My dad is a speech and theater teacher, so I grew up around school, but I was first inspired to teach during my AP Physics class. I was constantly surprised and intrigued by the demos and labs, and my algebraic fluency gave me the tools I needed to explore my own questions. In the fall of 2001, my senior year of high school, I was taking an Astronomy/Modern Physics class, and absolutely loving it.
I was getting deeper into the physics world, reading an academic book outside of class for what may seriously have been the first time, and I was seeing myself more and more as a future teacher. I stopped by a meteor shower viewing at school one night, and once again, I was blown away. This incredible universe was there to be viewed, and I was viewing it. I felt like an astronomer, and I liked that a lot.
I was incredibly fortunate and thankful that my teacher had several telescopes he could lend to students. When he alerted us that it would be a good week to view Mercury, Venus, and probably more, I checked out a small red reflective telescope and took it home. For several nights I carried it out into open grass, laptop in hand, with a program to help me explore the night’s sky. I marveled at the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter. I pored over constellations and the Milky Way.
I remember being extremely tired as a teenager, but I surprised even myself by getting up at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning to go use the telescope. I marched out into dark fields and waited for the first shred of light so I could see Venus and Mercury pop over the horizon just before the Sun washed them from view. It was peaceful and powerful.
On the 11th, my last morning with the telescope, my mom and I went out together for a final viewing. If you’re interested, and you look closely, the night’s sky never ceases to amaze. In my week I had seen every planet through that eyepiece, and it seemed almost magical. At school we found out the planes had crashed.
At the time I was rather clueless, or perhaps it was shock. I thought it was some tragic coincidence that these planes had crashed in the same place. I think about 9/11 a lot now, especially living in Brooklyn, with downtown Manhattan visible from my corner. We pass ground zero each time we drive to Manhattan, and from my tenth floor office I can see the Freedom Tower (One World Trade) going up.
These two memories, one magic, one tragic, are forever connected in my mind. I cannot think of one without recalling the other. Today I wanted to share what it felt like to be an astronomer, inspired by the wonders of our universe, faced with the helpless realization I was a high school kid in Saint Louis, and our own little world was trouble enough.