The rebel who prevailed
“You flunked in math?”, I asked her incredulously. In case you were wondering what is so incredulous about flunking in math, wait till you hear the end of the story.
“Yes. I am not very proud of it”, she said
“So, let me get this straight. You flunked in math and got kicked out of your college?”
“Yes. Again I am not very proud of it today”
“How much did you have to score?”
“20 out of 100 to stay in college”.
“And you did not score 20 marks out of 100?”
“Well, then how the heck did you get to where you have gotten to today?”
That question unveiled the incredible tapestry of life Urmi had woven for herself over the last three decades or so. She used to live in my neighborhood. She was my sister’s classmate till fifth grade, I think. I was not very close to her – but her elder brother – Rupak (Samudra) used to play with us. Therefore, I knew him better. The last time I saw her was probably 1983 when I left Durgapur. 35 years later, I found myself at a bar inside the PORT Authority Bus Station in Time Square area with that same girl. Duly equipped with a red wine for me and a spicy margarita for herself.
“Start from 1983. What happened?”, I asked
“I hated being told what to do. I rebelled against my parents, my teachers… everybody. I was a tomboy. I never studied. I did not do well in my exams. I was sent to a college (btw, my sister was in that college too) but I flunked out and went to another college”
“Did you have a purpose in life? Did what your parents/elders wanted you to do run counter to it? Is that why you rebelled?
“No. I do not think I was mature enough to have goals. I just did not want to be told what I should do. I wanted to do what I wanted to do. When I wanted to do. Where I wanted to do”.
“Well, then what happened?”
“Then I married the guy I wanted to. He came to US for higher studies. Eventually I joined him. And then…..”, her voice seemed to fade away as she was reliving her early days in a foreign country.
“And,” she said getting her voice back, “something clicked in my mind. Suddenly, I felt I had all the independence in my life. To do whatever I wanted to do. In a foreign land where nobody knew me other than my husband. I felt a great sense of freedom.”
I waited as she again seemed to get lost in her thoughts. Finally she looked at me and haltingly, said “Then I got scared”
“You got scared of all the freedom?”
“No. Once I had all the freedom, I came to the next realization that I had not made much of myself in all my life. I was too busy NOT doing stuff to do any stuff”.
“So, what did you do?”
“I wanted to revisit that flunking out of college for not scoring 20 in math. My husband was a graduate student. We did not have much money. But we were able to scrounge up enough for me to get to school. I started studying math!”
“One second. We are still talking about math – the subject you flunked in?”
“Yes. I loved math always. I just did not like the teachers and the rigidity of the system”.
Well, turns out this rebel of a girl got a bachelors’ degree in math with flying colors.
Then she proceeded to get her masters degree.
Undaunted by her new born child and all the first time mothers’ duties, she kept pushing on her love for math ad then got a Ph.D!! While raising her young child!!!
Then she became a professor of math in a New York college – and eventually earned tenureship!
And that is what she does as a profession today!
Now you see why I was totally flummoxed when a tenured math professor in a college in New York told me that she had flunked out of college because of math!!!
What an inspiring story.
I see parents complaining about their wards during school years – more common in India than in US – that they are not getting focused and studying and all that. I have this belief that every kid eventually pivots. There comes a day in their life when they wake up and want to do something with their life. At that point they are wiling to put in all the hard work that comes with that territory.
That is the day they need all our help and support to push them thru that phase. Starting late does not make the journey easier but the self-drive makes success that much more achievable.
Going back to Urmi, there were some great subsequent discussions on happiness, mortality, supporting parents in India during their old ages and so on. Unfortunately for me, she needed to grab a bus back home and we had to end our meeting.
As an aside, later that evening, I was telling Sharmila about the meeting and she had an intriguing question – “So, what does she do when her children or students won’t listen to her and do their studies?” 🙂
I need to remember to ask her that when I see her next!!!
It was great seeing you Urmi after so many years!!!