Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Reflections on October Sky

I believe everyone's life is partially defined by certain, significant experiences they encounter. I know many of my values, tendencies, and passions originate in very particular memorable moments - though there are but few of them.

I watched October Sky for the first time when I was about eleven years old. I was mesmerized by Homer's dedication to rocketry and his determination to escape his environment by immersing himself in trigonometry, calculus, and chemistry. I watched, wide-eyed, as his rockets failed and misfired and grew to respect the boy in the screen when he spent entire nights puzzling over complex mathematical concepts trying to find an answer. For years, Homer Hickam was my hero and I wanted nothing more than to be an astronaut and explore the boundaries of space. But none of this is my defining moment.

The day remains unnamed in my memory. I don't remember the particulars of what was happening or how it came to be, but I was twelve, bored, and alone. Our dear friends were down to visit with their small, young family and I felt out of place; too young to be with the grown-ups, but feeling too old to play with the kids. And so I sat, quietly perched on our tall rickety green chair and played some mindless computer game - PutPut Goes to the Moon I think it was. I'd played it dozens of times before and there was no challenge whatsoever, in fact, I was probably more bored playing it, but lacked better ideas on how to fill my time.

As I sat, I became aware that my Tio David had come into the room and was sitting beside me; observing my game with a subtle air of disappointment. Feeling rather silly, I stopped. He looked straight into my eyes and asked me, "Risa, who do you admire most?" When I instantly responded Homer Hickam, he stated, "Then why don't you write to him?" The question surprised, and I'll be honest, slightly upset me. I had never thought of writing the esteemed Mr. Hickam. I had nothing to say to him! Didn't Tio David know what an incredible man Mr. Hickam was? Didn't he know he was someone important who didn't want to be annoyed by twelve year old girls? Why was Tio David making me think? Can't I just be bored for a while, please?

We wrote a letter to Homer Hickam that afternoon. No less than three weeks later I received a personally addressed reply from Mrs. Homer Hickam, acting as his secretary and I was completely flabbergasted when I saw his signature at the bottom. Homer Hickam's very own wife wrote specifically to me and Homer signed it! I would spend long periods of time just holding that beautiful letter, reading it over and over and over again.

Nine years later, I realize I learned a couple incredibly defining things:
* First of all, time is precious and should not be squandered, especially on mindless pursuits. I remember feeling ashamed of just sitting there, wasting the afternoon on a stupid game. Life is so short, and there is so much to learn, and we will die hungering for more....so how can we let ourselves lose time on superficial nothingness?
* Secondly, take the initiative; even when it's scary and you have no idea what you're doing. Tell people about your goals and aspirations, seek out professionals and get to know them personally if you can, actively search for new opportunities, and don't be afraid to ask the "dumb" questions.
* And finally, don't minimize your own abilities and knowledge; it's okay to be ignorant if you're pursuing knowledge. I felt like an insignificant nobody just thinking about Homer Hickam, and the thought of actually writing to him terrified me. I was a 12-year old nobody! Yet, Tio David proved to me that I did have something to say. That I was important enough to reach out and talk to my academic idols. That I was worth it and that people would care enough to write back.

To say October Sky is inspiring is an understatement. But the very real, personal connection I have with this great story is underlined by the lessons forced upon me by an innocently profound question:

"Risa, who do you admire?"

Tio David, thank you.


Anonymous said...

This is truly inspirational. I found your blog via Homer Hickam's Facebook page. (I am an admirer of his dedication and accomplishments as well) I am an older adult but have children that I think will be inspired by your blog. Thanks for sharing!

Jack S. said...

I can NOT believe that no one has left a comment yet!! What is up with that!!! Thank you Risa for writing that!! I too wrote Homer....rather I did on FB and was thrilled when he wrote me back!!! I completely understand what you mean by his being and inspiration, he is to me as well!!! PLUS it is a great movie as too!

Anonymous said...

I, too, have had the honor of getting to know Homer and Linda via several years worth of emails.

Even though we still have not met in person, they have proven to be good friends and wonderful souls. They and I also have a love of cats in common.

So nice to hear of your wonderful experience with them.

By the way, BACK TO THE MOON is also one of his best books!

Risa said...

How exciting to hear that there are others who share my experience with the Hickams - truly some incredible people. I'll definitely have to check out Back to the Moon; I'm sure just about anything by him will be fantastic.