Mercury Astronaut Scott Carpenter speaks to students and community members in the Centennial School District's Special Experience Room.

Mercury Astronaut Scott Carpenter speaks to students and community members in the Centennial School District’s Special Experience Room.

I had the amazing opportunity to hear Mercury Astronaut Scott Carpenter speak, albeit briefly, at my school on Saturday. He was attending the 40th Anniversary celebration of the Special Experience Room, a planetarium and multimedia space in the McDonald Elementary School in Warminster, PA.

Fifty years ago this month, Carpenter and six other men were selected to become the first Americans in space as part of the Mercury program. Part of Carpenter’s message to the gathered group was to encourage students to stay in school, and that through hard work and determination they could accomplish great things. Some might consider the message to be cliche and no longer relevant to today’s world. But I think it’s important to remember the value and necessity of diligence and effort.

Carpenter commented about how we have accomplished so much that was unimaginable fifty years ago, and he expressed hope for a bright future, confident that we will be able to do things in 2059 that we can’t begin to conceive today.

The former astronaut, who insisted that he was today just “Scott” and that the title of Commander Carpenter had long since been left behind, pointed out that the eight-​year-​olds sitting in the audience—of which my youngest son was one—were exactly the right age to become the first person to stand on Mars.

Educators must more than occasionally remind themselves that the students sitting in front of them today really are the leaders, inventors, creators, explorers, designers, teachers, builders, and discoverers of a world that doesn’t even exist yet, except in the imaginations of those same children. The only way those imaginings can possibly become reality is if we nurture them. Education isn’t about knowledge any more. In fact, it isn’t even about giving students tools and the skills to use them, because we don’t have the tools they will need to create that future. We must teach them how to lead, invent, create, explore, design, teach, build, and discover for themselves.

What an awesome and terrifying responsibility we’ve been given. Just as the Mercury astronauts launched America and the world into space and opened new frontiers, new discoveries, and new ways of living, so we have the power to launch our children into their future. I pray we do so thoughtfully.

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