Blog | Monday, March 25, 2019

"Scrappy"


“Baby, you will rise. Limit is the skies.
Don't you let nobody fill your head up with their lies.”

—Amel Larrieux

I was once sitting at a table after giving a lecture as a visiting professor at a medical institution. I'd mentioned in my talk about how I'd applied to Emory for both medical school and residency but how I wasn't granted an interview either time. How my grades were good but my standardized test scores weren't at a high enough percentile to make the cut. Then I went on to share how later I would join the Emory faculty and build a successful career there in spite of all of that. The message, geared toward medical students primarily, was about grit and resilience, both of which are critical to the success of any physician. They seemed to receive it well.

Over coffee and dessert after the lecture, I made small talk with the nearly 15 senior faculty members, medical students and esteemed guests sitting at my table. Of all the people there, not a single one looked like me. Or even close to like me. But still. They spoke kind words of affirmation and asked polite questions. And I answered them all and it was fine.

But then, this happened. A subtle microaggression straight from the mouth of a grey-haired full professor who, I guess, meant well.

Him: “Your talk was so inspirational. Thank you for that.”

Me: “Thanks. I appreciate your kind words, sir.”

Him: “It looks like things really worked out for you. I guess I'm just wondering how we zero in on the ones like you and not overlook them. When they don't quite meet the standard, how do you reconcile that?”

*silence*

Me: “Well. I guess the first thing I will say is who defined the standard? Perhaps that standard isn't the best measure for everyone. You know?”

Him: “I'm not sure I understand.”

Me: “People like me weren't there when those standards were being created.”

Him: *still not getting it* “I hear you. But I guess what I am wondering is how do you know that, if you DO take a chance, someone will be scrappy like you were? How do we not pass on the ones like you? The diamonds in the rough?”

He smiled showing all of his big, yellow teeth. I did not smile back.

*silence*

Me: *in my head* “Did this dude just call a visiting professor 'scrappy’ and ’a diamond in the rough?’”

Me: *out loud* “Sir, where I came from? I was able to shine from the very start. I got my education at Tuskegee and at Meharry. I always was a diamond right out in the open. I was never in the rough. Not then and not now.”

I swallowed hard and held his gaze without smiling. He needed to know that I wasn't kidding. Because I wasn't. And even though a tiny piece of me wanted to cry, I pushed it down because even if he didn't know and even if they didn't know way back when, I was always enough. Always.

After that, we all sat in an awkward silence. Me sitting with my spine stick straight with a relaxed facial expression. And him, along with several others, looking nervous and apologetic.

I let them squirm.

I didn't say much after that. I was pleasant for the rest of the dinner and was gracious to my hosts when I left. Even the grey-haired dude. But here's what I wish I'd said:

“You know what? I am scrappy. But not the kind of scrappy you think. Scrappy in that I know who I am. Scrappy in that I know how to put my mouthpiece back in and fight even when the fight isn't fair.

That kind of scrappy.

And also, you, sir, don't get to call me that. Because just maybe the “rough” you speak about is in your eyes and was never the students like me at all.”

People say some crazy stuff sometimes.

Yeah.

***

He hurt my feelings. But that's okay because I'm scrappy. Now playing on my mental iPod

Kimberly Manning, MD, FACP, FAAP is an associate professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia where she teaches medical students and residents at Grady Hospital. This post is adapted from Reflections of a Grady Doctor, Dr. Manning’s blog about teaching, learning, caring and growing in medicine and life. It has been adapted and reprinted with permission. Identifying information has been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.