Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Tangential Tales and Teachable Moments.

 My dad as an Omega Psi Phi fraternity pledge marching on "the yard" at Tuskegee University, Fall 1962
(He's the one at the end of the line!)


"Don't assume anything in medicine. Just because something or someone looks a certain way, doesn't mean it is or they are. Sometimes the reality can amaze you. 
Trust me. You have to dig a little deeper."

This is what I told a group of our medical students recently at Grady.


That's what the look they gave me conveyed. They either weren't getting my point, weren't feeling my point, or both. The context was about how patients might appear disheveled or put together but they totally aren't what you thought. Or how they might look like they speak another language or will relate to something, but they don't. (Like when one of my fellow Grady doctor friends was in the Clinica Internacional and began hablas-ing in espanol to a woman with a latin surname--who spoke ingles solamente. Yeah.)  Don't assume anything, I told them. You have to dig deeper.

Eh again.

Tell y'all what. I'll provide an example. An example of how something seems one way but isn't.

Ah hah.

Now I had their attention. Woo hoo! Campfire time! By now, the medical students who work with me know that I'm always good for a story that has virtually nothing to do with medicine. Somehow, I get around to the point I'm trying to make.


Here's what I told them about which, hand over heart, is 100% true:

Fall 1988. . . (insert wiggly hands taking you back in time with me here)

"The Yard" (aka the campus of historic Tuskegee University)

When I was a freshman in college at Tuskegee University, it was a whole new world. I was this L.A. girl transplanted to rural Alabama and, despite the fact that Tuskegee was our family's tradition, the culture shock for me was huge.


There were a few "shocks" that weren't so bad about college. For starters, there were things like. . . no curfew and no parent asking you to clean up the kitchen or take out the garbage. No hairy eyeball if you wanted to eat pizza for breakfast or cereal for dinner.


There were boys. College ones. Lots of them from all parts of the country and from all walks of life. Short ones, tall ones, fair-skinned ones, cocoa-colored ones, quiet ones, loud ones, New York-big-city-cool ones, Chi-Town-midwest-swagger ones, Caribbean-smooth ones, and Sweet-as-pie-Southern ones. Whoa.

Although I never thought of myself as boy crazy, I'm not blind. Say what you want--this was a feast for freshman eyes for sure.

School Daze. . . .

During the fall semester of my freshman year, there were several fraternities and sororities going through the process of initiating new members. At historically black schools (back then), the pledges rose early in the morning and marched across the campus in a line singing like soldiers running through a military base. Their voices would ring over the entire yard as the sun was rising. We'd run to our windows, throw them open, and peer down on perched elbows. Especially at the boys.


My favorite part was when they would reach each residence hall and then greet us each morning. The "dean of pledges" would hold up his or her hand and in the most important way ever, give them permission to speak. We'd already be packed in our windows with rollers in our hair and scarves on our heads waiting to hear them say:


"Hey y'all!" we'd all coo and wave back (at the fraternities, that is.) When the sorority girls came around, we'd be so intimidated that we'd just sit there as frozen voyeur statuettes. One person would always accidentally say hi, followed by the sound of crickets. (We all knew that sorority pledges became sorority members, and that overexuberant speaking now could become an issue later.)

Now. Back to the boys.

There was this one pledge. Aaaah. I'd nearly break my neck getting out of bed to see his pledge line when they'd come singing up that hill on the side of my dorm. He was this dreamy, pecan colored Southern guy with ginormous dimples and unbelievable eyelashes. The first time I'd ever seen him was with his pledgebrothers walking solemnly in a line along the side of my Biology 101 class. In addition to being completely mesmerized by all of the Greek buzz that semester, I could not wait to catch a glimpse of this beautiful stranger any chance I got.

For background purposes, you need to understand how historically black greek letter organizations worked during that time. After at least one year of college and several hoops to jump through with trying to get to know the organization's members, finally (if you were lucky) you'd "make line" or get the chance to be initiated. Anyways, this meant that Cute-Pledge was at least a sophomore or junior which, to my freshman eyes, made him seem just that much more interesting and mysterious.

Okay, so literally, for six weeks, I would gasp and punch my roommate's arm every time we saw them  (read:him) walking along the campus dressed identically. Or sitting in the cafeteria with their exaggerated grimaces and shaved heads. Or quietly perched like statuesque ducks in a row as their big brothers poked fun at them in front of all us onlookers.  And because he was a "lowly" pledge, throughout this whole time, I never once heard him talk. It made him just that much more interesting-er mysterious-er.

My crush grew exponentially.

One evening, my friends and I were sitting in our dormitory watching TV.  Suddenly, we heard horns honking all over the campus and people screaming. Someone burst into the TV room and announced,


"crossed:"  term used to describe someone making initiation into a historically black fraternity or sorority; refers to a process called "crossing the burning sands" into membership.

"probate show:"  a performance put on by new initiates of historically black fraternities and sororities

We sprinted out of the dorm as fast as we could, elbowing our way through the crowd to do our best to see. There were people everywhere. I'm talking folks in trees, sitting on shoulders, standing on cars--you name it (which believe it or not, still happens regularly to this day on black college campuses when new initiates storm their college campuses on their crossing night.) And right there in the thick of it all, was Mystery-Cute-Pledge turned Mystery-Cute-Frat Boy.  And with his new found swagger--stepping and chanting amongst his newly minted fraternity brothers-- my fascination inched up two more notches.

