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A Speck of Dust, Stars and My Life

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2013-11-08-headshot.jpgby Imani Graham

I feel guilty not wanting to be the space aviator Daddy always wanted. In his stories, I was Commander Imani and my little brother was my lieutenant. He'd flush us down the toilet to our spaceship hidden under the house, and fly across the universe at warp speed to save planets from the Cookie Monster of the Vega System.

I remember the first time I asked him why he wanted me to be a space aviator. And with that crooked smile and oh-so-familiar pockmarked face, he said "So you can take me to the moon."

But I couldn't take him anywhere; the request was overwhelming. So you can take me to the moon. Contemplating the depth of his request required me to question what I wanted from myself.

It took some daddy-daughter time to ease my mind. Watching the Hubble 3-D Experience with him quelled all internal doubts and cosmic chaos. As we sat and moved closer to the Orion Nebula, I saw the epitome of natural beauty, stellar birth and the creation of solar systems, all in 3-D. I saw myself, small and mortal, swallowed in a dusty sea of stars light years long. Was this the warp speed Commander Imani had mastered? Our sun, our earth, my reality could have started like this: a speck in a blanket of dust.

Thanks to my father and the magic of Hubble, my underlying interest in space finally surfaced, and it consumed all. Everywhere I went, I saw stars, and I wanted to know everything I could about them. I took action; I wrote about Hubble's images in English, and I saw the secrets to understanding it all within the mind of my physics teacher.

And I began to realize just how much I didn't know. What else was there left to discover? What would I have to do to get to my nebula? Anything sidereal was something new and exciting. I studied constellations, identified nebulae and memorized half the Greek alphabet just to try and understand part of what dominated my thoughts. Through my love of the cosmos, I recognized my will to learn and a determination to work through the obstacles both within myself and in my environment.

Modeling myself towards Commander Imani, the space aviator, I took hold of this determination back on earth in high school. The summer of junior year I worked as hard as I could in my first official job at the Wave Hill Summer Collaborative Internship where I did both physical and mental labor. Four days a week, I worked on a public greenspace lifting logs and caring and learning about the local flora, and on the fifth day I utilized my newfound tenacity to get an A in a college course at Lehman College. I took a chance and joined an established soccer team. As the first new member to join in years I had to learn to interact accordingly and integrate myself. Taking the initiative became an everyday goal. Not only was I a captain of the school Dance Team where I had to motivate girls, who often felt they were above coming to practice, but I took action and emailed Neil Degrasse Tyson with my cosmic questions. My father's stories taught me the basics of space travel, but he also outlined lessons about relationships and attitudes that I have been executing all my life.

This cosmic awareness has served me well. While going to the moon and space aviation may not be for me, my newly discovered love for astrophysics grew out of my father's stories. He instilled the will to immerse myself in my interests and gave me the motivation to exert myself past my limits. It provided a mirror and a microscope that taught me about myself, how little I know, and how much I need to know and share the connections I've made as well as the lessons I've learned. A speck of dust on a fleck of stone, within a network of elements and dark matter full of wonder. Who knew dust could create such possibilities?

Imani Graham is a freshman at Dartmouth and a 2013 graduate of the High School of American Studies at Lehman College.