Riding Shotgun

“vintage green car on road” by Court Prather on Unsplash

It’s been almost two years since I picked her up at the movie theater. Our local cinema chain offers a five dollar show — any show in the house — along with a small, white paper bag of popcorn. Every week, on the day that follows Monday, audiences fill seats that would be empty if not for the deal. Marketing genius really — $5 Tuesdays.

During daytime hours, the senior parking spots are filled as soon as the breakfast menu is swapped for the lunch menu at Denny’s. On the Tuesdays I make time to seek alternate reality, I stroll down the multiplex’s main hallway and take notice of posters for coming attractions. When I arrive at the correct cinema’s opaque door — I pull the stainless handle, step onto the floor-lit aisle and squint a bit before selecting the perfect red upholstered seat.

Let the previews begin! The grey hairs, second shifters and I are ready to be swept away.

Afternoon and evening, people flock like autumn geese in an attempt to save three or four bucks — people fascinate me — myself included.

On that bright February day, I couldn’t see her when I entered the theater — and it wasn’t because of the dim lighting. Meeting a new friend was an unexpected development. When she appeared, she was larger than life — projected onto the big screen before my eyes.

Her name is Katherine Johnson. Along with her story, she’s been in the passenger seat of my mind since the cold winter afternoon when I watched her life as portrayed in the movie Hidden Figures. She and her fellow NASA human computers took me by the hand that day and said, “Look what we’ve done to make the world a better place. It wasn’t always easy, but we rose to the challenge.”

Did you know that before John Glenn rocketed into outer space to circle the earth he insisted that Katherine manually compute his orbit, re-entry and landing? John had more faith in Katherine’s brain and diligence than in any electronic computer.

Katherine was a mathematician who could see beyond the numbers. She also saw far beyond discrimination and barriers. From a very young age it was clear that Katherine had a mathematical gift and she was determined to let it shine.

The depth of her character is illuminated through her words and actions—

Know how to learn. Then want to learn.

I don’t have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I’m as good as anybody, but no better.

I was just excited to have challenging work to do and smart people to work with.

Everything was so new — the whole idea of going into space was new and daring. There were no textbooks, so we had to write them.

I loved every single day of it. … There wasn’t one day when I didn’t wake up excited to go to work.

Katherine Johnson showed up — fueled by curiosity every day. She never let fear stop her. Katherine found meaning. She fulfilled her destiny through a powerful combination of determination and skill.

Is it any wonder I asked her to ride with me?

Her story — her character — is rocket fuel.

Katherine’s still alive at the age of 100. If you haven’t seen Hidden Figures yet, here’s Katherine’s advice:

Go see ‘Hidden Figures’ and take a young person! It will give a more positive outlook on what is possible if you work hard, do your best, and are prepared.

Okay Katherine, I hear you.

Where to next?