The year was 1988, and I was in Social Studies class learning about President Lincoln’s assassination, when out of nowhere, my teacher Dr. McAuliffe, started in on the conspiracy theories about the apparent connections between Lincoln’s death and JFK’s death over 100 years later.
“Each of their names has seven letters.”
Ugh. Who gives a shit?
“Both of their assassins were themselves killed before they could stand trial.”
Ok, well, that’s an interesting coincidence, I guess.
“Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy, and Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln, and on the day each of the presidents was killed, the secretaries had premonitions that something bad was going to happen to their bosses and warned them to stay home.”
Damn, that’s kind of spooky. Tell us more.
“Both of their deaths were predicted by Nostradamus.”
Say what now? Who the hell is Nostradamus?
Dr. McAuliffe took up the rest of our class time relating the most famous prophecies of Nostradamus as though they were facts. The rise of Napoleon. World War I. The rise of Hitler. The end of the world.
The end of the world?
Yep. As though it was a fact. To a seventh-grade Social Studies class. And that wasn’t the last we would hear about it either. For the next week or so, he brought up Nostradamus during every class, until finally, he rewarded us after one of our exams by showing us The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, which he introduced as a documentary.
If only I had been aware of the original radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, I would have known to take Orson Welles’s doomsday messages with a grain of salt. But he’s just so damn convincing. I guess it’s the gravity in his voice.
Most of the other kids in the class were bored but otherwise grateful to be watching a movie instead of listening to a lecture. Me? I left class that day with a pit in my stomach that lasted for a good seven years. In some ways, the trauma has never fully healed.
Most of the adults I tried talking to about it were dismissive, without offering any specific words of comfort. Then there was my mother’s boyfriend Tony, who, like Dr. McAuliffe, actually believed this shit. This was a guy who owned the entire Time-Life Mysteries of the Unknown book series and claimed that his mother had a ghost in her basement, but I was too young to realize how those things affected his credibility. What mattered was there were two different grown-ups confirming my greatest fears.
I’m not sure what I was hoping to hear. I guess something nuanced between “You’re worrying for nothing” and “Yeah, that shit is definitely going to happen.” Instead, I lay awake night after night, month after month, obsessed with the year 1994. Was life as we know it really going to end in six years?
Six years was 50% of the life I had lived up to that point, and a lot happened in that next six. During that time, I grew hair on my legs and balls, my voice changed, I kissed a girl for the first time, lost my virginity, and got into college (in that order). These things provided some happy distractions, but the end of the world was always in the back of my mind.
I was in my first year at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston when the calendar rolled over from 1993 to 1994. I was an immature kid, unready to leave the nest, terrified of looming adulthood, and it was a very stressful year. I held my breath until 1995.
To my dismay, the clouds didn’t suddenly lift. Maybe I was so used to worrying that I forgot what it was like to feel safe. I couldn’t help but wonder if Nostradamus might have been off by a few years and still be correct about the part that mattered, or maybe the translation was slightly off. But how many years would have to go by before I would feel that I was in the clear?
By the time we were reaching the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012, I was mentally exhausted from it all. I have come to realize that doomsday prophecies are a dime a dozen, and every major religion offers at least one. Most of them are clearly referring to the ancient worlds the prophets lived in, and they had no concept of nuclear bombs or other weapons that could wipe out millions of people within seconds. We project our own fears onto those dusty old papyrus rags.
There are tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in the world, and it seems like it’s only a matter of time before one or more of them gets used. Will it happen in my lifetime? Will it happen next week? Whatever the case, there is very little any of us can do but sit back and watch the sky turn white or wait for our skin to melt off. In the end, my biggest regret will be all of that time I wasted worrying.
I sometimes wonder if Dr. McAuliffe lost any sleep in the days leading up to January 1, 1994. Did he even remember what he had shown us? Why did he need a doctorate to teach seventh grade Social Studies at a public school in Upstate New York?
These are questions I’ll never be able to answer. The one thing I know for sure is that he was a pretty irresponsible teacher.
On a positive note, my mother eventually broke it off with Tony. Aside from being a conspiracy nut, he was an alcoholic with rage issues.