‘Hidden Figures’ offers ‘mind-blowing’ experience to students

Citizenship /

AT&T recently sponsored private screenings for students of the critically-acclaimed movie, “Hidden Figures.” The event included a discussion panel that included actress Janelle Monae, AT&T employees and local elected officials.

By Andy Morgan, AT&T Newsroom

The true story behind the movie, “Hidden Figures,” occurred some 4 decades before 16-year-old Abigail Alvarado was born. But its meaning came through like it happened yesterday.

“It was very emotional. It got me crying,” said Abigail, a petite, dark-haired junior at Lincoln High School in Dallas. “And the message it was giving to young girls, actually everyone, is we can achieve whatever we want to, if we try hard enough.

“No matter how we look or who we are,” she said, “we just do it.”

Abigail was one of the 500-plus Dallas students packed into 2 theaters for a recent free private screening of “Hidden Figures.” AT&T sponsored the Dallas event and similar screenings in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and Oakland, California.

The movie tells the true story of 3 brilliant black women and their contributions in math, computers and engineering to the 1960s space program at NASA. It captures their struggles at a time when civil rights was the top news nearly every day.

At each screening, anywhere from 200 to 500 middle- to high school-age students, stepped off buses and into theaters.

“Some of the students are from underserved areas who would have probably not seen this movie in the theater,” said Theresa Spralling, an AT&T manager who organized 4 screenings in Atlanta and Chicago.

As young students swirled past her to find an open theater seat, Jamila Thomas, with the Dallas Independent School District, said just seeing a movie in a theater was a new experience for many.

“The movie exposes them to the possibility of careers, to academic achievement in science and math,” said Thomas, coordinator, DISD African American Success Initiative. “Coming to this movie is going to expand their brains. It’s going to plant seeds.”

In Dallas, students applauded when one lead character stood up to an unreasonable boss and when another rapidly worked out a complicated math problem in chalk. They also “ooooohed” when a future husband kissed that same character.

“They clearly were excited and proud during parts of the movie,” Spralling said. “They also reacted to scenes in the movie that showed injustice and cause for concern. And when it was all over, they applauded and seemed relieved that justice somehow had prevailed.”

Shay Kidd, 17, a Dallas Lincoln High School junior with braids and horn-rimmed glasses, called the screening a “mind-blowing” experience.

“There are times when I would like to give up because of hard work and stress,” she said. “But this movie gives me another reason to not give up and work hard and demand the things that I want or need.”

After the movie, students in most of the cities got to hear from today’s success stories, including AT&T employees and local elected officials. And in Atlanta, “Hidden Figures” actress Janelle Monae surprised students by showing up for a post-screening panel discussion.

“When she came out, the students went crazy,” Spralling said. “Janelle wore this ‘Freedom over Fear’ T-shirt and after the panel, students started chanting that. It was just amazing.”

In Chicago, Ellina Sims, an AT&T director of network services, viewed the film with the students and then appeared on a panel. In fact, Sims’ own story is an inspiration.

She was in the first integrated class to go from 1st grade through high school graduation together at rural West Jones High School outside Laurel, Mississippi. She went on to earn degrees in math and computer science. And when she joined Ameritech in the early 1990s, Sims was one of the first African Americans to join the technology team.

Today, she oversees more than 1,100 network and technology employees across Chicago.

 “The people who really encouraged me were my teachers,” she said.

“That was why at the movie, I gave a shout-out to the teachers and I told the kids, ‘You have teachers who care about you. So use their information, leverage them’… I was able to do the same when I went to school.”

Spralling said Sims was invited to help the students “connect the dots” from their schoolwork to what they saw on the screen to who they saw on the panel. Sims was hoping for that, too.

“I hope I was a role model for some of those students,” she said. “I’m hoping they were thinking, ‘OK, here’s a person who looks like me who has achieved something and I could do the same thing.’”

In each city, students heard from a sampling of government and school leaders, such as local council reps and school officials. The students talked with Dr. Meria Carstarphen, Atlanta Public Schools superintendent. In Dallas, Councilwoman Tiffinni Young led the students in a loud “Thank You!” directed at their teachers.

“This brings some hope to kids who otherwise might not see that glimmer of hope in their everyday community,” said Young, after the movie. “Although these are actors and actresses, it’s a real life story. So it says to kids, this is what’s possible.”

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