by Scott Herhold, Mercuty News columnist
NASA Astronaut Greg Chamitoff is an impossibly good guy — earnest, thoughtful, humble and smart, an Eagle Scout who grew up to fulfill the dream he nurtured since viewing the Apollo launch at age 6.
Of all his commendable qualities, however, the best might be that the 46-year-old space station veteran hasn’t forgotten where he came from: Blackford High School in West San Jose, where he graduated in 1980.
Since Blackford was closed in 1991, Chamitoff came back Wednesday to the next best thing, nearby Prospect High School. Prospect took many of the kids from his junior high class and still has his favorite math teacher, Guy Sanders, who’s retiring this year.
Using a whiz-bang video shot in space, Chamitoff on Wednesday showed the kids what life was like inside the international space station — weightlessness, the stunning views, the scientific duties, even the magic show he put on with a colleague.
In part, this was standard NASA public relations. Chamitoff spent six months in space in the latter part of 2008. And after a mission, an astronaut is expected to do public speaking. It helps the space mission.
For the people who came to see Chamitoff, however — and for Chamitoff himself — it was more than a rote assignment. All you had to do was talk to Sanders, who used to help the young Chamitoff solve college-level calculus problems over lunch at Blackford.
Sanders can still recite the note that Chamitoff sent him recently. “When it comes to high school, nobody impacted me more than you did,” the astronaut wrote his old teacher. “You gave me the confidence to do whatever I wanted.”
It’s the kind of validation that teachers yearn for, but too few ever get. “Your heart just soars,” said Sanders, a tall and slightly grizzled man with a warm smile. “You say, ‘Oh my God.’ ”
Then there was Mike DuBois, Chamitoff’s chemistry teacher, retired now. “He was a tremendous student,” DuBois said of Chamitoff. “He did everything right. You look back and say, ‘If I had a class like that, I wouldn’t be retired.’ ”
Under the radar, Blackford might have been the best school in the Campbell Union High School District. Chamitoff on Wednesday also sought to honor two other outstanding teachers, Charlie Okita (speech and debate) and Maureen Volpe, who taught him French.
But a lot of the extraordinary communion between teacher and student has to do with Chamitoff, who called himself a “bit of a floater” in high school — not a jock, not a musician, not a member of the beautiful crowd, but friendly with all of them.
Before his space station mission launched from Florida on May 31, 2008, Chamitoff tracked down those four teachers he remembered best, making sure they were invited to the launch and given VIP seats. (All four teachers and their spouses made it.)
“It’s been a dream come true,” he says of his career. “When something like that happens, you think back on the people who helped you. It wasn’t just me on my own that got me there.”
That humility showed through in the advice he gave the kids: Set your own goals, which might be higher than those of your friends (“Read the whole book,” as he put it). Understand that you can learn something from everyone, even folks you don’t like all that well. And have faith in yourself.
From anyone else, it could clang like a high school valedictorian’s boilerplate. But Chamitoff was talking about what he had actually done — going to Cal Poly, getting a master’s at Caltech and a Ph.D. from MIT. And yes, learning Russian.
It was a reminder of what we sometimes forget: A lot of success in life lies with the idea of focus. Just ask the 6-year-old who dreamed of being an astronaut.
[Shamelessly stolen from 4/23/09 San Jose Mercury News http://www.mercurynews.com/ci_12203575?IADID=Search-www.mercurynews.com-www.mercurynews.com] [bold highlighting is my emphasis and editorial commenting – plr]