From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

Something Unbelievable

Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations. If you adopt their attitudes, then the possibility won’t exist because you’ll have already shut it out. You can hear other people’s wisdom, but you’ve got to re-evaluate the world for yourself.

Dr. Mae Jemison, astronaut

When I turned sixteen, my Ghanian parents decided to make the ultimate sacrifice. They sold all of our earthly possessions and bought me a plane ticket back to America where we’d lived years earlier. I would have a better life than those before me.

When I returned to the States, I had fire in my blood. I was ready to take on the world. I was unstoppable. I arrived at Charlotte International Airport in North Carolina, and then traveled south to Florence, South Carolina, where I would finish high school. In those early hours, North Carolina seemed like Las Vegas to me, with all the lights, billboards, neon cowboys on taverns, twitching crucifixes on small Southern churches, and streets with names like Avalon and Magnolia. I was mesmerized, amazed, inspired. In one of the first letters I wrote to my family, I called it a sight to behold.

On the first day of school, I sat in the front row of my English class just as I had done so many times back home. The teacher was an aging Southern belle named Ms. Smith with leathery skin and blue eyes turning gray with age. Her voice was pleasant and her twang delectable. I remember her well, but not just for the accent.

With about six minutes of the first class remaining, Ms. Smith announced that an African was amongst us. The students looked around for a real-life National Geographic experience. I honestly didn’t know she was talking about me. After all, I’d never been called “the African.”

“Come on now! Introduce yourself to the class and tell them what your name means!” Ms. Smith insisted.

She walked over to my desk and told me to stand up. Everyone stared. I was mortified. I knew they were looking for tribal marks, some proof of my ethnicity.

“Good day,” I said proudly, after a moment’s hesitation. “I bring greetings to you all from Ghana. I am Mary Akua Spio.”

My words fell like laughing gas bombs. With each syllable, the class laughed louder and louder. My manner of speech apparently amused the entire class. And my outfit didn’t help matters any. In my attempt to look American, I wore cowboy boots and a large belt, similar to the one boxers receive when they win a match. Huge and shiny.

“Mary? What about Obtunde or something like that? What? Did you change your name at the airport?” one student yelled out.

“You speak English good for an Afkan,” another student quipped. Doesn’t she mean, “I speak English well”? I thought to myself.

I became a piñata for the class’s questions and insults. “What did you do with the tree you lived in when you left Africa?” I remember one student yelling.

Hoping to return control to the class, Ms. Smith interrupted. “So, Mary, what are your dreams? What do you want to be in the future?”

Blinking back tears, I answered, “A rocket scientist.” Once again the class exploded into laughter.

“Oh dear! That’s like saying you want to be the Easter Bunny! You ought to study something like physical education, where you get a chance to swing around, just like back home. Besides, you gotta be real smart to be any kind of scientist!” Ms. Smith was now having her own fun with me.

Soon after, the bell rang and everyone dispersed. I sat frozen for a few minutes, feeling numb, filled with disbelief. Later that day, I met with the guidance counselor and things grew worse. Without giving me any evaluative tests, she concluded I wasn’t smart enough to take classes like physics and calculus. The counselor’s words were the final jabs through my soul. In an instant, all my dreams seemed to go down the drain.

Although I had completed physics and calculus courses in Ghana, I was put back into basic algebra. Teachers and counselors told me my primary focus should be getting rid of my African accent. I felt hopeless. If they were right, if my IQ really was low, what could my future possibly hold?

After graduation, I left South Carolina for New York and got a job at McDonald’s. I knew I could flip burgers and mop floors, but I wanted to be so much more. After hearing a commercial I enlisted in the air force and served for almost five years, earning enough money to attend college full-time. I studied hard, received an additional scholarship and headed off to Syracuse University to study electrical engineering.

Several years later, I found myself trudging through the brutal Syracuse winds, arms and legs frozen cold from the icy snow. It was time for my senior design review, the event every engineer dreads. The design review panel consists of a couple of professors and representatives from the engineering industry, and they can be an intimidating bunch.

We stood in the back of the class, squirming impatiently, as we watched the review panel approach our lab stations one by one. I was reminded of Don Shaw, our lab instructor, and the inspections we had endured for semesters. During Don’s inspections, he would always stop at Lab Station 10 and ask, “Do you know whose lab station this is?” He’d then answer his own question with a mouth full of theatrics. “This is the lab station of Eileen Collins, the first space shuttle commander! Yes, this is the station that Eileen used.” Even though I had used Lab Station 10 for more than three years, everyone still called it the Space Commander’s Lab Station.

As the review panel approached Lab Station 10, the head of the panel asked in a booming voice, “Whose lab station is this?” I could hear my heart pounding as I made my way to the front of the classroom. This time the question would have far greater implications than ever. I hesitated for a few seconds, biting my lips, tears not far from my eyes, and I answered their question with these words, “Ahem. . . mine.” I glanced over at Don Shaw, wondering if he had a better answer for the review board. Smiling through tears of his own, he nodded in encouragement.

The panel drilled me about my design. I tried to remain calm throughout the endless torture. I spoke slowly, answering their questions, but soon the words flowed with the inspiration and reason behind my senior design project. My words were not perfect, but this time I knew they were beautiful. I felt it. Everyone in the room did. In that instant, nothing else mattered. The African had spoken; this time they were proud. They were happy to see her. I felt the unique reverence for life that only a death-defying (or life-defining) moment can create. I didn’t want to stop speaking. I wanted to be heard forever.

Then came the announcement that I’ll never forget: “Congratulations, you are this year’s winner of the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering) Design and Implementation Award!” The class cheered. People came over to talk to me. Some people asked me questions about the project, while others asked me about things they had been dying to know since our freshman year. Still others expressed their deep respect and admiration. Later that week, I learned I would be graduating number one in my electrical engineering class. It was an honor and a blessing.

After leaving Syracuse University, I continued on to Georgia Tech for graduate studies in deep space communications. I have since worked on heat-seeking probes for the NASA SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program, designed orbits for rockets bearing communication satellites, sent a rocket into space with my signature on it, and engineered technology that allowed George Lucas to deliver Star Wars episode II digitally. The Boeing Company recently bought and patented four of my inventions in deep space science.

Ms. Smith was right. The Easter Bunny and a rocket scientist do have something in common: the unbelievable. Today, I walk through life proud of the African heritage of which I was once ashamed. Who knows what that class back in South Carolina felt in the instant they almost crushed my dreams? Maybe, through the teasing, they caught a glimpse of the woman I would ultimately become: Mary A. Spio, independent inventor and American rocket scientist. Something unbelievable.

Mary Spio

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