first responders, people fleeing for their lives. Many of us know individuals touched by this senseless tragedy: 2,996 lives lost that day — parents, children, spouses, friends, and colleagues — and millions more forever impacted. The events of 9/11 made us all feel threatened while at the same time they united the country with a renewed sense of solidarity and patriotism. 

The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision on June 26, 2015, that declared same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states was another major moment in my lifetime. Until then, states could choose not to recognize gay and lesbian unions. Finally, my sister and her wife, my friend and his husband — and so many more committed, loving couples — would be recognized with “equal dignity in the eyes of the law” anywhere in the United States.

For myself and my children, I expect the November 4, 2008, election of the first black U.S. President and the November 3, 2020, election of the first female U.S. Vice President to be defining moments. Both broke long-standing glass ceilings, opening up a world of possibilities for all people. Barak Obama’s historic presidency and Kamala Harris’ victory showed progress and gave hope. For the first time, little girls and boys – with different skin colors, ethnicities, and backgrounds – could all see themselves in those holding the highest offices in the nation.

The COVID-19 pandemic also promises to be a defining event in our children’s lives. To date, there have been 4.55 million deaths worldwide, 660,000 in the United States alone. In fact, the U.S. has lost over 3,000 people to COVID-19 in a single day more than 30 times. It will be a while before we can truly comprehend the large-scale impacts to society and to our children’s psyches from the fear, social isolation, and unfathomable loss.

Even horrific events can have catalytic effects on communities, and I remain hopeful about some repercussions of COVID-19 that will help us move forward. A renewed commitment to science and innovation. A recognition of the interconnectedness of people around the world. A consciousness of our fragility. A willingness and ability to leverage virtual technologies to bring us closer in efficient ways for telemedicine, education, collaboration, and connection. An appreciation of togetherness. A new era of corporate social responsibility. A commitment to hygiene and public health. More robust supply chains and better disaster preparedness. A refreshed perspective of what really matters. Gratitude for all we have.

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