Hidden Figures–The World is Watching!

It was just a year ago when the brilliance of three African American women–Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson burst onto the scene as the movie Hidden Figures introduced us to the black women who had been the brains behind the 1960s space program that sent John Glenn into orbit and brought him safely back again.

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Most of us would have never known they existed had it not been for the work of Margot Shetterly and her book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and The Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.  Those ladies never sought after fame. They merely did their work in the shadows, focused on doing it right and doing it well.

Their story became an inspiration because of its connection to history, yet they never set out to make history.  In fact, Katherine, Mary and Dorothy weren’t the only ones who were a part of that history.  Shetterly says the biggest difference between the “real” story of the hidden figures and the story that is portrayed in the movie is that there were many people who did similar work at NASA; “you [just] can’t make a movie with 300 characters.”

So, I wonder what other stories were never told. Even those who move behind the scenes have unique experiences.  Perhaps their stories can inspire us too. After all, few will ever attain the level of mathematical genius that Katherine Johnson possessed, but there were many smart and capable people with whom she worked.  Likewise, only a select few were chosen to be actors in the movie, yet many more worked behind the scenes to make those actors shine.

Take Marc Casey, for example. You might say that Marc Casey was a hidden figure behind Hidden Figures.  A fair-skinned, curly-haired guy, he bears a striking resemblance to Taraji P. Henson’s Empire co-star Terrence Howard, but it’s not likely that you’ll ever see Casey’s face on the big screen. He prefers to be behind, rather than in front of a camera lens, which is why he studied film production at Savannah College of Art and design (SCAD). Casey became the second assistant “B” cameraman on Hidden Figures which began filming in Atlanta in the spring of 2016 and he says it was “the most exciting job” he has ever had. “I was really proud to represent the [black] community and my NASA family.”

Yet his job is not what most would consider glamorous.  He worked in the shadows–preparing the camera for on set filming, managing onset film inventory, changing batteries, lenses, slating scenes with the clapper, managing the camera’s paperwork and marking the actors’ positions for scenes.  It takes a whole team of people working diligently to create a perfect scene, but it can also take one person to destroy an entire day’s worth of work.  Casey says a film loader, for example, is “the lowest paying position in the camera department,” but that person could expose the film to light and ruin five hours’ worth of work, so that person is also one of the most important people on the team.

For Casey, getting the Hidden Figures job was a big deal and once he got that gig he thought his career was on an upward trajectory. He had started as a photojournalist at WSAV in Savannah, GA.  Soon after, he landed a job as production assistant on Mylie Cyrus’ movie The Last Song and his friendship with veteran photographer Lee Blasingame paved the way for several other jobs that led to this one.  It seemed like God had arranged everything perfectly! He had been careful to walk a straight path, following the rules, being dependable, likable, hard-working…he was certain, now, that doors would swing wide open for him! After all, this movie was receiving high acclaim, an Oscar buzz even!

To be affiliated with a movie like Hidden Figures was certainly a high point for Marc Casey, but it proved, instead, to be a turning point.

Casey says after production on the movie wrapped “the bottom dropped out” from under him and his winning streak came to an end.  “2016 was the hardest year in the film industry. After Hidden Figures my well went dry. The phone calls for jobs disappeared. I was looking for other opportunities, even considered leaving the film industry. I had to work, kids do not feed themselves.”

For a time, Casey’s circumstances were similar to his movie counterparts: in the movie, Katherine’s supervisor repeatedly obscured key information that she needed to do her job; Mary was refused entrance into an all-white school which was the only one that offered the courses she needed to earn her degree, and Dorothy was escorted out of the library where she was searching for a book about the emerging technology.

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But, James 1:5 says “if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all” and Casey says an important lesson that he learned from his low point was that “sometimes the knowledge you obtain is the only weapon you have.” Although some of the specific scenarios in Hidden Figures were fiction, their message was not. Katherine out-smarted her colleague’s treachery, Mary used the power of rhetoric to sway a court order in her favor and Dorothy cunningly defied injustice and “self-checked” a FORTRAN book from the “whites only” public library so that she could understand what was coming.

