Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Rising to the occasion.

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave
I am the dream and the hope of the slave

I rise
I rise
I rise

~ Maya Angelou "And Still I Rise"

On the first day of medical school, they had us all sitting in a lecture hall perched on the edges of our chairs at rapt attention.  Okay, maybe not everyone was "perched on the edges" but I can at least say we were engaged.

Because this was the start of the show. The lights were down and the curtain was up and finally the spotlight was on us.  This was it. That point where you officially get to transition from saying, "Yeah, I think I'm going to go to medical school someday" to a sho' nuff and bona fide declaration-- "I am a medical student." And it's kind of a big deal.

I remember that first day in an unusual amount of high def and detail.  A sage senior physician paced back and forth in front of the room.  His heavily starched and blindingly white coat had pristine cloth balls for button closures and his name was embroidered in an elaborate cursive above the left chest. His pockets were flat and empty with the exception of the one that held a fancy ink pen; it was as if everything he needed to know was stored perfectly in his brain. Finally, he stopped, freezing us all to stone statues like Medusa with his steely gaze. You could hear a pin drop.

"Your lives will never be the same." He spoke in this strong and deliberate tone; confident and with intention. Every syllable was enunciated as if a person on the front row needed to read his lips to get the message.  He pointed at all of us with his long index finger. "YOU are the result of what was, for many, a dream deferred. You. You are the result of hard work, you are the promise of what can be, and yes, you are the very definition of what will be. So, you see, young people. . . you owe it to more than yourselves to be excellent. You owe it to all of us and. . .  all of them."


"Them." You know. . ."them." The "them" that couldn't go to medical school even if they wanted to or who were told that they'd never succeed if they did. Or even the "them" that did go to medical school, perhaps, but were treated unfairly by colleagues or who ironically died of blood loss after dedicating an entire career to the invention of the blood transfusion. Yep, "them."  The same "them" that had to eat in the kitchen or back on the porch when company came, and the very "them" that only counted as only 2/3 of a person for an embarrassingly long time in history. "Them." This was a lot of pressure to put on a twenty-one year old sorority girl. It's the first day of medical school and I already have to worry about not letting "them" down?


I guess I should share that I attended Meharry Medical College--one of the oldest historically African-American medical education institutions in the country. What this means is that, with very few exceptions, that message was being delivered to a group of promising young medical students of African descent.  For this reason, I think that senior physician with his perfectly pronounced words and with his espresso-colored complexion spoke so passionately because he'd been to the mountain top already and probably felt like he was looking into a back-to-the-future mirror.  And you know what? I remembered his speech from that day. It resonated with me because he was right. For many, this was the result of countless dreams deferred.  And I did owe it to myself and "them."

It's funny. For the last ten years, I have worked with medical students of every imaginable ethnicity. One thing I have learned for sure is that even though that message was being directed at a roomful of black future doctors, the lessons are both timeless and applicable to anyone of any race. Getting to the point of medical school, no matter who you are, is a dream come true for someone somewhere. And just like he said--yes, it is the result of some elbow grease and is swirling with promises for a future that someone somewhere only wishes they could know.

And so. This is how I approach all of the medical students with whom I work. Whether they are black, white, blue, green, short, tall, straight, gay, born here, born there, really young, really seasoned, outgoing, introverted, amazingly tri-lingual, or hopelessly uni-lingual. . . .  I tell them words quite similar to the ones I heard on my opening day.  . . .because we all have a "them."  I remind them that yes, this is a big deal, you being in medical school and yes, you do owe it to more than just you to make the most of it.

Oh yeah, I also say that even if your mama and your daddy are doctors, this medical education is yours, not theirs. You need to be the one handling it with care and you are only entitled to what you do from here forward. Not what they did. (But that doesn't mean you shouldn't let their expectation motivate you.)


Yesterday was the first day of school for our Class of 2015 (!) medical students. There they sat. . .  in a similar setting to me on my first day with the brightest of eyes and the bushiest of tails.  And sure, a few things were slightly different than ours back in June of 1992. . . . but those same truths were still self evident nearly twenty years later.

"You are the result of what was for many a dream deferred. You are the result of hard work, the promise of what can be, and the definition of what will be. So, you see, young people. . . you owe it to more than yourselves to be excellent. You owe it to all of us and all of them."

 In other words, rise.

*P.S.  And don't embarrass us either--or them. 

Happy Wednesday.

This made me cry this morning when I watched it. . . .now playing on my mental iPod.


  1. Beautifully written and so very timely as my written exam form board certification looms imminently on the horizon.

    A Fellow Meharrian

  2. What a wonderful message. You might know about Vivien T Thomas, a black surgical technician who was unable to stay in medical school in the 40s but who helped Dr Blalock at Johns Hopkins and Dr Taussig develop the Blalock-Taussig procedure on congenital heart defects. He was never given the credit he deserved for this but served as Laboratory supervisor at Hopkins for many years. There is an HBO movie about this called Something the Lord Made. I recommend it for your kids some day. I found it facinating, perhaps because my daughter benefited from Mr Thomas's research some 50 years later.

  3. This beautiful post intersects so many lines in my life, leaving me speechless and with a very large globus...

  4. Yet another great post!! However as I read it in the context of the dream deferred message, I'm reminded of the conversation I had about 10 years ago with a very attractive woman who worked in the med school admissions office at Meharry. And when she asked how old I was and I responded with "34", she suggested I consider another career.

    Needless to say, I didn't apply to Meharry or any other school that year. And while my dream was temporarily deferred, that will all change in the fall of 2013, God willing (at Morehouse??).

    So at the end of the day, it's ALL about God's timing and plan for our lives, and living well in the undeferred blessings we have TODAY!!!!

  5. You're an amazing writer.

    I sat in the third row recently, at Royce Hall at UCLA and heard Maya Angelou recite that poem. It was one of the most moving moments of my life.

  6. I often think about what my life would've been like if I'd grown up in Vietnam. To be fair, I wouldn't exist, considering my parents met in Texas after they came here as refugees in the mid to late 70s. Every success and every opportunity- is punctuated by the sacrifices and traumas of my family's not-so-distant past. There are days where I get wrapped up in a me-me-me mentality but as my little brother often reminds me: I gotta check myself before I wreck myself. And so I remind myself that I was raised by (literally) a village.

  7. I must confess that I have never seen Maya Angelou, only read her work. What a wonderful, wonderful video to post. I could listen to her voice alllll day long. Thank you for a great message and also some enlightenment for a Thursday evening. Have a great weekend!


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