Who on Earth would ever wake her kids in the middle of the night to look at stars?
Well, in my defense, they were shooting stars.
My college astronomy professor announced in the first class that he wanted us all to be able to pass a quiz at our 10-year reunion. He hoped to inspire lifelong stargazers. Nowadays, i you woke me in the middle of the night and asked me to name the four moons of Jupiter, I might get a passing grade. But one thing that certainly survived is my love of looking at the night sky.
On the subject of waking in the middle of the night, I have never allowed the loss of sleep to impede the pursuit of astronomical phenomena. Case in point: the Perseids. Each August, remnants of the comet Swift-Tuttle pass through our atmosphere, resulting in nature’s answer to fireworks. Normally, the naked eye can view 50-60 shooting stars per hour. This year, due to dark skies from an obliging phase of the moon, we were in for quite a show .
One year, when my kids were little, I woke them at 4:00 a.m. to see the Perseids. Because we live in Washington, D.C., which has plenty of city glow, we drove to a nearby university football field up on a hill. We spread a blanket on the grass and gazed up at the sky. Had it not been for the streaking lights above, we might have fallen asleep there, undisturbed until football practice the next morning.
When it comes to sharing astronomy with our children, the sky’s the limit.
That night, I was breaking one of the central rules of parenthood: N ever wake a sleeping child. Parental bookshelves teem with tomes on how to put a child to sleep. No one has ever written a book about how to wake up a child. Why would you?
Here’s why. We all do a certain amount of home schooling. Whether it’s taking our offspring to the library, the theater, the museum, or the ballpark, we try to imbue our children with the things that give life meaning. There is more to learning than reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic. With the over-scheduling our youngsters endure these days, it’s nice to take a break and get back to nature. So, whatever is on the calendar, take time out to appreciate the beauty of the natural world. Go take a hike. Go jump in a lake. These aren’t insults, they’re constructive suggestions for a happy family life . Long after your little ones forget the order of operations, the capital of West Virginia, or the abbreviation for Mendelevium, they will cherish the night you bundled together under the stars and watched streaking lights dance across the night sky.
Witnessing the meteor shower with my then-young children inspired me to write to my old astronomy professor:
It was never in the stars for me to be an astronomer, but I thought you should know that you achieved your stated goal. When I took your course, you said you hoped that your students would retain enough information to pass a test ten years later. Well, it is more than two times ten years since you were my teacher and I wanted you to know how much that class meant to me . All these years later, I wake my children in the middle of the night to witness meteor showers and take them to hilltops if Venus or Mars is putting on a show. The greatest teachers inspire their students to teach. Thank you for instilling a life-long fascination with astronomy. Although much of it is still way above me, thanks to you, the stars are not beyond my grasp.
And he wrote back: “Thank you for your note and the sentiments. Any teacher would be pleased to find that his efforts have brought the fascination with astronomy you have found and passed on to your children.”
Go on. Take a meteor shower. When it comes to sharing astronomy with our children, the sky’s the limit.