Casey didn’t know what was coming, but he knew that his best chance for survival was to make himself more marketable; thus, he added to his skillset by becoming an underwater camera technician. He knew that the movie industry would not always call for a second assistant camera guy, but that there would be fewer calls to make if they needed someone with a more specialized knowledge. Fast forward to 2017 and thanks to Hydroflex, a leader in professional underwater cinematography equipment, Casey has worked on about ten productions as an underwater camera technician so far.  The company has a list of people whom they consider to be certified once they attend the Hydroflex and Society of Camera Operators (SOC) bi-yearly training. “I have experience with the equipment and I have become the ‘go to’ guy for underwater camera work in Atlanta,” says Casey who attended the training event in 2012. Casey is on the short list because of the amount of time and experience required and “since Atlanta has become the ‘Hollywood of the south’” Casey is in a good place.

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The work that Casey does now is not the work that he thought he would be doing, but it is work that he enjoys. “Diving and being in the water is what I love” he says.  In spite of the road blocks and low points, Casey held on to his faith and never lost sight of his purpose.  Casey’s story is unique because of the opportunities that he’s had to be so close to fame and yet so far from the limelight. By standing behind the camera he is always in a position just beyond the public eye. However, although his story plays out in the shadows, it is a story that has seen the light of day.

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Many of us strive for success, encounter obstacles then have to re-group, perhaps we even veer off course and wonder what is it that God is doing in our lives? Yet, often, what God is doing is working out a path we could have never imagined for ourselves. Casey’s story reveals the secret of a hidden figure. It’s about doing your work with no expectations. Like the other hidden figures who didn’t set out to make history, Casey wasn’t looking for fame.  His goal was just to do his best: “integrity is the only thing you have,” he says; thus, he did his work like every other hidden figure–as if the world was watching and in the end, it paid off!

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Daily Post: Calling

Monday Mayhem: What Are You Missing?

Have you ever asked yourself why?

Why am I here…?

In this town…

At this job…

At this point in my life…

Or, ever wondered when…?

When will I move forward?

Be more, do more, see more?

When will things change?

I have.

Then one day–consumed by papers, deadlines, schedules and plans,  the clock is frowning down on me as I lean into the computer screen and try to decipher my own thinking about this afternoon’s class, I hear a knock on my door.

“Come in!” I yell without looking up and a timid girl slips in without a sound.

I glance up, “Yes?” I notice she has a strange look on her face so I stop what I’m doing and wait.

“Ms.–” there’s a distinct lilt in her voice. It’s musical even though her face is drawn and sad. “I haven’t heard from my family since yesterday and I just don’t know what to do.” She swings herself into the chair next to my desk the way I swing my tote bag down at the end of a long day, exhausted.

Whatever was planned for class that day will have to wait. I turn to face her, wondering what I should say. News reports of historic Category 5 hurricanes hitting defenseless Caribbean islands is all we’ve been hearing about lately. None of the news is good. All of the predictions are “devastating losses” of life and property. The fact that this girl has not heard from her family is a sign that, as expected, the storms have hit her home and knocked out power. There is no way to know if they are dead or alive. And here she is thousands of miles away trying to “do school” and go on, be positive and pray, but it has become more than she can bear.  So she’s come here—to her English teacher’s office—a few minutes before class—and let the floodgates open.

I whisper a prayer to myself, but I realize I don’t need to say much. It is better for me to listen and be a sympathetic ear, to tell her it’s okay to cry and that I, indeed, understand how she feels. I, too, have family in the islands. This is a scary time. I also tell her not to feel guilty for being here “safe and sound” while they are down there in harm’s way. As a mother, I tell her, it would give me great comfort to know that at least one of my children is not in the midst of this storm and I’m sure her mother feels the same way.

Then she asks me to pray for her, and because we’re here, at a Christian school, it’s actually okay for us to do that! So we do, and I ask God to open our eyes the way he did Elisha’s servant when the enemies were surrounding them and it seemed their defeat was certain, so that we could see his army that surrounded the enemy, outnumbering them!  In that moment we needed to be reminded and encouraged that He who is for us is greater than all that is against us.

She thanked me and left.

