A Little Astronomy for a Little Girl

by Philip C. Steffey

    Recently,  popularizers and amateur club members in the U.S.A. have bemoaned a substantial decrease in interest in astronomy by young people compared with a few decades ago.  A call has gone out for parents and grade-school teachers to expose youngsters to the Sun, Moon and stars beginning at about age 10, before television, video games, theme parks and other distractions destroy minds.
    Having participated in many public skyshows from 1987 to 2001, I recommend an earlier exposure age upon indications it will be fruitful.  My Exhibit A is a little girl with whom I had the pleasure of spending parts of many Saturdays and some Sundays in the year 2000.  I will henceforth call her “Feisty.”  We met while I was doing yardwork, just after the 1999-2000 holidays, when her recently divorced father was a nextdoor neighbor of mine and her caretaker on weekends.  She was “five and a half years old.”  By our third encounter it was clear to me that she was smart, curious, artistically talented and interested in nature.  We did many fun things including hunting and in some cases collecting insects, plants and rocks--subjects to which she was being exposed in her kindergarten class.  She was remarkably good at designing artificial environments in a large can or plastic bowl for harmless bugs, especially “roly-polies” (Picture 2).  Indoors she amazed me with her drawing and painting, and I noticed that the Sun and stars were common subjects or decorations.

    One Saturday afternoon Feisty asked about my 8-inch reflecting telescope’s mounting, which was kept outdoors covered by a large black polyethylene bag.  I removed the bag and dashed into my house to get the tube assembly, then installed it on the mount.  Feisty was amazed.  No astronomical object was available for viewing, so I aimed the ‘scope at a high tree canopy about 100 yards away and focused it in a low-power eyepiece.  Less than four feet tall, Feisty needed a lift to get her head to the eyepiece, so I left to get a small stepladder. When I returned she was trying to climb the tube!  Some determination.  We had a laugh and finally she saw the distant treetop in the ‘scope from a perch on the ladder.  Pictures of my telescopes will appear in a separate article.

    The Sun was near maximum atmospheric activity in 2000 and I had a new, full-aperture filter for direct white-light views with my 3 1/4-inch refractor (Picture 3).  On a clear Saturday morning in March I had this instrument in my front yard when Feisty and her dad came home in his Jeep after a breakfast and toy-shopping trip.  She jumped out and ran to me.  I reacquired the Sun, with many spots, and let her look. Her response was “cool!”  Then I projected the unfiltered image on a big white card.  Again she was fascinated.  A week later her father told me she had shared this experience with her school class, creating something of a sensation.  I liked that.

    Daylight Savings Time, that product of stupidity, and early bedtime for Feisty (mostly with her mother at a house miles from me), precluded my showing her any astronomical objects in the night sky until late in the year.  For the time I settled for showing a few pictures on my computer, and together we made a colored collage which became a birthday card for her dad (Picture 4).  In June he moved away and I lost touch for over a month.  But his new house turned out to be only a 20 minute drive for me, so by August I was seeing Feisty, now age 6, again on weekends and we became increasingly fond of each other.  There were new fun things to do including swimming in a big pool, playing miniature golf, climbing trees and making colored chalk pictures on a long driveway.  Indoors we did a lot of art.  Her drawing and painting ability was astonishing (Picture 5).  I demonstrated pigment color mixing with PlayDough,  which she enjoyed using.

    By late October the sky was fairly dark shortly before Feisty’s mom, who worked on Saturdays, came to retrieve her, so I was able to point out Venus low in the southwest.  One day Feisty proudly told me she had learned in her first grade class that the Earth rotates around an axis.  In early November I showed her a waxing crescent Moon in my refractor about an hour before sunset, which she just had to see with all of my eyepieces (9X to 78X; see Picture 6).  DST ended, and after the ensuing Full Moon I finally had the opportunity to identify several bright stars for Feisty and tell her a little about their physical nature.

    At around 6 PM on December 16 we were sitting on the trunk of my car, parked on the street in front of Feisty’s dad’s house, after a walk around the neighborhood to look at lighted Christmas displays.  Mom had arrived and was inside the house.  Jupiter and Saturn blazed in the very clear eastern sky, between the Hyades and Pleiades.  While we were watching them a moderately bright meteor streaked southwestward (Picture 7) and Feisty went nuts.  She jumped to the ground,  raced toward the house and disappeared inside shouting “daddy I seed a shooting star!”.

    A few minutes after the excitement, Feisty came out with her mother, who greeted me.  Then the two left in mom’s car, and I soon drove home, unaware that I would not see the little girl again.  In the evening of the following Monday her father phoned me to ban any more visits unless he contacted me again.  Some Christmas present! No call came for weeks, then months.  In February 2001 I left a letter to Feisty, that I missed her and wished her well, with a clerk at her school.  Somehow it wound up in the hands of an ignorant, mean female police detective who phoned me a few days later with threats if I should ever come anywhere near the girl.  So much for due process, competent law enforcement, and gratitude.  
Almost two years later, I still miss Feisty.    


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