My Year as a Reading Tutor

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In the last week of April there was a celebration of the students and volunteers participating in Midlands Reading Consortium at Harbison West Elementary school. During the school year we tutored a child once a week, helping him or her read and comprehend. While it is a joy to volunteer and it gives you a certain peace and contentment to know that you are doing something useful not for money but out of the goodness of your heart, I couldn’t help but feel thrilled and happy when we were given our choice of free MRC goodies like a tote bag, a cup, bookmarks, water bottles etc. as a reward. 🙂

I used to spend time with my second grader every Monday morning at 9:00 am. Now that the volunteering year is over, I miss spending time with him during that hour. The year started a little rough, it was hard to hold his attention, he would look at other kids passing by, yawn a lot, ask to go drink water or use the restroom and found it difficult to focus. I really wanted to do things he was passionate about so that I could hold his attention and he would feel awake and excited about what he was doing. I discovered that he loved to play memory card games (one with matching despicable me movie characters was his favorite), connect four and tick tack toe and he, like every child I know, loved to win. I started the session playing with him and letting him win more often than not, and then we moved on to reading. He is a good reader and I always let him select the books he wanted to read. Some books he liked so much that he would read them every chance he got till I felt like I knew them by heart and could not hear them one more time and I needed to add new books to his reading log. By the end of the year I was so proud of him as he was reading loud and clear and answering my comprehension questions too.

In the beginning, I felt like I was not connecting with him as he wasn’t a hugger, and not too expressive. However, once, I missed a Monday as I was not well and then when I saw him next Monday, I told him I was sorry I could not make it and he told me, “I was waiting for you last Monday” and my heart soared with happiness. I was reminded of something that we forget ever so often; just because someone doesn’t express, doesn’t mean that they don’t have feelings.

Another incident which really touched my heart happened around Martin Luther King’s day. He told me he wanted to show me something and then took me towards a display board outside his classroom which had pictures of notable African Americans. He pointed out pictures of Michael Jordan, Dr. King, and Barack Obama to me. He told me that he wanted to grow up and be somebody famous. I was so overwhelmed with emotion that he liked and trusted me enough to share this information with me. I also have so much respect for the teachers who work hard everyday and inspire students by doing these projects on positive role models.

Towards the end, he had opened up a lot and would tell me stories which were very imaginative. He told me that his dad is disabled and stays home and is looked after by their pet monkey who is trained to get dad, juice and food from the kitchen! I generally believe things kids say but this one seemed too far-fetched to me. Still, I came home and repeated it to my husband and asked if it could be true and my husband shook his head and smiled. We were reading a story for St. Patrick’s Day, the Monday after and he told me that he had gone to see the parade downtown on Saturday and he saw a leprechaun. The leprechaun cleaned his shoe and gave him a gold coin which his mom sold for a hundred dollars and got him a new dirt bike from Walmart! I did find his stories endearing and I do hope he gets a new bike.

I am not tutoring during summer but I look forward to teaching another child next school year and I hope I run into my old student too and I hope he has a great summer. I am so grateful  to MRC for giving me this opportunity and giving each child a bag of new books to take home.

Purrfect Companion

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“I have lived with several Zen Masters- all of them cats.” ~ Eckhart Tolle

“A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.” ~ Ernest Hemingway

I have never thought of myself as a cat person. However, never say never. There are stray cats which visit my backyard. Once, a cat curled itself up and slept on my swing on the deck and I knocked on the sliding door to wake her up and shoo her away. Her eyes opened from the noise and without batting her eyelids she scornfully looked at me as though saying, “How dare you wake me up” and she refused to budge right away. So I left her alone but I was amused and chuckled at her attitude.

It is interesting to see how some cats gather together in a group in my backyard as though they are gossiping/holding a town hall meeting, and one or two are shy and always like being loners. There are cats on either side of the creek in the forest staring down at each other down from across the water and sometimes I wonder if the Warriors series by Erin Hunter, books on cats and their clans, which all my kids read in elementary school could possibly be true.

