Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Space Pioneers

On Monday, Sally Ride died of pancreatic cancer.  She's one of those pioneers who made life better for those coming after her--not all pioneers do, after all. 

She was the first U.S. woman in space--and the youngest to head beyond Earth's atmosphere.  She could have cashed in on this celebrity, but she refused--and she even asked NASA to refrain from doing so.

Instead, she went about the business of inspiring young women to follow in her footsteps, and she set up a foundation to help continue the work.

In all the reading that I did yesterday when I heard the news that she had died, I was fascinated to discover that she had a double major in her undergraduate studies:  English and Physics!  She immersed herself in Shakespeare before going on to graduate work in Physics.

I graduated from high school in late May of 1983.  About 20 days later, Sally Ride went into space.  I often wonder if I had been younger, if I might have followed a different path.  Before Sally Ride, it would never have occurred to me that women could be astronauts.  If I had known that a woman could study both Shakespeare and Physics, instead of choosing, would I have made other choices?

Maybe.  But I didn't go to med school because I didn't want to be in school all those extra years.  I never anticipated that I'd go on to get a Ph.D., that I'd stay in school for those extra years.  Had I known, would I have made other choices?

Ah, hindsight, my mother would say.

I love that we live in a time where most of my female students feel they can aspire to any career.  Unfortunately, some careers require more planning than others.  We're still not at a point yet where we require high school students to undertake the rigorous classes that would open a wider variety of doors later.  Many students graduate from high school without taking much in the way of Science or Math courses.

We live in a strange time.  I know a 7th grader who's taking Calculus in his public school.  I know a college student who decided to drop his pre-Calculus class because he just couldn't wrap his head around it; he went to a fancy private high school, but seems less equipped than the 7th grader who's going to his neighborhood public school.  I breezed through pre-Calculus in undergraduate school, but didn't continue on because no other Math classes were required of me--but I had trouble with Statistics, taught in the Social Sciences department.  That was back in the mid 80's.  Maybe the times we're living in aren't so strange after all.

I'm glad that women like Sally Ride blazed a path.  I'm grateful that she acted like it was no big deal, that of course she did it, that any child could grow up to do it too.  I worry that we're losing sight of that lesson.

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