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I Raised a Rocket Scientist
...and learned something about myself in the process.

by Rita Ayers
June 13, 2007

Last week was Girls' Movie Night at our house. All the boys were indisposed in one manner or another, so we chose Mona Lisa Smile , a 2003 release that has been called the Dead Poets Society for women. Set in 1953 at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, it is a study of that odd period of time where women had returned to the traditional roles of homemaker after having enjoyed independence filling in for the men who were fighting World War II. Julia Roberts plays a forward-looking rookie instructor who feels compelled to show her intelligent young charges that they can be anything they want to be, despite society's plan to keep them serving only as wife and mother.
While I enjoyed the movie for its (I think) accurate 1950's period costumes and attitudes, I would not have run to the store to buy a copy. Still, I was reveling in the moments with my girls. Brooke, my oldest daughter and a recent college graduate, was home for the longest period of time since she left to embark on her pursuit of higher education years ago. Julia, my youngest, followed her around like an eager puppy, happy to be wearing much of Brooke's castoff Alabama gear which is no longer suitable for the career path she has chosen.
I like to get my money's worth out of any purchase – or, in this case, rental – so before I returned the movie to Netflix, I put 'er back in and watched the special features. Sometimes, the deleted scenes are the best part of the whole experience. In this case, there were three segments, one of which compared the women of 1953 with the women of 2003. I found it fascinating. I was not around in 1953, but still, I found some of the attitudes from that era had shaped and molded my own way of thinking. It was an eye-opener for me, and it is here on this page that I confess my own shortcomings.
In 1953, women who went to college did not do so in preparation for a career. They went to be in the right place to find themselves a better husband. All that was expected of them after graduation was to marry, produce children, and serve as their husband's faithful companion. Courses at Wellesley at that time included instruction in poise, elocution, manners, posture, and even how to put a glorious dinner on the table for hubby's business contacts at a moment's notice.
If, perchance, a woman did not find a husband by the time she had graduated and found herself looking for employment, there were only three avenues considered acceptable. She could become a nurse, a teacher, or a secretary – all while continuing to look for Mr. Right, of course. Characters in Mona Lisa Smile would claim to be majoring in pre-law, but when faced with the opportunity to actually enter law school, most backed out in favor of returning to the accepted roles – marriage and motherhood. Mind you, these were the brightest women in society at that time.
By the time I entered college in 1974, radical changes in women's viewpoints had taken place through the turbulent 60's and the Vietnam War. I was of a singular mindset. I would work as hard as I could to get a degree because I wanted to ensure that I could take care of myself. My father had not believed I should attend college at all, so there was no financial backing coming from that arena – not that there could have been much anyway. My father was an acknowledged alcoholic who struggled throughout his adult life. Many of his demons were based in his horrid memories of a two-year stint in the army, much of it spent in Korea during the Korean War. It is amazing to me how much of my life has been spent with my country at war, and what an impact it has had on all of those I love.
At any rate, my father had inadvertently taught me that it would not be in my best interests to count on a man to take care of me. I focused on college and finishing – and much to everyone's surprise, even my own, I completed requirements for a mathematics degree in only three years. Now, here's where the confessing part comes in.
I still thought I could only become a nurse, a teacher, or a secretary.
And so, even though I completed numerous math classes filled with male engineering majors, I never in my heart believed I could understand the other coursework I knew they had to take. Metallurgy? Yikes! The very name of it created fear in my heart. Instead of emerging with a similar degree and taking off on a path to significantly greater riches, I filled my other coursework with education classes and became a math teacher. I have no regrets; I have been a teacher since 1977 and am proud of the impact I have had on many young lives.
In 1984, I gave birth to my first child, a beautiful daughter that has been a joy in every way imaginable. Before she was even born, I was telling her she could be anything she wanted to be. I would take her to t-ball or dance classes or piano lessons or school, all the while telling her she could be anything she wanted to be. When she entered high school, I pushed her to take a wide variety of classes so that she would be exposed to as many options as possible – and, you guessed it, also telling her she could be anything she wanted to be.
When she entered Alabama as a freshman, she quickly changed her "undecided" major to aerospace engineering. When she called to tell me about this choice, I admit that I asked her if she was sure that would retain her interest through the difficult courses to follow. You know what she said?
"Mom, you've told me all my life I could be anything I wanted to be. Now, I'm going to be it!"
And so, she is. My daughter is a rocket scientist. I told her she could be. Here's where more of that confessing part comes in.
She believed me. I don't think I believed it myself. It's shocking to realize that the lessons you've taught your children have yet to take effect in your own life.
I should have figured this out long ago. Every fall, after classes would have been in session about two weeks, I would cautiously question her.
"Are you still liking this stuff? Is it getting harder?"
"Yes, it's way cool! Today we learned about thrust and lift and I remembered when we flew to Myrtle Beach for a dance competition and how amazed I was that the big fat plane with all those big fat people on it could get off the ground!"
What I had forgotten was that education trails behind society a good fifty years – that's something that I learned in college. For example, while televisions became acceptable in every home in the 1950's, we didn't really even allow them in the classroom until the 1990's – nearly fifty years later.
And so it's no wonder that the lessons that Julia Roberts' character was trying to impart in 1953 didn't really take effect in the minds of women until 2003. I was just a middle man – er, woman.

About the Author:

These changes do not happen rapidly - Brooke was the only female to receive an aerospace engineering degree from Alabama this year.  What might the next fifty years bring? Rita Ayers is wondering what her granddaughters might become.

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