A stray cat which probably came from the forest in my backyard ended up being friends with a neighbor’s outdoor cat and the two of them hang out together in her driveway. For some reason both my sons love this cat and play with him. The cat loved the boys but would run away when I would come out to the driveway. My youngest son Armaan plays with him after school every day on his way home from the school bus, he just claps and the cat appears. I enjoy watching them from the window, the two of them interacting with each other. Sometimes, the cat follows Armaan home.

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I don’t remember exactly when and how but the cat got comfortable with me. Armaan had told me that cats need time to open up. The cat came up to me while I was sitting on the front porch steps and moved around me and I was able to pet it. His eyes are so expressive, reflecting his emotions, everything from inquisitive to scared to happy and excited. He snuggled deep into the space between couple of pots in my front yard at the base of the porch steps where we were sitting. I was perplexed as to what he was doing. Bewildered I asked Armaan, “Why does he look like a hen trying to lay eggs?” Right then, the cat peed, it sprayed out as a small fountain, like a meteoric shower! It was so unexpected and dramatic that Armaan and I both burst out laughing. Armaan told me that when cats do this they are marking their territory. I felt like he put on this show for us, right in our direct view and so close, luckily Armaan and I  got up and jumped back to avoid getting wet.

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Now the cat even does tricks for me. It was so exciting that he stood up when I moved my hand up. When Armaan comes inside the house , the cat sits on our driveway and waits for him to come back out. One of the most blissful and relaxing moments in my life is sitting on the porch with Armaan and playing with the cat. He is such an elegant and majestic creature with great personality.

I have some really cute videos and pictures of Armaan playing with the cat, the cat following him home, the cat coming up the porch steps, but Armaan did not want me to post those publicly so I am refraining from doing so.  It warms my heart to see how nurturing and loving Armaan is, when I hear him pet the cat using positive words such as, “you are a good kitty”, “such a nice kitty” “do you need space” “do you like the camera” and so on. I think my child will be a good parent when he grows up.

The cat has not been seen in the past week. We are missing him and hope he resurfaces soon from his hiatus.

Brothers

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I happened to watch Arjun carrying Armaan on his shoulders while Armaan was clutching his brother’s hair and laughing and enjoying the ride. Arjun was running around the room with his brother on his shoulders and then dropping him on the bed. Then, he would lift Armaan back up and repeat the same thing again. I told Armaan, “Isn’t it nice Arjun has long hair, something you can hold on to, so that you don’t fall off?” Armaan replied, “I am not holding his hair for support, I am keeping his hair away from his eyes so he can see clearly and not bang against the door or a pole! His hair is so long that it covers his eyes!” I could not help but laugh at his unexpected response and strategic thinking.

One of the joys of parenthood is to see siblings interact and play with one another and to hear them laugh together and have fun. The love and the sibling bond is endearing and heartwarming to watch. There is a lot of teasing and bickering and leg pulling but at the end of the day the brothers are there for each other. As far back as I can remember the boys love to argue, even if it’s a ten minute ride to school in the morning, the day starts with them going at each other. In elementary school, I would tell them to be quiet and no talking allowed and I could see in the van mirror how they would annoy each other with gestures and sign language. I could not help but shake my head and silently laugh when Arjun would be able to use the word butt head without talking but just pointing at his behind and his head.

At home, when Armaan was a baby , he could never nap for long as Arjun would come home from school and wake him up to play with him. When they were little kids, I used to separate them and ground them in their rooms, they would write notes on pieces of paper and push it in that teeny space under each other’s closed doors. Now they text each other to continue the argument when I tell them to be apart in their rooms. The other day, I was driving and I told Armaan to text Arjun that we are on our way to pick him up and Armaan asked to use my phone as he had Arjun blocked on his phone for a while!

The boys will wrestle on the floor, chase each other all over the house and wrestle some more but they do care about each other. When Armaan is hungry he will go to his brother and ask him to make something to eat and Arjun will cook for him. If anyone troubles Armaan, Arjun is there to save the day. If Armaan sees a tiny lizard on the deck, he will yell for Arjun to come outside and then they both will pet the lizard and play with it. They share a common love for animals, for video games, for cooking, for cooking shows and Tasty videos and endless episodes of certain common favorite TV shows and movie series.

