… history isn’t as ancient as you think it is.
Earlier this year, in one of my graduate classes (Ethics of School Leadership), our professor told us of his first assignment as a principal at an elementary school in North Carolina. It was 1970, the year before I was born. He told us that the school was underperforming on standardized tests, and that he had a mandate to change the school. He visited the school in May, the year before he was to take over, and walked from room to room. The first room was a beautiful kindergarten room, and the kids were gathered around the teacher for story time. He walked to the next room, also kindergarten, also story time, kids gathered around the teacher.
The first room: white kids, white teacher. The second room: African-American kids, African-American teacher. A pattern repeated as he went from room to room. In short, he had his work cut out for them.
I live in a world where the concept of overt prejudice is foreign. People putting down minorities or women in any serious way is just not tolerated. I’m not talking about the language, I’m talking about the conceptualization. In my mind, the days when such overt prejudice existed was so far in the past that it might as well be Ancient Rome. Yet from time to time I am reminded of these things. When I go to my autograph shows, there is always a table of visiting alumni of the Negro Leagues. They tell amazing stories! These guys are still alive. Heck, Hank Aaron, the last member of the Negro Leagues to actually play Major League Baseball was still playing in my lifetime. So I know that wasn’t so long ago.
I turn for a moment to women. For just about all of my life, I have known women to occupy just about every job and strata there is. I have worked under female bosses (Jonah, if you are reading this, don’t think that way you smartass), I have worked with women … I have had problems with a few, but I truly think that was more because of who they were as individuals rather than that they were female.
But I know that isn’t ancient history. I think of space travel. The first woman to ever travel into space, Valentina Tereshkova is still alive, and occasionally makes public appearances. That was 1963. Maybe there was something to a political stunt about it, but it can’t be denied that she volunteered in an era when space flight was not the safest way to get around.
The United States eventually sent a woman into space … 20 years later.
I remember how interesting it was, even as a 12 year old that it was embarrassing to be catching up to the Soviet Union in terms of civil rights. There was something so wrong about that. Yet here it was, far from ancient history, this was something occurring in my living memory.
I knew that Sally Ride had done some work for NASA on the Challenger and Columbia review panels, and that she had taught physics (is there no nobler profession???), and had founded a company that created curriculum, especially geared toward girls in elementary school.
Most of the real trailblazers were before my time. Even Armstrong walking on the moon … missed that by two years. Sally Ride was the first person I can remember in my life time who was a genuine bonafide “first to do it” in something important.
Like the Challenger and Columbia, she went before her time. I’m hoping that one day, probably after I’m gone when the time comes to go to the moon, there will be a small fuss made that one of the first astronauts back will be a woman, and that when we get to Mars, it will be such a routine thing that no one will even mention it. After all, since Sally Ride women have both piloted and commanded space shuttles, and it didn’t kick up much interest because it had started to become so routine. On the one hand, it sucks that as a nation we have lost such interest in exploring and learning, though in consolation, it isn’t such a big deal when women or Blacks make it into space, because it has become routine.
Notice in the two patches for Ride’s missions: On the first (STS-7), in the sun are five rays representing the astronauts, one of which bears a cross representing 4 males, 1 female. In STS-41-G, next to each name is either the female or male symbol; this was actually the first space mission to have two females. Today, I doubt NASA would include such symbolism, because as I said, it really is no big deal.