According to Sally – “You Can’t be What you Can’t See”

Image: NASA

This summer’s social studies assignment for my fourth grader included reading a biography, or autobiography, of someone they want to represent in an American History Wax Museum. The idea is that the kids will dress like the person they read about and be able to tell their story as if it were their own life experience.  Gigi and I both sat down and made a list of usual suspects like Abraham Lincoln, Ben Franklin, and naturally, Elvis.  I realized that my daughter would only select someone she was already familiar with so I decided to take the opportunity to expand her knowledge considering our history lends itself to so much more than the popular few.  I came up with the brilliant idea to make a list that only included women who made their mark in American history.

I first offered Abigail Adams who gave her husband support and advice that even he didn’t know he needed – “Remember the ladies” letter comes to mind.  I told her about Helen Keller and, of course, Anne Sullivan – favorites of mine when in elementary school.  Helen for overcoming the odds of being blind and deaf to be an advocate for those with disabilities, and Anne for helping Helen realize that she could be said advocate.  Both very admirable for using their traumatic childhood experiences to encourage others.  I wrote down a few others who opened doors for women, such as Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, and as an English major, I selfishly chose Edith Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (some of you may recall Age of Innocence, it’s not just a movie).

I found it a bit of a struggle to make a soon to be nine-year-old understand the accomplishments of my choices. At least understand enough for her to want to read more about these fabulous women to emulate them for her classmates. So what do we do when we need more ideas? We Google it.  As a list of women filled the page I quickly scanned and knew immediately who would fascinate my Gigi to the very end, Sally Ride- the first American woman in space!  It couldn’t possibly get more exciting than that, could it?  

My daughter hasn’t quite realized that there was a time women couldn’t do what they wanted, so this was a sort of awakening for her.  We picked up Sally Ride: First American Woman in Space from the library and it’s been a learning experience for both of us. Did you know that Sally was also the youngest American to ever be in space?  According to the biography we read, Sally never considered being a female as an obstacle because her parents led her to believe she could do anything and be anyone she wanted, so she did. This is exactly what I tell my own daughter.

This isn’t to say it was easy for Sally to soar above the clouds a little over thirty years ago as she was one of six women chosen by NASA in those early days, but what an amazing bio to share with my daughter.  Sally made it happen because she wanted it and worked hard to achieve her goals.  That’s the way it’s supposed to happen, male or female, and I want that more for my daughter than I’ve ever wanted for myself.  I want her to believe that being a girl doesn’t decide her path, but her devotion to what she wants does.

When I read the line from the first chapter of the book, “This launching marks the first time in history that an American woman will fly in space,” I felt a bit emotional. In fact, I was surprised that I got a little choked up and I really can’t explain why. Maybe I feel gratitude toward Sally, or perhaps a bit of pride?  I can only describe it as that same feeling that I feel when someone sings the Star-Spangled Banner, right when they get to the part where we “yet wave” and pause for a bit. I’m good until that line of the song and then . . . hot mess, every time.    

I may be a bit more enthusiastic about Sally Ride and her accomplishments than my daughter at this point, but she did interrupt with all sorts of questions and observations. Some being silly, like “Why would Sally like Superman best when Spiderman can shoot webs from his arm?”  And, more importantly, “What does it mean when the Challenger only reached a force of 3 g’s? What’s a ‘g’?”  In case you were wondering, a “g” is one earth gravity, the acceleration of the objects due to gravity on Earth.  There’s more to it, but that’s a whole other blog. 

Reassuringly, this means my ever-so-intelligent daughter was, at the very least, paying attention. Her inquisitiveness gives me hope that I’m doing my job right so far as she never seems consider that being a girl is any reason to not be or do what she wants. I look forward to the day when my daughter decides what she wants to be when she grows up and rest assured that I will be there to cheer her on. 

Young girls need to see role models in whatever careers they may choose, just so they can picture themselves doing those jobs someday. You can’t be what you can’t see.”  
~ Sally Ride

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