I can relate to all of the Bollywood depiction of brothers, whether it be Amitabh and Shashi Kapoor in Deewar or Shahrukh and Salman in Karan Arjun. I bawled uncontrollably all through the movie Lion as I could totally understand the relationship Saroo had with his brother Guddu. Guddu and him would steal coal from trains, sell them and eat jalebi with that money. He would plead to go places with Guddu and the latter would oblige as he could not say no to the pleadings of his brother. In a scene from the movie, Saroo gets hit on the head by a watermelon and is hurt and his mom scolds Guddu, she tells him that it should not have happened on his watch as he was supposed to look after his younger brother. That is the quintessential role, brothers have to look out for each other and they do.  Not to sound too corny but let me end this blog with the words of a song from Karan Arjun, “Ye bandhan toh pyar ka bandhan hai, janmon ka sangam hai…..” and may the bond between brothers always remain strong.

 

Happy 18th Birthday Mansi

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Elegant, effervescent, exuberant, 18! Its senior year and Miss Mansi is so eager and enthusiastic about college, applying to schools near and far, standing tall, ready to embrace life while I am a worried mess, nervous already that she may fly the nest next fall. The years are passing by in the blink of an eye, and for some reason it makes me cry. I am so proud of the brilliant and  beautiful young lady she is today but memories of her as a little girl never go away.

             Lately, Mansi has been reading a lot on Psychology, her interest piqued after taking an AP course on it and reading voraciously on this subject this summer. She is so fascinated by the study of human nature that her original love of Quantum Physics has taken a back seat. Her dad and I were talking about how many more scholarships are available for girls in science and technology and she is in a magnet STEM program and gets those subjects and makes good grades in them but we also know in our hearts that we do not want to be stereotypical Indian parents wanting our children to be doctors and engineers.
             It amazes me how someone as sweet as her can also be so stubborn. I constantly butt heads with her when she asks me to look over her college essays, she wants my opinion but then refuses to take most of my suggestions! I am grateful she asks me to read as I am learning so much about her , what she thinks of herself and what she wants to do with her life. It was so difficult for her to write those personal statements for applications as she does not like opening up and talking about herself but colleges want to know and I am so very proud of her for finally writing so beautifully about her authentic self. She is an amazing writer but she will not let me share her writing on Facebook. She is so private, she has a blog on tumblr with a pen name theorizing on her favorite Japanese manga series and it gets quite a few comments and likes.
            She also keeps imparting me with little nuggets of wisdom in her usual matter of fact way. The other day, we decided to go for dinner on our way from an evening walk at the lake. When everyone decided on a somewhat fancy restaurant I suggested we could go to a casual place as we were not formally dressed. I had no makeup on and my hair was a wiry frizzy mess. Mansi told me that it doesn’t matter, we were fine as we were and then she said, “Mom, I think you suffer from the spotlight effect.” “What does that mean?” I asked.  She went on to tell me that suffering from the spotlight effect means that you think everybody is noticing you but in reality very few people are. In short, I am not a celebrity! She also said that when people are so focused on themselves and are acutely aware of their appearance, they think everybody else is equally focused on them but they are not. Her observation stumped me and really made me think. Maybe she is right. I also admire her for not seeking attention, she does not feel the need to take selfies, and she is not on Facebook or Instagram.
             She is our first born , our only girl, our pampered princess and yet she is very grounded and never demanding. She exudes a quiet strength, never affected by peer pressure, she is a great big sister to Arjun and Armaan. Armaan is her boo, her baby, her sidekick and her minion, its really cute to see them cuddle together.armaan
            Right now I can hear her laugh as she is hanging out with her friends at home and it is the sweetest sound, I always love to hear the children laugh, each has their own distinctive laughter. Very soon she will cut her favorite carrot cake made by Arjun. As she blows out her birthday candles and makes some wishes , I hope all of  those come true. I love her so much.

Patron Interactions At the Reference desk

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I have been working as a part time Reference librarian at Richland library in South Carolina for about fifteen years now. It is a beautiful 4 floor building with glass walls, open spaces and piano shaped balconies above the escalators linking each floor and I absolutely love working here. Over the years I have met so many people when they come to the reference desk asking for help or just stopping by with a comment or suggestion.