Later on that week, I'd see him from afar and stare waaaay too hard. Smiling all easy with his brand-spanking-new fraternity paraphernalia on and navigating through his new-found notoriety with the girls. If he got within two feet of me, I'd nearly become incontinent from the nervousness, so would somehow manage to get away before he actually spoke to me. Then, one day, something happened.

I was with three of my freshman girlfriends from my dorm hall and we'd decided to go to this fraternity party (the same fraternity as Mystery-Cute-Pledge-turned-Frat Boy.)  It was completely packed in the party, but the music was great and the energy was high. We danced and laughed in the corner when suddenly, I turned around and there he was. Him. Mystery-Cute-Pledge-turned-FB standing directly in my line of sight. Looking. Right. At. Me.


I looked around from side to side. OMG. Nope. He was looking at me.  Then. He started walking towards me.  Thump-thump, Thump-thump. My heart was about to jump out of my chest. Finally, he was standing right in front of me. My roommate was pinching my back so hard, I thought I'd faint. Thump, thump. Thump, thump. Feeling lightheaded.

He gave me this big, flirtatious smile. Oh. My. Good. Golly. Please don't lose continence. Please don't lose continence. Those dimples sunk straight into my heart and turned my legs into noodles. I could not believe this. I could not.

I had played this out in my head a few times before, but more as a daydream during my Biology lab. Him floating up to me with a big, romantic grin complete with the whitest teeth ever -- ting! What would he say? Something suave and debonair a la Billy Dee Williams in "Mahogany?" Something shy and sweet like . . . .errr. . .somebody shy and sweet?  Maybe he'd just present a single rose or pay me a compliment. Either way, I was having full on palpitations. . . .

He leaned in so that I could hear him. Wow. Wow. Wow. Could not. Believe this.  A whiff of his cologne wafted by my nose. Okay, a slightly heavy application of . . wait. . Stetson cologne? But still. Wait. Is he wearing dress shoes without socks?  Errr. Okay. I can ignore that. Because. He's adorable. And he's standing here. Ready to talk to me. Me, the freshman. The freshman who had the ginormously ginormous crush on him for the past eight weeks.

He licked his lips. . . .placed one hand on the wall beside me. . . .and then. . . .he said over the crowd:

 "So . . .uuuhhhhhh. . . . .WHATCHO' NAME IS?"

Yes. Those were the words-- exactly, verbatim that my mysterious, sweet super crush spoke to me for the first time.  No exaggeration. Wait. I take that back.


That's more exactly how he said it. In a high-pitched, nasal, almost scary southern drawl-y, milquetoast-y voice, no less. Waaaaaahh!

You are so not my husband. Ugggh. What a let down. (In hindsight, I think the whole being dressed alike thing masked some questionable fashion sense, I'm just saying.)

So much for my big white wedding at twenty-one years old in the University Chapel. 

"Whatcho name iyyuh?" Really? Really. Worst pickup line ever. Ever. Oh, and for the record: Tuskegee alums, I refuse, do you hear me? Refuse to confirm the exact identity of mystery-cute-pledge-turned-mystery-cute-frat-boy-turned-overwhelmingly-disappointing-nonfuture-husband. And considering the fact that as a freshman I had a major crush nearly every two seconds, it could literally be anyone. So don't try to figure it out. And don't ask.

Wait. . .what was the point of this story again? 

Oh well, I can't quite remember. But it is a great story. . .and at least I have the medical students' attention now.  Ah hem. Let's talk about community-acquired pneumonia now, shall we?

Spike Lee's "School Daze" - This captures (in a Hollywood kind of way) what 
life was like for me as a freshman at a historically black college in 1988.
Watching this floods me with warm nostalgia, and probably anyone else who attended an HBCU. 

Back on "the yard" at Tuskegee University for my own Delta Sigma Theta sorority reunion in 2008
(not yelling back at those sorority girls paid off)


  1. hahaha What a great story... definitely kept me entertained. I'd love to do rounds with you someday and hear all your stories.

  2. That was awesome! Great memories!!

  3. LOL!!! I know who it is!!! Haaaaa!

  4. KD, I am in stitches! Marisa

  5. That was a fantastic story. You are a wonderful teacher. I got the point! You have to dig a little deeper:)


  6. We call that boy, "Smoove."
    (I may have dated him.)

  7. Ha!! As I sit here at work, it was great to escape back to Tuskegee for a moment...great story! LOL

  8. Great story! When I was in high school there was this really cute guy that I built up in my head to be my knight in shining armor (At that time I thought this was a reality). 18 year old fantasy wedding was all planned out- Elvis impersonator preacher and all. Then I found out his last name. Same as my mom's maiden name. Yep. My cousin.Fith cousin but still gross- even in Alabama. So tell your students not to pre judge. It could be their very own kin folk their treating!

    By the way, as an Alabama girl, I love that you came from L.A. to follow your family's tradition at Tuskegee.


"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

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