This story starts perhaps with my first-year college course in calculus. I was 17, and one of hundreds of University of North Dakota freshmen taking calculus that fall, including all the aspiring engineers, biochemists, and physicians. A fiercely competitive knot of us sat in the first two rows, learning calculus from Prof. Metzger, who was the very model of the brilliant and absent-minded professor. Upper classmen would roar with laughter when they asked me whose section of calculus I was in, and I said that it was his. He was on probation from the university at the time for failing too large a percentage of his previous sections of calculus I. At that juncture, I was driven, as I’d been since at least the age of three, by a strong instinct for survival in the face of abuse. It would take me many years to eventually understand the particular blend of spiteful survivor and self-perpetuating victim that had emerged from my upbringing and my experience theretofore. But arriving at UND from what many city kids viewed as a “crappy Class B school,” and further underestimated due to racist beliefs about the percentage of Native American students who attended there, I was determined not to perish in the winnowing system that separated four-fifths of self-defined “pre-meds” from their dreams of a career in medicine before the time came for final exams in May of freshman year.
There were people for whom calculus came easy (Kristin and Barb, if you’re reading this, I’m talking about you). I don’t know for whom else it came as laboriously as it came for me. I sat in class, not really getting the principles that Metzger was trying to convey. In my dorm room at night, I did all the problems at the end of the chapter, still struggling to understand a path to the solution. My quiz scores were hit-or-miss, at best. The night before an exam, I’d stay up all night, developing my caffeine addiction and reworking all the problems from every chapter. Usually sometime around 4:00 a.m., something would finally start to gel. Given sufficient repetition, insight would finally start to rise from my confusion, and by the time I walked, sleep-deprived, into the exam, I actually understood the things we were being tested on. My first major exam, I got a “B,” even after Metzger graded it on the curve. By the last exam of first semester, my paper came back with a score of 112%. “What the hell?” I asked. Metzger explained that after he put the class scores on a curve, too many people were still failing, so he gave me an extra 12% to bring the class average up to an acceptable level. He said “You can move the extra 12% to bring your first exam score up to an “A.” And so, by the end of the semester, I earned my spot on the President’s List, with my “A” in calculus the hardest won among the others.
I dropped out of UND that May and went to work as a volunteer for a group of religious priests and brothers who ran a soup kitchen in the inner city in Omaha. I hadn’t yet learned that escaping my role as a victim didn’t automatically make me a perpetrator, so I had to take a detour from the path I’d started on as a pre-med at my state university. I thought altruism might assuage my conscience, and I spent a year learning that my lack of doctrinal orthodoxy actually was a problem in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church—who knew?—before making my indirect way, through studies in English literature and creative writing and philosophy, back to a path into medical school.
That early experience of learning calculus would later be reinforced by a list of other experiences, which have taught me, in sum, that wonderful possibilities are open to the tortoise, not only to the hare, and that it is a privilege and a joy to live a long life so one can realize them.
My most recent such experience has been singing in the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC. The native talent and intelligence and musical training concentrated in this group in our federal city is truly astonishing, and I am lucky that my gay card won me even an audition to be admitted to membership. My relationship to music is a lot like my relationship to calculus—though significantly more imbued with love, and more enduring. Singing does not come easy to me. I can’t hear a series of notes and repeat them back after first hearing. The repetitions it takes before it all sinks in are exponentially greater than the number required for the superior musicians around me. But by concert time, I have learned to get myself to a state much like the one I achieved the morning of my major exams in calculus, nearly 40 years ago. No one whispers to me, as my elementary school music teacher did, that at the concert I should just move my lips.
I could say something very similar about the path I have taken through medicine. A college classmate once said to me, “You’re the flakiest person I’ve ever known who said they were going to medical school and actually did it.” Thirty-three years after starting medical school, this tortoise has a great deal of clarity about how to build my division and our programs to meet the needs of the surrounding population over the next 15 years—which is when I expect to retire—and is ready to speak with authority to many people in power in order to see it happen.
The paradigm of our education system and our extracurricular training programs for young people seems to be to identify the hares and to pitch them into competition with each other, for what we generally view as scarce opportunities for success. I consider it one of my callings in life to counsel most everyone I meet to nurture the opposite perspective. One of my oft-stated observations to patients in psychotherapy is that life is too long to declare failure when it comes to revising self-defeating and neurotic patterns of thinking and behavior. To give up on change is to choose what could be a very long period of continued suffering and frustration stretching to the end of one’s days. I say this as a tortoise who has clocked a lot of years, and lived to see the benefits that accrue to those who make slow and steady progress, in one thing or another, even though things do not come easy.
Exactly six years ago I wrote about how I found myself thinking increasingly of the character of Antonio Salieri in the movie Amadeus, who in the last scene absolves the viewing audience of their mediocrity. (http://viewfrommywindrow.blogspot.com/2010/03/concerning-hell-private-or-otherwise.html)
The crisis of midlife I was having at that writing eventually passed, and I find myself these years later thinking a different set of thoughts about mediocrity. To wit: sometimes mediocrity + determination + time can produce excellent results. And I find that to be a richly satisfying reward, gleaned among the indignities of advancing age--which, from this particular perspective, are really trivial by comparison.