I am originally from India and brown and so many people come up to me and say “Do you speak English?” and in my mind I go “Of course I do, why would they hire me if I do not know English” but the inherent polite customer service values kick in and I smile sweetly and say “yes, how can I help you today?” And then, there is this curiosity about where I am from and one time a patron asked me “Are you Hindi?”, “No, I am Hindu, Hindi is the language, Hindu is the religion, I cannot be a language, I am a person” I replied. “Are you India?” he persisted, “No, I am not India, I am from India, I am Indian” I said at my clarifying best.  He replied with a bewildered look on his face “what did you say, you are Hindian?” I give up, lets just forget who I am or where I am from for a minute and tell me what I can help you find at the library today!

 Since we are located at downtown Columbia, we have a large group of homeless people who visit the library regularly. God bless their hearts, the thing I admire most about them is regardless of their misfortune they have so much confidence in themselves that they hit on the librarians constantly and actually think they have a chance at winning the hearts of these beautiful women. Some days I enjoy the compliments I get and some days I do not have the patience to listen to all that. I am always complimented on my hair and earrings and smile.One person told me ” you remind me of this beautiful Mexican actress in a movie I saw when I went to Mexico” and that day I was so happy to hear that I could look like an actress and my dormant desires of working with George Clooney in a romantic comedy were awakened and I was on cloud nine for a while thanks to this man but later my husband who is so skeptical said, “I do not think he could ever be in Mexico, he totally made that up.” I can always count on my dear husband to bring me down to earth with a big thud.

A number of mentally ill people visit the library too and I feel sorry for them because mental illness is the worst disease you can have. Physical ailments can be managed but it is truly tragic when you lose control of your mind. I remember this patron who felt she could never leave her umbrella anywhere but with me as she thought I could keep it safe for her. A man walked by me one day and said “please do not ask me for autographs, I am really busy today” and I was like “huh ,okay, I won’t Mr. celebrity.” A woman addresses me as Ruth and when I asked who Ruth is she told me that Ruth was a character in the bible. This lady refuses to believe my name is Mona. Later, when I found out that Ruth in the bible is kind and nice and honest it made me feel better.

I am always terrified of the impatient, arrogant, loud mouthed divas when they visit, we had a lady who came in and wanted us to announce on the intercom that her boys needed to come to the parking lot and I told her that we do not provide this service for the patrons. She was so angry that she actually would have to go look for her children herself and find them herself!  As she was being very difficult a library security worker came to my aid and said he would find them. She just walked out clicking her high heels and told him to tell the children she is outside waiting in the parking lot!

I have had so many memorable patron interactions over the years, lots of stories, hard to fit into one blog. Most of the folks who visit the library are really nice, grateful , well mannered and soft spoken but then there are the few eccentric ones too! The incident I remember most fondly is when I helped this young guy and he fist bumped me to show his appreciation. An old couple were so grateful when I helped them locate a family member from our ancestry databases that they wanted to take me out to lunch with them and I declined. For some reason, I do not know why, it hurts my feelings when people offer a tip. I am just doing my job, and I love it and I love my library.

Didi

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March 5th is a day which is very close to my heart. If my sister was alive, it would be her 47th birthday today.If only I could call her and wish her and ask her what she has planned for the day and tell her what is going on with me and chit chat and laugh and talk as only sisters can, but I know that is not possible. When we lost her in a train accident in 1995, the first thing my youngest sister told me when I reached Delhi was , “Papa ke pass chali gayi, papa akele the na, isliye apne paas bula liye” ( She has gone to be with Papa, because he was alone, he called her) So, I am hoping she is with him and they are celebrating together and she is dazzling everyone up there with her warm, charismatic, vibrant, dynamic and beautiful personality.

