Dear Dr. Ride,
I last wrote to you in the summer of 1995 when I was eight years old. I went to the local public library and found your address in some kind of directory of famous people’s mailing addresses (I don’t remember for the life of me what it was called, or whether or not such a book still exists; this was two years before my family got our first Internet connection, so I couldn’t exactly look it up online). I don’t remember everything I wrote in that letter. I told you my name, and that I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up…just like you. I am ashamed to admit I even told you when my birthday was…I guess when you’re eight, that seems like something appropriate to share with a random famous person whose address you’ve looked up at the public library. It took me two tries to send the letter. The first time, I switched our addresses on the envelope (yours was in the upper left hand corner, and mine was in the middle) so the letter came right back. The second time, though, I nailed it.
And bless your heart–you responded. Your assistant Lynne wrote me a nice note saying that you were unable to send a personal reply, but that you had included some articles about space for me (remember, this is before the Internet–so these are articles I wouldn’t have otherwise had access to) and an autographed picture, and that you wished me a very happy birthday on September 8th. It wasn’t just a few articles…it was a good sized packet…and the autographed picture even had a personal dedication: “To Catherine – Reach for the stars! Sally K. Ride.” It was one of the highlights of my childhood, and although I’ve since misplaced the articles, I will keep that autographed picture for as long as I’m a passenger on Spaceship Earth.
I started fourth grade that fall. I told everyone who would listen that I wanted to be an astrophysicist when I grew up. I dressed up as you for a biographical book report we had to do (despite living in Coronado and knowing lots of people in the Navy, I couldn’t get a flight jumpsuit, so I had to settle for a navy blue turtle neck and pants, plus a football helmet covered in white paper with “NASA” scrawled in red pen). I cut out articles about physics from the newspaper and played Math Blaster on my Super Nintendo every chance I got. I went out to my backyard with a crappy telescope and sky map to try to eke out the constellations; fortunately for my childish pride, nobody explained to me that with the light pollution from the Navy base next door, that wasn’t going to happen.
And then came fifth grade. My teacher told me I wasn’t good at math and my gifts were in English–a subject I dearly loathed. We moved across town. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that my home life was not exactly a walk in the park. In sixth grade, I was accepted to a “gifted” program at a prestigious public middle school on STILL another side of town…where I was deemed not ready for accelerated math. I was ashamed; I decided I was bad at math. I stopped doing my homework. I got C’s. I stopped telling people I wanted to be an astrophysicist and started telling them I wanted to be the Ruler of the World.
By seventh grade, I was making A’s in math again, but the dream of a career in the sciences was completely dead. I was always good at math and science throughout high school, but I developed an aversion to it–mostly because there was only one right answer, and I would often make small mental mistake that would lead me to a different one. Our science classes were overcrowded and intimidating; the labs were poorly planned and would inevitably never yield the desired result. English and history, on the other hand, were easy to manipulate as long as you knew how to use a comma and avoided personal pronouns. And then there were my favorite classes – Spanish and band – and my true love, the one place in the world where I didn’t feel like a total and complete blundering moron – the stage. My love for performance is ultimately what lead me to choose a career in music, and although it isn’t exactly going great at the moment, I don’t regret the decision…although it is certainly a far cry from what I pictured for myself at eight years old.
Last year when I got back from Haiti, I cleaned out my room. I found your autographed picture. I realized I had never really looked you up on the Internet–so I did. I found your Sally Ride Science website, and I couldn’t help but wonder how my life might have been different if I had participated in one of those programs in middle school. I didn’t like myself for asking the question, but I couldn’t help it: Might I be a hot shot engineer at Microsoft like my brother is instead of a
governess mostly in-home music teacher? When I heard about your death on Monday, I couldn’t help but wonder if you’d known that I, who’d been so inspired by you as a young girl, had gone into something completely unrelated to the subjects you championed…would you be disappointed in me?
There’s no way to know. I doubt it; you were clearly a good human being, to have sent all those articles and an autographed picture to a wide-eyed eight year old girl you didn’t know personally. You might have been impressed if I told you I got a Fulbright, that I speak Spanish and Portuguese, that I traveled to Ghana, Brazil, that I’m working on learning to produce my own music…
…which brings me to how I will work to honor your memory. I have no plans to quit music. Again, I won’t bore you with the details, but even though my career is going less than swimmingly at the moment, I love it and I don’t want to give it up. My biggest goal at the moment is to record and produce my own album of original music performed entirely by yours truly on percussion instruments. In order to do that, I need to learn music production…which happens to be science and engineering related. After finding your picture this fall, I was the only girl in an advanced sound engineering class filled with surly, tattooed hulking boys. By the end of the semester, I had engineered for several of their projects and recorded two original songs of my own. Okay, it wasn’t astrophysics…but I felt as though if I had met you personally, it would have been easier to connect with you as a “woman sound engineer” than just a musician who idolized you as a little kid.
Anyway, it’s moot point; I’ll never meet you personally. You’ll never read this letter, and that’s probably a good thing…it’s a good deal longer than the one I wrote you when I was eight (and probably has a lot more run on sentences…). But I just wanted to tell you that even if I’m not a scientist, you still inspire me. You always will. And even if I never got to meet you in person, you had a profound impact on my life.
Godspeed, Dr. Ride.