Author: Margot Lee Shetterly
SERENDIPITY – Summary
Katherine and her husband, Jimmy, were public school teachers with three young daughters. They struggled to make ends meet, but Katherine enjoyed teaching and felt a responsibility to instill discipline and self-respect in her students.
While she was attending her husband’s sister’s wedding in Marion, Virginia, Eric Epps, her brother-in-law, mentioned a job in mathematics in Hampton, Katherine’s long-dormant ambition was rekindled. Eric Epps is the director of the Newsome Park Community Center and is well-connected and knows many women who work at the West Computing unit, including Dorothy Vaughan.
After discussing it with Jimmy, they decided to take the job, which led them to Newsome Park, where they found employment and a community. Katherine applied for a job at Langley but had to wait a year for her appointment, during which she worked as a substitute math teacher and assistant director at the USO Club. Katherine’s boss at Langley was her neighbor from White Sulphur Springs, Dorothy Vaughan, who she respected both as a mathematician and a manager.
Chapter 12 of Hidden Figures describes the challenges faced by female “computers” at Langley in the 1950s, who were responsible for performing complex calculations for the space program. In addition to matching ability with assignments, the more subtle management skill was to match temperaments with the groups, as engineers could be quirky, brusque, temperamental, or authoritarian. Despite their professional and educational credentials, the women were hired as subprofessionals and expected to accept their low-level jobs with gratitude. Katherine, an honors math graduate, was assigned to work with the “brain trust” of engineers, where she encountered some hostility. She pondered whether the engineer’s sudden departure was due to her race, gender, or professional status.
Segregation and racial tensions affected the work environment at Langley, where both blacks and whites were treading new ground together. While hard-line racism was beyond their control, Katherine and others like her mounted a charm offensive to combat ignorance and thoughtless prejudice. Katherine was aware of her own insecurities, which could cause her to doubt herself or see others as arrogant chauvinists or racists. However, she chose to exile these demons and focus on her good fortune at her new desk, eventually becoming fast friends with her office mate. Despite her love for West Virginia, Virginia was her destiny.
- How did Katherine Goble get her job at Langley?
Katherine Goble got her job at Langley through her brother-in-law, Eric Epps, who knew of a government facility in Hampton that was hiring black women as mathematicians. At the wedding of her husband Jimmy’s little sister Patricia, Eric Epps offered Jimmy a job at the shipyard in Newport News and suggested Katherine apply for the math job at Langley. He suggested to Katherine that she apply for the position, as it was a civilian job attached to Langley Field in Hampton. Eric Epps was the director of the Newsome Park Community Center and knew many women of West Computing, including Dorothy Vaughan, who lived in the neighborhood.
- Why did Katherine get attached to the Flight Research Division? Why is this change of department significant for her?
Katherine’s selection to be attached to the Flight Research Division, was significant for her because it meant she was chosen to work with one of the most important and powerful groups at the laboratory. The selection process involved Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine’s supervisor, who was approached by a white man in shirtsleeves to request two new computers. Vaughan then scanned the array of desks and occupants, and after he left, she called Katherine Goble and another woman, Erma Tynes, to her desk and informed them that they were being sent to the Flight Research Division.
For Katherine, being selected to rotate through this division felt like an unexpected bit of fortune, however temporary the assignment might prove to be. She had been elated simply to sit in the pool and calculate her way through the data sheets assigned by Vaughan, and being sent to work with the brain trust located on the second floor of Building 1244 gave her a close look at one of the most important and powerful groups at the laboratory. This assignment represented a significant change of department for Katherine and would likely provide her with new opportunities for professional growth and development.
- What happened when Katherine sat down to wait to meet her new boss? What impact does this moment have on her?
In the Flight Research Laboratory, Katherine sat down to wait for her new boss and noticed a few women and mostly men working with calculating machines. She sat next to an engineer, but before she could say anything, he got up and walked away. Katherine wondered if her presence as a black woman had driven him away or if it was for some other reason. She chose to exile her demons and focus on the good fortune that had befallen her.
Within two weeks, the engineer who walked away from Katherine discovered that they were both fellow transplants from West Virginia, and the two became fast friends. This moment highlights the shifting dynamics of racial relations at Langley and the importance of personal connections and understanding in breaking down barriers.
- Explain the title of the chapter, ‘Serendipity’.
“Serendipity” is a term used to describe a happy coincidence or a fortunate discovery made by chance. In the context of the book “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly, the title of Chapter 12 refers to the series of fortunate events that led to Katherine Goble’s career advancement at NASA Langley. Despite the challenges she faced as a woman and as an African American in a predominantly white and male-dominated field, Katherine’s talent, hard work, and determination eventually paid off. Through a stroke of serendipity, she was given the opportunity to work on the Flight Research Division, which opened up a new world of possibilities for her. The title of Chapter 12 is a nod to the unpredictable nature of life and how chance encounters and events can change the course of our lives.