While several weeks have passed, I can still vividly recall scenes from Hidden Figures. The movie has left an impression, one that will linger in my consciousness. And I’m not only thinking of the Oscar-worthy performances delivered by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe.
Instead, my thoughts gravitate toward Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three brilliant African-American women who helped launch John Glenn into orbit. In the 1960s, this visionary trio crossed all gender and race lines, and in 2017, they continue to inspire generations of women to dream bigger dreams.
Here are five life lessons imparted by the movie:
Show Don’t Tell
My favorite scenes are those where math prodigy Katherine Johnson walks up (or climbs) to the blackboard and confidently shares her solutions to mathematical problems that have stumped older students and white professional males. As she writes, everyone else stops to watch, awestruck. Even astronaut John Glenn was impressed by her expertise and later asked for final confirmation from Katherine before setting foot in the rocket: “Get the girl, check the numbers. If she says they’re good, I’m ready to go.”
At first dismissive, supervisor Al Harrison soon recognizes Katherine’s competence and her ability to “look beyond the numbers, through the math that doesn’t yet exist.”
Persist! Persist! Persist!
Dorothy Vaughan is competent in her role as office supervisor for the African-American “computers” but lacks the rank and salary attached to the position. Throughout the film, she reminds her supervisor of the situation and receives a variation of the following comments: “They’ve never had a colored in here before” and “Just the way things are.” Undaunted, Dorothy persists while continuing to update her skills and maintain her professionalism.
Feisty Mary Jackson encounters discrimination at all levels when she applies for the engineer training program at the University of Virginia. Doggedly determined, Mary completes all the paperwork and takes her case to court where she delivers an impassioned plea to a skeptical judge.
I felt immense pride when Dorothy was introduced as “Mrs.Vaughan, Supervisor” and Mary entered an all-white, all-male classroom and sat near the front.
Of the three, Katherine was the most reserved, preferring to let her competence speak. But after suffering several indignities, among them racing half a mile to a “colored” bathroom in another building, adhering to an unrealistic (and expensive) dress code, and pouring coffee from a “colored” coffee pot, Katherine finally speaks up. Upon learning of these difficulties, Director Al Harrison resolved Katherine’s problems in one of the most satisfying scenes of the movie.
An early scene finds Dorothy under her car, attempting to fix the starter. She succeeds. Later, she visits the room housing the mammoth IBM mainframe and figures out how to start and program the machine; a task several “expert” men couldn’t accomplish. At one point in the film, she explains how she watched and listened when her father explained and demonstrated how machines work. An excellent lesson for those of us who claim to be non-techies, preferring to wait for someone else to repair or figure out how to use the technology.
Look and Plan Ahead
Dorothy didn’t stop at just activating the IBM mainframe. She picked up a book on Fortran and taught herself the programming language. She then taught the thirty women in the “Colored” room, guaranteeing that no one would be laid off once the mainframe was in full operation. Thinking back to my teaching years, I recall many groans and complaints whenever new software was introduced.
Fifty years ago, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson realized the importance of behaving professionally, continually updating their skill sets, and making themselves indispensable in their respective workplaces.