And wouldn’t you know it? After class she told me she received a call from home! There was some damage to her house, but her family was safe. I later heard from my family members as well. So, our story had a happy ending!  But that’s actually not the end of the story…

I began by saying that I often ask myself “why am I here?” And I sometimes even sink into a pit of despair as I think about where I would like to be, but then I have experiences like this and I feel like Elisha’s servant looking out over the hills of Dothan–first feeling overwhelmed and defeated by the enemy of doubt and low self-esteem–and then dumbstruck by the reality that I am, after all, not left alone to face that enemy when he opens my eyes and allows me to see the vast host of God’s army standing behind them with chariots of fire. (2 Kings 6:17)

So, a few weeks later, I’m having another paper-filled, lesson-plan, meeting and worry-whirlwind kind of morning when there’s another knock on my door.

“Come in!”

It’s the sweet Caribbean girl again! “Oh, I’m glad you’re here” she says. “I’ll be right back,” and a few minutes later she reappears carrying these…

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“I just wanted to thank you for praying with me,” she says, and this time it was my turn to let the floodgates open.

I was the teacher, but that day my student taught me a lesson.   So often my time and attention is spent looking elsewhere, but is my purpose right in front of me?  How often am I distracted by what’s not while I continually ignore what is? Like Elisha’s servant, my eyes needed opening and the gorgeous blooms gave me an appropriate jolt.

Why am I here?

For moments like this.

What about you?

Happy Monday!

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Daily Post: #enlighten

Monday Mayhem: Dare to do what you love/hate!

We met a pediatrician recently who shared a story of his early days of clinical work. He and several other interns would see patients at a walk-in clinic. A nurse manager was responsible for doing the initial assessments then she would assign each patient to one of the doctors for treatment. As it was a clinic, there were no appointments, so on any given day one never knew what kinds of patients he or she would see.  However, this particular doctor noticed that he was getting all of the mental health patients while the other doctors were getting a variety, and often the “easy” stuff–runny noses and the common cold.  Annoyed by this apparent disparity and worn out by the more difficult patient load, he confronted the nurse manager.

“Why are you givng me all of these patients and not giving any to the other doctors? It’s not fair!” he complained.

“Why do you think?” she shot back. “You’re the only one who has proven you can actually help them. When I give those patients to the other doctors, they sit with them all day and get nowhere! My waiting room gets backed up and it’s a mess. I give them to you and you get them in and out.”

My doctor friend wasn’t sure how to respond to this, but vowed that once he had put in his time at the clinic and was able to open his own practice he would see to it that he would only see the kinds of patients that he wanted to and he would pass on those others…

Fast forward decades later this same doctor is now well-established and, indeed, in a position to choose the kinds of patients to treat, or not. And guess what? His pediatric patients who have come in with mental health issues have found his knack for counseling to be good medicine.  Word has spread to the wider community and his services have begun to fill a need. He now sees far fewer pediatric cases and far more mental health cases.

“Isn’t that something?” He said as he slipped into his crisp white coat and prepared to leave us. With a sigh and a shrug he waved goodbye and let the office door close behind him.

Then his nurse leaned in as if to share with us a little secret.”Don’t let him fool you,” she said. “He loves it, and he’s good with them. They come in here all down and depressed, then, next thing you know, you hear them in there laughing and talking. He’ll get down on the floor with them and draw pictures, all kinds of things. Before you know it, they’re leaving out of here all smiles and feeling better! He acts like he doesn’t like it, but he was meant to do this.”

Wow.

For some reason, her words hit me.

We usually assume that the things we’re meant to do are things we enjoy doing. Things we know we’re meant to do, not things we dread doing or things we try to avoid! Here’s a man who spent his entire career trying to avoid this type of work and yet he apparently has a gift for it. Is it possible that our gifts could be things we despise?

Might it actually be necessary to wrestle with the gifts and talents that we have as we figure out what we can and should be doing with them?

It seems to me that the moral of this story is that if we have a knack for something, if we’re naturally good at it–even if we don’t particularly care for it–we should not run from it. Maybe we aren’t meant to do it all the time–but for a time.  

But, when that time comes we must not turn away (if you’re good at it, and it can help someone, how can you say no?)… because some of our gifts we love… and some we hate.  It’s ok.  Do it anyway.

Happy Monday!

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P.S.Who’s on first? I make A Case for Second Place