 

When people told me that time would heal the pain, I believed that,but now,I know, it doesn’t. I miss her more with each passing day, and nothing anyone can say can soothe the pain, dull the memories or heal the chasm in my heart. I think about her often but the grief attacks with a vengeance on her birth and death anniversaries which are intertwined with the birthdays of my boys. Armaan’s birthday is march 6th, just the day after hers. Arjun’s birthday is August 19 and August 20th is the day she passed away.5b8df-fullsizerender2b2528122529

After I had kids of my own, I truly understood the depth and magnitude of my mom’s loss. It broke my heart when my mom sent me a letter all those years back informing me that she has contributed towards a monetary prize and a shield in didi’s name to our school to be awarded to a deserving student. I was heartrendingly reminded of the time when didi and I were in school, in our teens, we were the first ones to be there as our bus got to school early and we were looking at the shelves where all the trophies were displayed. There was a picture of a girl who had passed away and her parents had a trophy in her name, I remember my sister saying “Mona, look, this girl’s name is Sumona, isn’t it sad, she died and her parents have a prize in her name.”

Didi was very strong and my mom depended on her the most as she was enterprising, responsible and proactive. She did a lot of work around the house, whether it was standing with the workers and getting a water tank installed on our terrace, talking to the car mechanic, planning trips, getting someone to fix our leaking roof…… she did what needed to be done. She was so friendly and outgoing, she could talk with everyone- the vegetable vendors, little kids, aunties, older folks. She was an amazing older sister to all three of us, protective, inspiring, generous, caring and loving, she always had our back. She was financially independent and worked and thrived as a senior consultant in a reputed firm. Interestingly, only she got the didi status, my younger two sisters just call me Mona, to this day they have never called me didi. 🙂

Sometimes,I see her in my dreams and I love the happy ones where she hugs me but I have woken up with my heart thudding with fear and sweating when I have had nightmares about her being very sick in a hospital separated from us. Sometimes, her memory is triggered by watching someone who looks like her from the back and has the same kind of hair and it catches me unawares and the pain of her loss instantly flares and I think about her, her beautiful hair, her gorgeous smile. I miss her beautiful voice heard around our school every afternoon when she recited the prayer before dismissal. She is in my subconscious, most of my computer and various account passwords are some combinations of her name and birth date and I type those in everyday.

I regret the fights we had and wish I could tell her I was sorry for all the usual sibling bickering. I am grateful that she got to meet my husband and they formed an instant liking.I seek some solace from the fact that she died knowing that Ajay and I would be there for our mom and sisters, for whom she deeply cared. I can’t fill her shoes, I was happy being the second child, I can never be the oldest like she was but I am trying.9ec48-13754613_10153783109368527_2087749244307051335_n

Sometimes, when the whole house is sleeping and I am alone downstairs I think of her, and I can feel her energy and I hope that she is watching over us and is proud of me and the woman I have become, the changes in me she never got to see.Years back,in school one day, I was openly sobbing, missing my dad after he passed away, and she came over and scolded me and told me to stop crying like a fool and to be strong. So, I do, to this day, I draw strength from her in my moments of weakness.

I could fill pages writing about her but will stop now.I look forward to the day when we will meet again and hug again in a blissful, peaceful, serene and splendorful heavenly abode.

 

Don’t Act Too Smart

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I have so many memories of growing up in a small town in India with three sisters and a bunch of cousins. We had impromptu picnics at the Kharkai river near our house, we stayed up all night after exams to celebrate and commemorate with our little parties, we performed plays for the neighbors, and we had weddings for our dolls, long elaborate ceremonies with so much fun, frolic and festivities.

Once, we walked over five miles in the rain and lightning to our aunt’s house and her daughter almost had a heart attack seeing us all wet and shivering at her door but, for us, it was an adventure. The world was our oyster and we were naïve, bold, unafraid and willing to speak our minds. Our parents were not hovering around us as helicopters either.

One vacation , we were going out of town in an open jeep with the four of us in the back, it was just our trusted driver and us, our parents were already there ( I forget the name of the city but it was somewhere not too far) and we were joining them. A car with three or four young teenage boys who had their windows rolled down started following us and somehow it turned into a race. When we would be in the front we would start singing, “aa dekhen zara, kismen kitna hai dum… (a Bollywood song which means let us see, who is stronger)” and then when they would race ahead we would be badgering our driver Kujur to go faster. It was all meant to be in good fun and after sometime we stopped at a roadside store and we were in the lead and happy about it. Their car stopped right behind us and one of the boys came over to me and said in an angry, menacing way:  “Don’t act too smart, ladki ho, apni aaukat mein raho (you are a girl, stay within your limits)” That was enough for us to back off and leave immediately and thankfully we avoided any harm or retribution from them.

