Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Graduation Day

If I hadn’t taken time off from medical school after Katrina, I would have become a doctor last Saturday. Wow. Somehow that seems even more enormous than if I actually did graduate. I’m still trying to wrap my head around all the things a day like this brings with it: all the growing up that’s been happening in our world these days, all the loss and transition and new beginnings and fear and awkwardness wrapped up in this bursting joy; how education is so much more than the hoops we jump through and how, at its best, it’s really about taking risks and challenging ourselves to become more honest and accountable than we ever thought we could be.

For the longest time, I’ve been so excited about this day: both that my friends were graduating and that I wasn’t. Right now, I’m happy for them to have the milestones, the big moment; more than anything lately, I’ve not felt ready. I’ve been so happy that I have a whole ‘nother year as a medical student: I’m glad I get more practice making decisions about patients while knowing that a real doctor’s watchful eye isn’t far away. I’m excited to spend one more year focusing on things I know I need to improve upon, or things I want to learn more about, just because I can. This is the last time in my life that I’ll be praised, rather than expected, to know and do the right thing; the last time I can make mistakes and not know stuff and have that be part of the process instead of a Really Big Deal; the last time I can spend 2 weeks in Hawaii learning dermatology if I want to (ok, I don’t really want to, but you know what I mean).

But on that day, watching my friends and classmates cross over into this world I’ll join them in much sooner than I’d probably like, I didn’t feel relief as much as I’d imagined. I felt awe. I witnessed in each of them something altogether different and much more powerful than anything I’d expected, and that was grace. Suddenly I had no doubts that each one of them, ready or not, was going to do just fine July 1 when they all start their work as interns for real. Everything they need to shine, they’ve already got it inside themselves.

I thought about how most of our major life events: becoming a parent, surviving catastrophe, taking awesome responsibility for the care of other people—are more than anything about rising to the occasion, how none of us is ever ready and we continue to push on anyway, how for generations as long as we’ve been here, we survive, we bring children into the world, we take care of each other with the best and strongest of our cracked imperfect selves.

And the world’s got nothing on these folks. These are people who’ve shone through death and heartbreak and childbirth and Hurricane Katrina, all while continuing to conquer medical school and dance and play and make each other laugh long and deep. After Katrina hit, these are folks who mopped shelter floors, drove across south Louisiana with cars full of donated underwear and antibiotics, and held long vigils, wherever they happened to be, with the dying and grieving people of our city. They set up clinics, started organizations, made arrangements for our classmates to get an education outside New Orleans when the future here was uncertain; on days off they sorted through the rubble of their burned and flooded houses; ultimately they learned medicine in strange cities and came home to sleep on strangers’ couches at the end of those long ghostly days. They kept going, in those times when the murky road ahead was barely even visible. Oh, the world’s got nothing on these folks, these special, special folks.

And graduation was awesome! Obviously, because I got to see all these people who I love and look up to and who’ve loved me and challenged me and inspired me and taught me and been my anchors for the past four years—I got to watch all these incredible folks become doctors. And also because there kept being these only-in-New-Orleans moments, like the brass band and the way all the new doctors all second-lined out of the place when it was over, and the people wearing Mardi Gras beads over their intense velvet graduation regalia, and the spicy Bloody Marys we all toasted each other with at noon before it started. And then the speaker, who is the new president of the Association of American Medical Colleges, which is not really famous for being a radical organization, kept talking about how we all need to step up and make universal healthcare a reality in this country. I know! Can you believe it?

But in the end, the awesome thing about graduation was how full that room was. All those babies running around in the aisles in pressed dresses and stiff morning hair; all the old people, guided gently to the better seats, knuckles leaning into canes and the backs of chairs, curling heads and necks for even a far-away glimpse of their people. All the miles everyone had covered just to be there.

At one point this one girl, one of the quietest girls in the class who I never really got to know very well, came up to receive her diploma and I think about 40 people stood up and cheered and just didn’t stop. They filled like 2 whole rows, they spilled over into the aisles--they were still jumping and clapping even when she got off the stage. I was amazed at the power of this family’s love for this person. It made me even prouder of her to see where she’d come from, to see such a wild band of people so fiercely there for this gentle person in their life. In the end none of us could take it. We all stood up with the rest of them, cheering so loudly for this one girl and everything else joyous in the room that day.


Post a Comment

<< Home