A few days before reading Counting on Katherine, I brought my daughter Siena to a STEM book signing at Anderson’s Bookshops. Authors at the event included Katey Howes, Alice McGinty, Miranda Paul, Teresa Robeson and Ruth Spiro. Here are some of their books.
I was excited to go to the event and wore my favorite #Mathgals shirt with Katherine Johnson’s name displayed first among other female mathematicians (see cover photo, you can purchase the shirts here). Siena was excited too. She brought a book she wrote and illustrated titled The Butterfly Story (The Courage Story) to share with the author of one of her favorite books Be A Maker.
A few days after the event, Siena and I sat down to read Counting on Katherine for the first time together. Toward the beginning of the book, Siena turned to me and said, “That’s impossible. No one can know that much math. It’s a book.”
She flipped back to the two pages shown below.
Surprised I replied, “Yes. It’s a book. But she’s a real person. It’s a true story about her life.” The look of surprise and wonder on Siena’s face was magical.
Then when we got to the spread below, I started crying.
“Why are your crying?” Siena asked in her usual “what the heck?” mom tone. (I’ve been known to cry at random commercials and basically anything meant to pull on your heartstrings.) I could barely finish reading the page. I got it together and all I could say was, “Because she’s amazing. She is an amazing mathematician.”
I cried because I longed for that image earlier in my life. Too often, mathematical greatness was communicated to me through the histories and images of male mathematicians. The image of Katherine standing above her male co-workers, chalk in hand, working the math in the way only she could, being valued for her ideas and her work was a powerful image for me. A symbol of greatness. Katherine’s word was the last word. She was the one John Glenn trusted. He trusted her with his life. She was that good. Women are that good. Now after learning about Katherine, her modesty would never claim the word greatness, but on those pages I basked in her brilliance and I cried. I cried for Katherine as I had cried when I heard Maryam Mirzakhani, a highly original mathematician who made striking contributions to geometry and dynamical systems, became the only women to win a Fields medal, one of the highest honors a mathematician can received. I cried because I was grateful to be sharing Katherine’s story with my daughter. The story of a great mathematical mind.
After sharing Counting on Katherine with my daughter, I wanted to learn more. I read the picture book biography Hidden Figures, the Young Readers novel Hidden Figures and watched the movie Hidden Figures for the first time (I know, how could I have missed when it came out in 2017?!). If you’re like me and haven’t watched this movie, please do. And I recommend reading the novel by Marjorie Lee Shetterly before.
Perseverance doesn’t even begin to capture what Katherine and her colleagues, Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and many others, displayed during their time at NASA. Their calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space. They did their work while facing extreme gender and racial discrimination both inside and outside Langley. They did the work, but often weren’t given credit or respect.
Women were called ” girls.” Grown women, raising children, caring for husbands (Katherine cared for her first husband James Goble who was suffering from a brain tumor up until he passed) and diligently doing their work, important work, were called “girls.” Even when John Glenn asked for Katherine to check the calculations before his launch, the woman he trusted with his life, he is quoted as saying, “Go get the girl.” Below is an image of the control room just after
But while women had difficulty getting in the room, the racial injustices Katherine and her colleagues faced were reprehensible. For example, Katherine couldn’t use a female restroom in the same building she worked, so she had to trek half a mile across the NASA campus to the colored bathroom. She couldn’t even use the same coffee pot as her white colleagues.
Below is an oral history archived by the National Visionary Leadership Project illuminating Kathrine’s perspective on the racial and gender barriers she faced.
At first she [Johnson] worked in a pool of women performing math calculations. Katherine has referred to the women in the pool as virtual “computers who wore skirts”. Their main job was to read the data from the black boxes of planes and carry out other precise mathematical tasks. Then one day, Katherine (and a colleague) were temporarily assigned to help the all-male flight research team. Katherine’s knowledge of analytic geometry helped make quick allies of male bosses and colleagues to the extent that, “they forgot to return me to the pool”. While the racial and gender barriers were always there, Katherine says she ignored them. Katherine was assertive, asking to be included in editorial meetings (where no women had gone before). She simply told people she had done the work and that she belonged.
The link above to the National Visionary Leadership Project has a series of videos of Katherine telling her story. What a gift. I highly recommend watching these videos. In them, Katherine shares how her father would tell her, “You are as good as anyone in this town. But you are no better.” This idea was a touchstone in her life and she has shares her father’s advice with the young people she meets.
A few months ago, I bought the print below by the artist Marina Teraud. Teraud was inspired by the Serbian Proverb, “Be humble for you are made of earth. Be noble for you are made of stars.” I was inspired to buy the print as a message to my daughter Siena: Be humble and be noble.
Katherine Johnson is as humble and noble as they come. I am grateful to have shared this story with my children. If I had magic wand, I would manifest this book on shelves of every classroom. Stories matter. Images matter. Beliefs create reality.
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Thanks and see you soon! Touch #mathbookmagic, pass it on.