Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Little lady around the corner

Today I called a tile guy asking for references, and he mentioned that he had done work for a lady who lives around the corner from me.

I didn't know the lady, but she was in the neighborhood directory, so I called and asked her how she liked her tile. She invited me over to see it for myself, so I stopped at her address on the way home from work. Turns out she lives in the house with the stunning garden. A little 80 year old lady named Norma.

I had a few minutes, so we sat on the patio and chatted. We chatted about tile and gardening and England and my work. I mentioned how my students often didn't appreciate mathematics, and she commented that she really struggled through her required statistics course when earning her doctorate.


Did this 80 year old lady just say she had a doctorate? Inside, my eyebrows rise about 3 inches. Outside, I try to pretend I meet 80 year old ladies with doctorates all the time, especially here in the ultra-conservative town of P-o-o. I casually ask her what her field was and where she earned her degrees.

We should pause here to give Artax a hearty scolding. A year and a half ago, I wrote in a post that I get annoyed when people ask me what my husband is studying. We are a young family near a large university (though a different university this year than last). People assume Tim is a graduate student, and I am following him around the world. It is very easy and completely understandable to assume that all women are the same person, in the same situation in life, and to file them into the young-family-grad-student-husband box, and not bother to look deeper. (This is true even of the young-family-grad-student-husband crowd, actually, which is a box full of completely different individuals.) I never have been one of those women, though, who fits in one of those boxes. And although I try not to, I sometimes get annoyed when people assume that I am and that I do.

Suddenly, sitting on Norma's patio chairs, breathing the smell of cherry blossoms and hyacinths, I find that I am one of those annoying people. I was about to put this 80 year old woman into the local widow box, assuming she had the same story as the other single 80 year olds I have met in this town. And she does not.

Norma entered the state university to the north at age 16, just as the second world war was ending. She was featured in the newspaper the year she graduated, as one of two university graduates who were too young to vote (at age 20). She worked in nearby towns for several years, then headed to Columbia University to earn a master's degree in educational psychology. Although she intended to get a PhD at Stanford, she was offered complete funding by our local university to complete a PhD here, and she couldn't resist.

She never left P-o-o, moving straight from PhD to faculty position.

We didn't chat much about personal life and family, except that her parents had lived nearby and because of the local job she was able to nurse them through their ailing years.

I wanted to ask more. Did she have a husband or children? If so, how did she manage childcare in the 50's? Did any women manage childcare in P-o-o in the 50's? How was the climate towards women at the local university all those years? Did she have female colleagues? And was she going to the faculty women's conference tomorrow morning?

But I didn't ask any of those questions. Maybe I will wander by again when I walk home Thursday. After all, I now find that I need to appropriately size my Norma-box.


Letterpress said...

Great post. Makes me want to get a doctorate just so I can blow some young woman's mind in the future. I look so decidedly un-doctorate that I'm sure I can pull it off.

Very cool story. Well done.

Soul-Fusion said...

I love Norma! You must find out more information and report back. She may just be my new hero.

Tiffany said...

I love delightful surprises like this.

Thora said...

I wish that I were more than what immediately meets the eye. Maybe I should become a secret novelist, or something. I'm afraid when people meet me, and assume SAHM with husband in school, they'd be dead right. Not that I don't like my job - I just wish I had hidden coolnesses.

lenalou said...

Yes, please visit Norma again, I want to learn more.

I sat next to a beautiful 80-year-old lady at a church thing a few weeks ago and we chatted for about an hour. She was lots of fun, and I realised I spend my whole life with people my age and I need some little old lady time once in a while.