On a recent trip to India, I find myself on a visit to the beautiful city of Mysore, Karnataka. On the early morning train from Bangalore, I am seated across an upbeat young woman, a licensed Naturopath pursuing her MBA and teaching part time. We quickly find lots to chat about.
Slowly, an elderly man walks onto our train car, with his charming grandson and daughter. The elderly man is seated beside me, while his grandson sits in the next section over (spoiler alert: the grandson does not turn out to be the man of my dreams!). Stooping over, the old man gives us each a quick nod, before getting comfy with his newspaper. He lasts a few minutes in silence, before he peers over and says: “You two haven’t stopped speaking since I got here!!”. Cracking a smile, he adds, “You know, 50 years ago, ladies would not be talking the way you are.” This is the beginning of my three hour conversation with the train ride professor.
As we get to chatting, I learn that this old man is many things; a retired Professor of English, a father, grandfather, and a witty conversationalist, to name a few. He explains to me how he has always enjoyed questioning what he sees and hears. He goes on to explain that those who truly commit to learning don’t stop asking questions, they persist when others give up and walk away. He gives the example of Alexander Fleming’s discovery of the common antibiotic Pencilin, which was discovered only after Fleming insisted on understanding why a random formation of mould in a petrie dish managed to kill the bacteria inside; most other people would have thrown the mouldy dish away and started the experiment again.
By the time the train ride professor was raising his children (in the 50s and early 60s), it was out of the question for most families to send their daughters on to higher education in India. He tells me the story of how gently he had approached his own father, seeking permission and blessings to send his daughters on to university. Thankfully his father agreed, and his daughters were the first in their community to go on to pursue undergraduate degrees, and careers thereafter. He mentions how interesting it was to see the shift in perceptions of education for women over generations; how the social expectations for women to “be” shy, reserved and passive have drastically changed in India. That it is impressive to see women openly express themselves confidently and through so many outlets.
What did I learn from all of this? For one, this old man reminded me to appreciate how far cultures have come in accepting the rights of women to pursue further education, to have careers (of their choosing), and to be just as ‘qualified’ as their male counterparts. It reminded me that we still take these advances for granted when we speak about the state of schooling and education today. It is so much easier to roll our eyes at the state of ‘the system’ and talk about true learning being outside of the school (and I am usually part of this group!). These qualifications really are a ticket to opportunity, to socio-economic improvement in so many places. This can’t be discounted; rather it should be used to help inform the re-design of outdated programs.
It also reminded me that social change boils down to individuals making boldly different choices. We can’t forget the trailblazing train ride professors out there doing their part to encourage and support their daughters (and sons!) to continue to strive, and arrive, at their goals.
Back on the train, I ask the train ride prof what he was thankful for now, after all these years of seeing Mysore evolve. He pauses, looks at me and smiles. “That an old man like me, can still sit and talk to a pretty young girl like you.” I burst out laughing. Clearly he is also a charmer!
We arrive to the train station in Mysore, his grandson now filling me in on his off-roading hobby in Dubai (what?! How do I have more in common with your 90 year old grandfather?!) and his daughter thanks me for keeping the old man company.
But the old man is the one who deserves the thanks.
So thank you, train ride professor, for doing your part in advancing women’s education in India.
A passionate educator.. on a quest for a schooling model to love!