If you haven’t seen Hidden Figures, it is definitely a must see movie! It has great characters brought to life by the brilliant acting of Janelle Monae, Taraji Henson , and Octavia Spencer. The narrative, cinematography and sound track also pulls you into the story. Prior to seeing the movie, I had discovered several connections to my alma mater, Hampton University (Hampton, VA). The author of the book, Margot Lee Shetterly, is the daughter of Dr. Margaret Lee, a retired Hampton University English Professor and Hampton Alumnus. Additionally, all of the three leading characters were connected to Hampton. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) was a 1942 alumnus. Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji Henson), the lone survivor of the three, was married to Retired Lt. Col. Johnson, a 1952 alumnus. Two of her girls graduated from Hampton. Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) had four children to graduate from Hampton. Aside from the connections to the characters, I found myself connected to the location, noticing how decisively things had changed, given a recent opportunity to provide consulting services at NASA Langley. And once the movie started, I was drawn to the issues confronting these women given that as a child I too had to drink from a Colored water fountain and use a Colored restroom. When the movie ended, I found myself reflecting upon reminders of life lessons, one depicted by each character is highlighted.
#1 Never let perceived barriers prevent you from being your BEST. Katherine Goble Johnson did not let the death of her husband and being a single parent with three little girls deter her from a strong work ethic. The placement of a coffee pot labeled “Colored” did not stop her from drinking her coffee and staying focused on the work at hand. When there was no restroom that she could use near her work space, she just took her work, ran to the building that was miles away, completed her work, returned and never complained. However, when she was questioned by her boss about why she took such long breaks, she unapologetically spoke up and courageously vocalized the mistreatment she had endured. Because she consistently gave her best, Col. John Glenn would not go into orbit without being assured that it was Katherine who crossed checked the numbers. And when he landed safely, everyone knew it was due to her precise calculations.
#2 Preparation facilitates achieving your goal. Mary Jackson wanted to become an engineer. But to get there required taking classes in a school that did not allow Blacks to attend. She would not be discouraged by anyone, not even her husband. There was one way to move forward and that was to convince a judge that she deserved to be allowed admission into the school. Prior to her day in court, Mary did her homework. She knew she had only one opportunity to be successful and consequently did what was necessary to be prepared for that opportunity. Mary researched and found everything that she could about the Judge that was to hear her case. Based upon what she now knew about him, Mary developed a convincing strategy. Standing before him she presented her case in a powerful and compelling manner. The judge was surprised and impressed that Mary had done her homework. He granted her admission to the school, albeit at night. That was the entry she needed to actualize her dream of becoming an engineer.
#3 Make sure as you elevate, you take others up with you. Dorothy Vaughn had a way with the other women human computers. They followed her lead. She did all the work expected of a supervisor without title or pay. Repeatedly, she sought the position only to be turned down. In her continuous pursuit of knowledge, she learned that there was soon to be an IBM computer that would be programmed using Fortran. Unselfishly, she taught the other women “how to” program as well in preparation for the time when computers would replace them so that they would be marketable. Then one day, she was notified of the long awaited promotion to supervisor. When asked if the other women would be coming along and told “no,” she declined to take the promotion without them. Because her knowledge and skills were needed to teach the other women, they granted permission for all the women to move to the new location. They moved forward together.
The most significant reminder for me was that we all stand on the shoulders of those that have gone before us. It is incumbent upon us to want to know their story, learn and grow from it, build upon it, share it, and challenge others to pay forward.