I finally saw the movie “Hidden Figures” this past weekend. It had been on my “to-do” list since it first came out in theaters, but time … schedule … you know how it is. This past weekend, however, I both had time and made time to sit down and watch it. And then I watched it again. It is a compelling, moving, and challenging story.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the movie, it is the story of three brilliant African American women who were integral to the early U.S. space program. Without them, it would have taken a lot longer for the United States to reach space — if we would have reached it at all.
As I was watching this movie, my repeated thoughts were, “why don’t we know this story? Why, as we have celebrated the accomplishments of so many who were a part of the success of the space program, why were these women not named and celebrated too?”
The answers to those questions are all too obvious. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson were all women. They were African American women. In the politics of collective storytelling, their stories were passed over, deemed insignificant, not important enough to be told because they were not considered important enough human beings. In the politics of collective storytelling, they simply did not exist. Until now.
While this movie has stirred in me once again thoughts about our own fragility as a people, our own brokenness that insidiously dismisses and oppresses those whom we would deem different, while at the same time we readily take what is not ours and claim it as our own, it has also raised much more personal questions for me in the consideration of my own life. These questions do not deal so much with racial and cultural politics; rather they are questions more of my own growing and becoming, and gratitude.
My questions are these: who are the hidden figures in my life? Who are the people within my own story who have contributed to the person I am today, yet who go unacknowledged by me? Who has influenced me, formed me, shaped me? Who has helped me, guided me, mentored me? Of these hidden figures, how many have received a word of acknowledgement or gratitude from me — ever?
This past week, my mother who is 85 years old received a letter from a former student. My mother taught math and science in grades 7-12 for most of her professional life. She retired in 1993. The letter she received last week was from a student Mom had in class her last year of teaching. Twenty-four years ago. The author of this letter was writing to tell Mom that she would be awarded a PhD in just a few weeks, and of all the teachers she has had in her whole academic career, Mom was the most significant. The most influential. The most important. Mom was a hidden figure in her story.
Receiving that letter made a significant impact on my mom. All these years after this student had left her classroom, this young woman was grateful, and she took the time to express her gratitude. That expression made a difference for my mom.
As you think about your own life, who are the hidden figures in your own story? As you think about this academic year that is rapidly drawing to a close, who are the hidden figures who have made a difference for you this year? Who are the hidden figures in the life of this University that make all of our days and lives together better?
I know that it is an incredibly busy time. Papers are due. Exams await. Final grading is looming just around the corner. The campus is getting readied for graduation. Offices are preparing to transition from the work required during the academic year to the work that awaits during the summer months.
I know that it is busy, but why not take just a few minutes to send a note to at least one of the hidden figures in your life — either here at Valpo or elsewhere? It will be time well spent. It will make someone’s day. It will make a difference. After all, gratitude costs nothing but gives much.
If you are unsure what to say, the Letter to the Philippians in the Christian Scriptures offers some words with which to begin: I thank my God every time I remember you. Start there, and build on that.
The end of the year tasks are important, but sending a note to a hidden figure or two in your life could very well be one of the most important things you do. For you. And for them.
God bless your gratitude.
God bless our hidden figures.
May 1, 2017
Rev. Charlene M. Rachuy Cox and Rev. James A. Wetzstein serve as university pastors at Valparaiso University’s Chapel of the Resurrection.