Up until 3rd grade, I wasn't a very good student. In 1st grade, because I daydreamed during the subtraction lesson, I didn't know how to do my homework. I randomly filled in numbers. I got every answer wrong except for 1. My teacher pulled me aside after class, and tried to assess whether I was mentally impaired. Apparently convinced I was not, she showed me how to do the lesson again, and made me redo it. My new grading was 29/30.
I continued to dawdle along. In 3rd grade, there were two events that spurred me into academic excellence. One, I got into an argument with a boy who told me girls could never be as good at math as boys. Even at that age, I found it completely absurd that differences between boys and girls would have anything to do with computational abilities. It was a sad schoolyard tale because I had a crush on him until then. He became the person I hated most.
The second event was America's first woman astronaut, Sally Ride.
It is amazing how a person whom I never met has so deeply influenced my life.
I was born in the 70s. A generation of women before me marched and fought for a fair chance at school, work, pay, and who they wanted to be. They fought for future generations. They fought for me.
In 1983 just before school let out for summer break, they pulled us elementary school kids into the gymnasium so we could watch the Space Shuttle Challenger fly into space. In those days, shuttle launches were always widely celebrated, but this one all anyone could talk about was Sally Ride.
I can still remember the beaming pride, especially among the girls. A woman physicist was an astronaut. Maybe I could be anything I wanted to be.
That was the American dream, wasn't it? It's not who you were born to or your gender, the color of your skin, but what you can do. If you work hard and apply yourself, you could go beyond the sky and into the stars.
That summer when we went home, all I could think of was space and astronauts. My dad bought me "Charlie Brown's Second Super Book of Questions and Answers about Earth and Space". Snoopy and Woodstock were on the cover with astronaut helmets. I read the book from cover to cover, over and over, and I wanted more.
My dad was an airplane mechanic in the Air Force, and he was thrilled with my new interest in the sciences. He'd take me to the bookstore on a Saturday and buy me any book I wanted. He bought me a Commodore 64 so I could learn computing. He thought computers would be the next big industry, and wanted me to have a head start. It was my first love.
Entering 4th grade, I was a new person. I went from middle of the pack to top of the class. At the beginning of the year, I started at the lowest math level. After acing several of my homeworks and quizzes, my teacher gave me a placement test. She moved me to the highest math level. I was now one of the 'smart' kids, and an honor roll student for the first time.
I had the same teacher for 5th grade as 3rd grade. During a parent teacher conference, she told my parents, "I don't know what happened to Cathy in 4th grade, but she is a completely different student."
Computer science was always going to be my choice in college.
I've worked as a programmer in telecom, internet marketing and aerospace industries.
All because a woman I've never met inspired me in the summer of 1983 to do better, try harder, and never let anyone tell me what I can or can't do.
After Challenger blew up, shuttle launches were never again shown to children in school. A whole generation grew up without the marvel, imagination and daring of traveling beyond our small blue planet. Had I never seen the shuttle launch of 1983, I do not think I would be the same person I am now. That event imprinted on who I would become.
I was washing dishes tonight when my husband said she died. My heart dropped, and I couldn't believe it. She can't have been that old? 61. Pancreatic cancer.
RIP Sally Ride.