Friday, January 28, 2011

Things do change. Slowly, painfully, but they do change

25 years ago today, I was sitting in my thesis adviser's office talking about my study design.  I was in my last year of graduate school for Physical Therapy at Columbia, firmly on my career path, but still dreaming of the stars.

The radio was on in the background, broadcasting the launch and as we sat there, horrified, we heard news of the explosion.

I hardly remember walking back to my apartment in the biting cold. 

But this isn't about my memories or my reaction, but about a story I heard on NPR this morning that moved me to tears.

StoryCorps highlighted the story of Ronald McNair, one of the Challenger astronauts, as told by his brother, Carl. (Go listen to this.  Really.)

Ronald was only the second African American in space, and as his brother says: "Ron was someone who didn’t accept societal norms as being his norm."  Carl goes on to say that when they watched the TV show 'Star Trek' as kids, he saw a future where blacks and whites worked together to be purely science fiction.  Ron saw it as science possibility.

That moved me.

I was a girl growing up in a very conservative school district in Long Island in the late 60s and 70's.  (Though it could have been the 50's in terms of its social mores and culture.)  Girls didn't take shop class.  Girls shouldn't take up space in higher level math and science classes that the boys needed for college. Girls could be teachers or nurses, if they weren't going to get married right away.

I found solace in science fiction.  In books, in shows like 'Star Trek', I saw a vision where a girl could go to the stars. (Sure, Uhura wore a short, short skirt, but I don't think I paid attention to the sexism inherent in that at the time.) 

The important part was that SF showed me possibilities far beyond what society seemed to allow me. This is not a trivial thing.

I never made it to the stars, but I did find the courage to insist I could take shop class rather than home ec. I went to college and graduate school, became a physical therapist, and allowed myself to keep dreaming.  The vision of the future, courtesy of science fiction, was a comfort and an inspiration.

Hearing about Ron McNair this morning brought tears to my eyes.  The whites-only library he tried to take books from as a young boy is going to be dedicated to his memory today.  That is a powerful example of change. We have a long way to go, but if a young black child growing up in the 1950s and 60's South Carolina could fight cultural expectations to earn his PhD physicist and become a NASA astronaut, then isn't anything possible?


  1. Not accepting social norms as the norm. Now THAT's what I call progress. Great post.

  2. Thank you so much for stopping by, Sharon, and for your lovely comment.