by Terri Schlichenmeyer —
One, two, buckle my shoe.
We Three Kings, cheaper by the dozen, it’s a Catch 22 and double jeopardy, then we’re back to Square One. In every corner of our lives, we use numbers, we count, we cypher. And in the new book “My Remarkable Journey” by Katherine Johnson (with Joylette Hylick and Katherine Moore), we know a career takes true calculations.
When Katherine Coleman was born in 1918, Model T cars were selling for $350, fresh off the assembly line. Women couldn’t vote, TV hadn’t been invented, and Black Americans lived under strict Jim Crow laws. Knowing that schooling was the best way to survive the latter, Coleman’s parents, who owned a farm near the town of White Sulpher Springs, West Virginia, insisted that their children all get educations.
Precocious Coleman was the youngest, but by the time she graduated high school at age fifteen, she was old enough to see that success would require more classwork and that teaching at a Black school was the likeliest goal. College spoke to Coleman’s innate curiosity and she loved it; she planned to major in French until “the math professors had their say.”
One of them challenged her to become a “research mathematician.”
Unsure what, exactly, that was, Coleman stepped off the career track to marry and raise three daughters before heading back to work as a teacher, then landing a position at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the “predecessor to NASA”) at Langley Field (now Langley Air Force Base) in Virginia. Her job, at first, was as a “computer” – literally, one who computes so that the program’s engineers didn’t have to do it. Coleman (then Goble, later Johnson) quickly worked her way into the research division involved in the Space Race, and when the Soviets launched Sputnik, she felt “that competitive American spirit” deep inside herself.
“We’ve got to do something,” she remembered thinking. “Little did I know then that ‘we’ soon would include me.”
So you saw the movie, “Hidden Figures,” and you loved it. So did author Katherine Johnson, on whom the movie is modeled, and here, she explains what parts were right and what Hollywood got wrong. Moreover, she takes you back to the beginning in “My Remarkable Journey.”
Lively and with great detail, Johnson tells her story in a way that frames her accomplishments in humble neon, never letting readers forget who she was or what she did, but not bragging on it without giving ample credit to others. The warmth and grace of that is impressive; so is the fact that she admits to having endured racism, patriarchy and Jim Crow laws but she waves them away like a fly on a June afternoon, as if they weren’t even a part of her equation.
“My Remarkable Journey” puts the movie about Johnson into keener perspective, bringing the full story, as Dr. Yvonne Cagle says in her introduction, to a new generation of young women. Find it, share it with your daughter. Or catch it on an audiobook. That counts, too.