I patted myself on the back when the day arrived. It had been planned for months, the day I would talk to a group of juniors and seniors, mostly black and Hispanic students, at King Drew Medical Magnet High School in Los Angeles, Compton to be exact. There were nearly 300 kids. I didn't realize there would be so many. I don't usually get nervous when I have to speak in front of a crowd. On the days I have to sing, it's another story, but I digress.
The subject was a familiar one for me: talking about the lives of my great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather, both doctors in the late 1800s. I have been studying the subject since high school, but back then I never thought I'd be speaking to a group of high school students about it. My audience, with a few teachers and counselors sprinkled in, was eager. I was a tad apprehensive between focusing on the Powerpoint presentation and attempting to find someone to run my video camera for me, but somehow it all worked out as things always do.
I took my time. I offered a bit of history, kind of an overview of the very first black doctors in the United States before narrowing down the playing field to my own kin. I showed a picture of my great-grandfather, John Henry Jordan, the first black doctor in Coweta County, Georgia, near Atlanta, with his full mustache and half-shaven beard, a sign of the times. I explained how difficult his life was growing up the son of a former slave turned sharecropper. While my great-grandfather had big dreams, his own father, Berry, had every intention of dousing them. I don't think Berry meant to be mean. He simply wanted his son to play it safe.
Berry didn't know any black doctors and wasn't sure why his son thought he could become one. I told the students how John fought against his father and the system to get as much education as he could in Troup County, Georgia, where he grew up, before heading to Clark College in Atlanta. He ultimately made it to Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, my hometown.
I spoke of him excelling in the classroom yet failing when it came to his finances. He had so little money that he was forced to withdraw from medical school at the end of his third year. My great-grandfather took time off and worked odd jobs before returning to school a year later. It must have made his graduation as valedictorian of his class in 1896 that much sweeter. He also had a role model, Dr. Edward Ramsey, an 1880 Meharry graduate who later became the first black doctor to practice medicine in Troup County, Georgia, and later in Houston, Texas. He also became John's father-in-law when John married Edward Ramsey's daughter, Mollie, in 1898.
I then showed the students John and Mollie's family photo circa 1910. It consisted of the two of them dressed in their Sunday finest with John sitting in a chair and Mollie standing dutifully next to him. Their son, Edward, my grandfather, sat in a small chair in front of Mollie, wearing trousers, a button-down shirt, a bow tie, and a bashful look on his face compared to his father's self-assured, stoic one. My grandfather greatly admired his father whom he tried to emulate. He also adored his mother. The two became especially close after John was fatally burned when the gas tank exploded in his car while he was on his way to a house call. My great-grandfather was only 42 at the time of his death in 1912. My grandfather, was just shy of his 12th birthday.
It is at this point in the story that my audience usually gasps in horror or becomes speechless, but these high school students were a tough bunch. They had plenty of questions about how exactly things transpired, why I chose not to become a doctor, and how I became interested in researching it all in the first place. I tried to fill in the gaps. I offered a quick summary of how difficult my grandfather's life was after the loss of his father. How my grandfather went away to boarding school. How his mother remarried a man who never wanted my grandfather around, and touched on how my grandfather lost his mother years later while he was a student at Claflin College.
Some of the teachers at the school had questions for me too. One even gave me a pop quiz, asking me if I could name all of the black medical schools in the country (fortunately, I passed). However, there was one student who sat pensively most of the morning, but his question ended up riveting me the most. It still haunts me to this day: "Do you think it is possible to be a success in life if you don't come from a successful family?"
I was adamant in my response, anxious to quench any fear in him that told him his present circumstances might derail his own dreams and aspirations. I assured him he could most certainly be successful and that it doesn't matter where one comes from or where you've been. I wanted to run to him and hug him, encourage him to reach for the stars and never look back. Instead, the bell rang. The assembly was over. It was time for the students to return to their classrooms and me back to work and my own selfish life.
As I packed up my things that day, I kept playing his question back in my mind. After thinking I had something to offer the students that might change their way of thinking, I realized I was the one who had been changed. For that experience, I will be forever grateful.