By Susan Cox
I recently watched the movie “Hidden Figures,” which is based on the experiences of three black female mathematicians who worked for NASA during the U.S. space race with the Soviet Union. Computers were still in their infancy, so these women, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, worked as human computers to make the mathematical calculations necessary for the fledgling United States manned space program.
While not completely accurate, the movie showcases the unheralded work these women did. I had no idea that all those mathematical calculations were done by hand or that so many people worked behind the scenes. When we think about the space program, the people we remember are the astronauts, not the people who figured out how to make space travel possible. How many other people or things do we not see or take for granted?
Since the movie focuses on black women, I first thought about all the challenges these women faced due to the prevalent racism of the time. The movie depicts segregated bathrooms, libraries and schools. For example, Mary Jackson had to get special permission to take advanced math and physics classes, not because she wasn’t capable of doing the work, but because the classes were only offered at an all-white school. Easy access to education is something I tend to take for granted.
The women were also pioneers paving the way for opportunities for other women. Dorothy Vaughan was NASA’s first African-American supervisor and one of only a few female supervisors at the time. Mary Jackson was NASA’s first black female engineer. Katherine Johnson was the first woman from NASA’s Flight Research Division to receive credit as the author of a research report. We need to remember and appreciate these women and others like them for their trailblazing efforts.
My thoughts next went to all the technology we have. Computers and calculators have advanced tremendously, allowing us to make calculations, such as those in the movie, faster and easier. We can travel across the country in a few hours on a plane. Cellphones and the internet provide instant communication and access to massive amounts of information. Do we realize how much we benefit from all these advances?
Several years ago, I traveled to Peru. I was amazed to see workers in Lima, a city of 10.9 million people, sweeping the streets with brooms, and outside the city I saw farmers plowing their fields with animals. Most of the buildings there do not have central heat either. Admittedly, temperatures only get down to about 50 degrees, but this still necessitates wearing your coat or sweater inside as well as outside. I came home grateful for all the modern conveniences we have in the U.S. that I don’t usually appreciate.
Then I considered all the unseen workers. When I teach, I expect that my room will be clean and all the equipment (computers, projectors, printers, etc.) will work. I am not the one who takes care of those things though. Custodians and tech support people make sure my room is in good condition so my students and I can have a productive class.
A few weeks ago, county workers came and dug out the ditches along my road to allow water to flow freely down the ditches instead of flooding onto the road. All the rain we have had recently has made me grateful for the cleared out ditches and the people who cleared them.
After thinking about these people and things I don’t often notice, I wondered how we can remedy that oversight. One thing we can do is to thank these people. We can do so directly by speaking with them, writing them a note or telling other people about their work. Indirectly we can thank them by appreciating their work and continuing the progress they made.
My challenge to you is to think about those people and things you take for granted. Who and what make your life easier and more enjoyable? Be aware of all the opportunities you have and take time to be grateful for those things and people.
Susan Cox is one of The Republic’s community columnists, and all opinions expressed are those of the writer. She is a mother, an adjunct instructor of English at Ivy Tech Community College-Columbus and a substitute teacher for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. She can be reached at email@example.com.