Decades ago when I was a freshman in high school, my algebra teacher asked me to stay behind when he dismissed the class. Mr. Haskell was probably about 30 years old, maybe a year or two younger, with a dark mustache, and an average build. He spoke German fluently; he was also my German instructor. I was 14 years old, outgoing, and I loved school. Missing the start of the next class was torture. Why did Mr. Haskell call me aside?
He wanted to tell me that on my report card next to the “Effort” box, he would be checking “”Unsatisfactory” despite my passing grade, and he wanted to ensure I knew why. Openly, honestly, and accurately, he went on to tell me the game I was playing – short changing myself, buying in to the stereotype that girls aren’t good in math, and worse, that I was not living up to my potential in order to fit in. He thought it was a shame, and he wanted me to know his disappointment as well as his hope that I’d snap out of it.
Yesterday, I met with a young woman who recently graduated with her Master’s in Meteorology from Colorado State University. She asked about my career path and I shared it with her. In turn, I asked how she became interested in meteorology, and this was her reply:
"When I was in college and trying to decide on a major, my mother moved to western Nebraska. I would fly in and out of the Denver airport when I came to visit her, and we often spent a weekend in the Denver area. One time, I mentioned my interest in astronomy and we decided to try to visit the University of Colorado’s Planetarium. However, we were disappointed to find that it was closed for spring break. My mother suggested the NCAR Mesa Lab as an alternative. We took the noon tour around the facility, was enthralled by the things I learned and was reminded that I had taken a meteorology course through the local community college in high school. My interest in the science was renewed and once I returned to college, I pursued a degree in Atmospheric Science. I have loved it ever since and feel that my excursion to the Mesa Lab was an integral factor in my decision to make atmospheric science my career path."
Earlier this week, I asked an NCAR scientist what influenced her to choose a career in meteorology. Without hesitation, she said it was the professor who spoke about the field during college orientation at the University of Alabama, Huntsville. He influenced another woman as well that same day. Both young women went on to encourage one another through demanding college classes, now work as scientists, and remain good friends. The professor never taught either one of them, but he definitely influenced their career paths.
Many others at NCAR share stories of a single event that ignited their interest in meteorology: a lightning strike to one’s home that sparked a fire; a tornado outbreak in the Oklahoma plains…. My point is that one moment, one person, one conversation, one experience, can influence a life and impact its direction. Something unique and singular often has staying power in our memories and influences our actions. So a tour, field trip, or any experience out of the ordinary can often be remembered, hopefully fondly, for years if not decades to come.
Teachers rarely know the lives they truly touch. I never thanked Mr. Haskell, for instance, for telling me in a very unique way that he believed in my ability and expected more. Without his talk, my high-school GPA could have closed doors rather than opened them for me. The professor at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, remains unaware of the two women he led into science careers, now involved in important research projects. And if I hadn’t spoken with the CSU student and asked her about her education, I would never have heard about the influence a one-hour tour at NCAR had on a young woman’s field of research.
It’s easy to under estimate the power of one, but it's easier still to forget that each of us has that power.
Thanks Mr. Haskell.