I was teaching a SA2U LEGO Robotics class in a North Portland elementary school. The students in my class today were marveling over my Bluetooth mouse and how far it could get from my computer and still work. I told them there was an famous scientist who created a technology that made Bluetooth work and asked them what they thought the scientist looked like.
“Um, he probably has a beard,” they guessed.
I quickly searched for Hedy Lamarr and pulled up her Wikipedia page. Lamarr was an engineer who co-developed a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes which used spread spectrum and frequency hopping technology to defeat the threat of jamming by Axis powers. The US Navy was slow to adopt the technology, but Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and CDMA all use spread spectrum and frequency hopping to this day.
“Wow,” several of the girls in the class said, “she’s pretty.”
“Indeed she is,” I said, “she was once an actress until she got tired of people only talking about how pretty she was and not how smart she was, so she quit acting and became an engineer.”
One little girl – with dark hair- was entranced by the picture. “Does…,” she started uncertainly. And then, “and she had dark hair?” This was more words than I’d heard from her over the last several classes.
Later, while the rest of the students played games during free time, she asked me to help her find the Wikipedia article on Hedy Lamarr and read the entire thing, with follow up questions about Lamarr’s six divorces and arrests for shoplifting.
I told her that when Hedy Lamarr was married, a lot of men didn’t want their wives to be smart and that I imagined she had no time for that. As for the shoplifting, I told her that I imagined she was a sensitive person and had a difficult time being a really smart woman in the world and that may have led to acting out with activities like shoplifting. “But what’s really important,” I added, “was that she worked hard to be true to herself and find a way to make a difference.”
She was engaged for the rest of the day, even volunteering to help me do some extra clean up at the end of class. I don’t know if it’ll make a difference for the rest of the classes I have with her, but I got to tell a little girl that she can break free of the mold society is already forming for her. And someday, I hope she’ll remember that and go on to do great things.
And being a part of moments like that is why I am so committed to Saturday Academy’s mission.