This incident happened more than thirty years ago and it came flashing back to me when, recently, I read what the Nirbhaya rapists had to say about the innocent victim, how they blamed her for fighting them. It makes your blood boil when you see that these deranged animals have no remorse or regret, they think that a girl should stay within her limits and how dare she has a voice, how dare she stay out late, how dare she have a boyfriend, and, if she speaks up then they have every right to silence her. These comments make me so angry; I did not watch the documentary “India’s Daughter” as I knew I would explode with rage at the unfairness of it all. It is deeply disturbing, disappointing and depressing to see that certain men have such distorted views on women.

This mean spirited, cruel mindset is a result of the way these men are raised, the way our society either elevates a woman to the status of sati-savitri (pious woman) or immediately labels her a slut if she desires to dress differently or act differently than what is expected. Looking back to the Ramayana, Laxman drew a laxmanrekha (line) around the house for Sita and she got into trouble when she crossed the line. Even though Laxman was very well intentioned and he was looking out for Sita’s best interests, there is still something so symbolic about a man drawing a line which a woman cannot cross.

I remember watching the movie “Hum Aapke hain Kaun” and the lyrics to one of the Dhiktana songs reads, “Pehli kiran jab se uge, Bhabhi meri tab se jage, sabka pura dhyan dhare woh, sham dhale tak kaam kare” Loosely translated, the lines mean that the daughter in law of the house wakes up earlier than everyone else, works hard the whole day and makes sure everyone in the house is happy. Our religious scriptures, our movies, they all emphasize how women should be models of selflessness, how they should always be serving others. Sons in law, on the other hand, are treated like God. Women fast for the long lives of their husbands, men don’t. It is because of this inequality that most people want to have sons and there have been so many cases of girl fetuses being aborted.

The sex ratio in India is 943 females per 1000 males. Eventually, women will be really important when there are not enough left to find brides for the men! The tides will turn for us, a change is coming and we are so ready for it.

The status of women is a problem worldwide. Even in America, some men feel that if a girl is drunk, wears short clothes and goes to parties, she is fair game for any kind of violation meted out to her and this attitude makes me fiercely angry. India has been in the spotlight so much but rapes happen with frightening and alarming regularity all over the world.

A lot of men are decent individuals who respect women and treat them with dignity. Many men took to the streets with the women to protest against the Nirbhaya rapists. Not all men, Indians or otherwise are male chauvinist pigs. Recently, Kailash Satyarthi, a children’s rights activist from India won the Nobel peace prize for his tireless and selfless work against child labor and he got far less media attention than the bad guys did.

I really feel that women empowerment can happen when women support each other. We have to have each other’s back. You cannot have a chip on your shoulder just because you have a son and you cannot be cruel to your daughter in law. We, as women can be so snarky and judgmental about each other. The stay at home moms look down upon those who work and the working moms sneer and sarcastically quip what the people who stay home do all day! In order to achieve gender equality all women have to be on the same team. Parents have to practice fairness at home by treating their sons and daughters equally.

The new generation does fill me with hope. Most young people today are bright, helpful, liberal, caring and considerate. My daughter, who usually never talks much when she gets home, was so moved by some videos she watched in her AP Human Geography class that she came in the door and started telling me about it. They had heard stories of young girls in Nepal, India, Africa and Egypt and those girls had been through many hardships and dangers and they wanted to go to school and have an education. My daughter expressed a desire to help these girls and she realized that the things she takes for granted like a safe home, food in the fridge, an education etc. are a luxury for so many girls around the world.

My two boys aged 10 and 12 treat their 15 year old sister with respect, they even do her chores for her if she has too much homework and they always make sure she is the first one to sample the foods they cook. One day, we were teasing the boys about girlfriends and my daughter said “Mom, if they find girlfriends who are mean or abusive, I will protect my brothers, I will always look out for them, nobody messes with my brothers!” and my heart was so happy that a sister was saying this about her brother instead of it being the other way around. I am really hopeful about a world when a girl or a woman will not be derided for being smart and she can make her own decisions without anybody telling her what her limits can be.