Since the book Rocket Boys, and the film based on it, “October Sky”, were released, Freida Joy Riley, Miss Riley as we students knew her, has taken on near-icon status, especially for teachers, across the nation and the world. Wherever I go, I am thanked by people of all walks of life, but especially by teachers, for telling her story because it is their story, too. At long last, they say, someone has written about a real school teacher, one who not only fought for her students, but insisted that they learn. It seems to be the latter observation that’s the most important to these teachers. That Miss Riley was a teacher who insisted that it was their student’s duty to learn.
In “Rocket Boys,” I quote Miss Riley as saying, “All I’ve done is give you a book. You have to have the courage to learn what’s inside it.” She said that and this seems to be the key. I have visited many schools in the last year and in every one of them, rich or poor, I have met dedicated school teachers who have given over huge portions of their energy, their very lives, dedicated to the education of the children under their charge. What is to become of our children, they worry, if they don’t learn or simply refuse to learn? I believe they will face a life of disappointment, unhappiness, and, worse, stupefying dullness. What, after all, can one get out of life if one doesn’t have the information and tools necessary to understand what is going on about them?
I submit to you that an ignorant child is as sure a victim of child abuse as one that arrives in school with bruises and welts. These are harsh words but necessary ones. The vast majority of undereducated people on this planet are destined to lives of misery and unhappiness. And why? Because they lacked a teacher who cared enough, or a parent who wanted enough for them, or lacked within themselves the native capacity to wonder, to strive, to need knowledge.
I have never been able to understand anyone on this planet who lacks a need for knowledge. Is it not God’s greatest gift to us all, this capacity to think, to wonder, to imagine? To not have that need is a terrible, brutal thing, an incapacity that must be recognized and changed. That is the job of the teacher – your job and mine. “All I’ve done is give you a book. You have to have the courage to learn what’s inside it.”
I only wish Miss Riley could be here for guidance. She could teach all of us, teachers and her students, how it was that she, so early in life, found the key to her students hopes, dreams, and passions. Somehow, she did. Miss Riley was not an easy teacher. She was, in fact, quite tough. She gave lots of homework and required each of us to arrive in class prepared and ready to discuss the day’s lessons. If we weren’t, she made certain that we suffered for it. I wilted under both her tongue and her stern gaze and so made up my mind early on to study a little harder for her classes. I learned to discipline myself under her strict guidance. Miss Riley paid attention to all her students, not just her Rocket Boys. She was fierce in her belief that going to school was the job of her students and, therefore, sacred. To do a poor job was simply not acceptable. When I got arrogant because of my rocket successes, or in trouble for my failures, she kept me on an even keel with just a few words of appropriate encouragement and a form of tough love.
Miss Riley died while I was on military duty overseas. When I found out, I wished then that I had told her how much she meant to me. I am most happy that she lived long enough to see Neil Armstrong step on the moon. I trust she thought of her Rocket Boys when he did. In very many ways, her smile now lights up this nation, and the world, with the hope that we may once again find our ways back to the old ways, the ways of duty and honor, the ways of our fathers and mothers, and our teachers.
I sense the need of many children out there desperate to believe in someone, and to find meaning in their lives. For what life is worthy if it doesn’t have meaning, a larger purpose beyond the mere gratification of needs? So let us resolve always to be more like Miss Riley. I urge you all to seek out that spark of adventure, that crying, genetic demand in every child to know about the good and right things in life. If you’re a teacher, be ever vigilant toward the cynical and nay-saying students in the classroom. By their cynicism, they can and will destroy that innate desire to learn. Ferret them out and separate them from the others if that’s what it takes. If that sounds like harsh medicine, I say yes it is. But I’m talking about the survival of your child here. I’ll tell you something else, too, that I strongly believe. If you’re a parent, and your child is of reading age is not reading at least one book a month outside schoolwork, I think you need to get to work. You must somehow find a way to make that start happening. There is nothing out there on television, radio, and film, for the most part, but stupefying dullness. To pretend otherwise is to do a disservice to you and your child. They must read! Wernher von Braun said, “All one can really leave one’s children is what’s inside their heads.” Education, in other words, and not earthly possessions, is the ultimate legacy, the only thing that cannot be taken away. I encourage you to be tough, exacting, even in a way ruthless – like our Miss Riley could be – to ensure that education Dr. von Braun was talking about. It is on our shoulders, yours and mine, to bring this generation, and the next, and the next forward to a good life. And it is also the responsibility of the generations themselves. We have a battle before us. Clearly, we are outnumbered at present, or at least outspent, by those who would take us toward cynicism and hatefulness, who would turn us all into helpless victims, unable to do anything for ourselves, who would happily keep us ignorant.
But I’m really an optimist. I believe there are many many Freida Joy Rileys out there who are doing the same, underappreciated job she did forty years ago and doing it just as well. Because of that, I believe our nation’s children are heading for the stars. When they get there, I believe they will do so with their teacher’s names on their lips. And it is right that they do so.
If you have a teacher who did the job for you, who went the extra mile, who you know made you learn even when you didn’t want to, I hope you will go to them at your first opportunity and tell them how important to them they are. Don’t wait. They need to hear it and you need to say it. And your students are lucky to have a caring leader such as yourself – the Rocket Boys story is a celebration of people like you who make a difference to the youth of our nation. I honor you and thank you.
“All we’ve done is give you a book. You have to have the courage to learn what’s inside it.”
Homer H. Hickam, Jr.
October 29, 1999
Wow! That is fantastic and so inspiring! My students are currently reading Homer Hickam, Jr.’s memoir, Rocket Boys. We are reading, discussing and comparing it to scenes from the film. My 6th grade students are totally engaged with this text. The characters, coming from a small coal mining town, ring true with the experiences of my students who also come from a small town. The main characters are also young teenage boys, so the males in my classes have enjoyed the change of pace from the female protagonists that we have studied. Above all, the theme of the text is
Rocket Boys is a true example of a young boy, who against the odds, created something amazing-a rocket, which in turn change his and his friends’ lives forever.
This text is truly inspiring to me and my students. I encourage all teachers to read it and find ways to use it in their classrooms albeit English, Social Studies, Science, or Math. What a fabulous book for inspiring teachers and students to strive for excellence!
~Homer Hickam, Rocket Boys: A Memoir