Students learn lessons from 'Hidden Figures'

Earlier this month, Berkeley Middle School math teacher Selena Chamblee listened to a student defend her unruly behavior by explaining "That's just how us black girls act."

Chamblee knew she needed to set the student on a better course. So she called NASA.

Actually she called a relative, Christyl Johnson who is the deputy center director at Goddard Space Flight Center. Johnson helped Chamblee and Barbara Parsons, her coworker at Berkeley, organize a panel of NASA women to speak to girls at the school.

They went a step further and held the panel after a showing of the Oscar-nominated film, "Hidden Figures," the 2016 movie depicting stories of black women working behind the scenes in NASA's early days, through the Cold War's space race and segregation.

A couple hundred girls from Berkeley and Hornsby middle schools shuffled into the movie theater at New Town, popcorn and drinks in hand. It was Friday morning and they came to a special showing of the movie.

Four women who work at NASA saw the film with them, and stuck around to answer questions and give advice. Christyl Johnson made the trek from Maryland to sit alongside the other three from Langley Research Center in Hampton: director of the Office of Education Janet Sellars, contamination control engineer Gugu Rutherford and mechanical engineer Bethany Schiller.

Breaking barriers

The Oscar-nominated movie primarily highlights the contributions three African-American women — Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson — made to U.S. space travel at NASA Langley, just down the road from Williamsburg in Hampton, beginning during World War I. More than that, the movie tackles institutional racism and sexism through the Cold War.

And the students picked up on some of those themes, which pleasantly surprised Janet Sellars, the director of the Office of Education at NASA Langley.

"This is my third time seeing this movie but to see it with a group of girls, this was phenomenal," Sellars said. "They were getting it, they applauded at various moments that I didn't necessarily expect middle school girls to get, but they got it."

As the movie neared the end, there was tension in the audience as everyone waited on the edge of their seats to see whether John Glenn would successfully land on his way back from becoming the first American to orbit the Earth. The theater was in uproar when he did.

But they clapped louder, accompanied by hoots and hollers, when the lead engineer Paul Stafford, set a mug of coffee on the desk where Katherine Johnson sat typing her report. Earlier in the story, she wasn't permitted to pour herself coffee from the "whites" pot, let alone would a white man bring a cup to her.

Sellars said she was impressed they recognized the gravity of the scene.

Real life stories

It was one of the few scenes students pointed to where the women were shown as powerful, notable, were shown to matter. They noted how much courage it must have taken to defy the odds as they did.

Skylar Hayes, a Hornsby student sitting in the back of the auditorium, spoke softly about what parts of the movie struck her.

“It made me think about the struggles that all three of them went through and how they really had to deal with it, and it made me think that I really couldn’t go through all those struggles that they went through,” Hayes said. “But it made me think how if more than enough women could do that, it made me think that maybe I can do the same thing.”

That was the takeaway the panelists and Berkeley math teacher Selena Chamblee, were looking for.

Johnson was impressed by the girls' awareness to the subtle themes. She said she's glad they noticed them and impressed that the movie could function as a motivational tool.

Chamblee wanted the girls to see another way to act out; to see that with education, they had choices.

"In my mind it's giving hope, hope for something else, saying you can do something else," Chamblee said. "For so many of the students it's not a lack of ability but a lack of desire."

Chamblee wanted to put real life stories in front of the students about black women who did exactly what the women in the movie did. Who fought to get where they are as engineers and directors, to show that it's possible.

"You know if we've reached a few, I think we've done a good job overall," Sellars said. "Seeing people that look like them, seeing women that are intelligent, articulate, who are good in their fields, I think is really important."

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

Hidden Figures:

The 2016 movie is based on the book with the same name from Hampton native Margot Lee Shetterly.

Focuses on three human computers who helped NASA Langley put men in space in the 1960s: Hampton native Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson.

Academy Awards: The movie is nominated for best Picture, best Supporting Actress for Octavia Spencer, who plays Vaughn, and best Adapted Screenplay.

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