“Against All Odds”
by: Katelyn Joseph (Rachel Carson Middle School)
Interviewee: Cicily Joseph (Fatima High School)
A little girl was sitting in her classroom in Kerala, India. Her teacher was teaching them about the legendary “human calculator”, Shakuntala Devi. She was able to solve complicated math problems mentally faster than a calculator. The little girl looked up at the teacher, her eyes wide with interest. Shakuntala Devi holds the world record for the fastest human computation – multiplying two 13-digit numbers in 28 seconds. The little girl, Cicily Joseph, was fascinated by math and wanted to be able to solve math problems with that amount of ease and speed one day.
Getting there wasn’t easy. Her family was very poor, she was the youngest in a family of seven. Her father was a poor farmer and her mother stayed at home and took care of the cooking, cleaning, and the children because at the time women were not meant to do a “man’s work”. Their family didn’t have the money to send five kids to college. By the time it was her turn to go to college, their family just didn’t have enough money to pay for the fees. Her father tried to help her out by taking loans, but even all that couldn’t make up for the amount of money they needed.
She didn’t let this stop her though, she asked her relatives if they could help, but they couldn’t afford it either. She worked very hard in school and she always got good grades. But, her grades couldn’t help her because India had just got its independence from Britain and there were no scholarships available at that time in rural India. One of her uncles recognized her potential, and even though he didn’t have a lot of money, he decided to help her out with a part of her college tuition. He was a progressive priest, who wanted to support Cicily because at the time, it was very uncommon for girls to get an education. Most girls spent their time with their mothers, learning to be proper housewives.
The college required a monthly payment, but Cicily had to rely on the income from harvests, so couldn’t be certain of making the regular payments. So, her parents negotiated with the college to pay the fees on a yearly basis, instead of a monthly basis, so that it could be timed with the harvesting season. It was still tough, though, because there wasn’t a lot of money they were getting out of farming, but between her father and her uncle, they managed to cobble together the tuition.
Cicily graduated with a Bachelors in Math and Statistics, and went on to get a Masters in Math. She decided to pursue a career in teaching because she wanted other girls to enjoy math as much as she did and encourage them to dream big. For this, she needed to get a Bachelors in Education, which she was able to successfully complete.
Cicily joined Fatima High School, a very prestigious school in Mumbai, India. Because she was the only woman math teacher in the whole school, she faced a lot of adversities. One of them was that she was terminated while on maternity leave. She decided to fight her wrongful termination in court. After a protracted year-long legal battle, she won her suit and got her job back, as well as the unpaid salary for the time she was out of work.
She taught for 33 years at Fatima High School before retiring. She was an inspiration for her students, many of whom have kept in touch with her over the years. Most of them have made her proud by becoming successful in their chosen fields.
The generosity shown by her uncle also had a profound impact on her. She vowed to always give to those in need, so that they may have the proper education. She has donated to countless organizations that provide financial aid to those in need so that they may have better opportunities.
When I heard this story from my grandmother, Cicily Joseph, I was amazed and in awe of her. Her story has energized me, and it will be a constant source of inspiration when I face adversities of my own.