From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

On Becoming a Farmer

I may not be responsible for getting knocked down, but I am responsible for getting back up.

Jesse Jackson

I sat with dreaded anticipation and a feeling of impending doom. I was sitting two rows from the front in a crowded college amphitheater filled with more than one hundred pre-med science majors. We were all waiting for our chemistry professor to return the year’s first exam.

I had started my freshman year in a Southern California university filled with anticipation. I had a full scholarship. I graduated valedictorian of a small black Christian school of seventy-four students and had all the earmarks for a bright future. However, after arriving on a campus where the student body was 96 percent white and 90 percent pre-med, I was filled with doubt. It quickly became evident that many of the other students’ level of college preparation far exceeded mine.

The professor, Dr. Kraig,* wore black horn-rimmed glasses, was extremely sarcastic and spit when he talked. What made it even more dreadful was that he made comments loud enough for others to hear as he passed back the exams. I held my head down and began to sink lower into my seat as I watched his stack of exams grow smaller. I had done poorly, and I knew it.

Having been born and reared in Compton, California, I came from a family with a rich heritage but very little formal education. I had decided in the third grade that I wanted to become a doctor. Yet now that the time had come, I was afraid I wasn’t smart enough and afraid I couldn’t measure up. I was fearful that the reality of my goal was available to everyone but me. Many of my peers’ parents were either doctors or professionals. My mother was the only college graduate in our family, and she had just graduated the year before.

I was snapped back to reality as Dr. Kraig stood looking down on me, waving his horn-rimmed glasses, smirking and spitting as he spoke. “If you think you are going to become a doctor, that is a joke! If you want to help people, you should become a farmer and grow food . . . you will never be a doctor!”

He then crumpled up my exam like a piece of trash and dropped it on my lap. I blinked back the tears as I opened it up and read scrawled across the top—36 percent. Oh no! I knew I had done poorly—but this! I wished I could evaporate and disappear into thin air. I was humiliated.

I held my head down during the remainder of the lecture, unable to listen or take notes. Every negative thought, every self-doubt that I’d ever had reared its ugly head. Maybe Dr. Kraig was right; maybe I should just give up and change my major and—but no.

While I did not have role models with higher degrees of formal education, I had a family who had taught me the value of integrity, perseverance and tenacity in the most difficult of situations.

Though my father had little formal education, he was the smartest man I ever knew; he had a keen sense of wisdom and business foresight. He would always smile and say he had a Ph.D. from the school of hard knocks. Though he ran a junkyard and used-car lot, he wore a suit and tie to work every day of his life.

Sitting in that university amphitheater, I began to envision my father dressed in his suit, standing in the pouring rain with his feet sinking in the dirt and grease, attempting to get those old junk cars started. I began to hear my mother’s typewriter clatter at 6:00 a.m. as I awakened for high school. She had been up all night finishing a paper toward the completion of her college degree. She would then head to work at my father’s junkyard where she was the secretary. I began to hear my father saying, “Do not be shaken by what others say or think of you. Cover the ground you are standing on, and who you are and what you are will show up anyway.”

I felt my life flow return as I unconsciously clenched my fist and dug my heels into the floor. I had always been taught by word and example that God is in control and that all things are possible through God’s power.

I sat straighter in my seat, wiped away any remaining tears, gathered my books and waited for the amphitheater to clear. I quietly made my way to Dr. Kraig’s office and stood outside his door praying for strength and courage.

I tapped on his door, walked in and began to speak from my heart: “Whether I become a doctor or not is immaterial. Your comments were demeaning, disrespectful and hurtful. Furthermore, one day I will come back and place my M.D. degree on your desk!”

With that, I turned around and marched out of his office.

I went on to graduate with honors with a degree in biology and was accepted into five different medical schools. I also had the privilege of being elected class president and giving the baccalaureate address during my senior class graduation.

I wish I could report that life was easy from that point, devoid of drama and trauma. The truth is that the journey through medical school and residency tested my core sense of self and survival at every level. At different times, I had to fight back the demons of doubt and negative voices that prompted feelings of inadequacy.

It has been through God’s grace that I was able to complete a residency and a fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry. I am board certified in two different areas of psychiatry. In my specialty, there are no more exams to be taken. I can say from personal experience that out of adversity come many blessings.

Fifteen years ago I received an alumni newsletter that reported Dr. Kraig had died of cancer. Pity—he died before I could share the valuable life lessons about the merit and value of belief and determination that began in his chemistry class.

“A farmer”? Perhaps. Today, I plant seeds of hope and courage in lives lost in barren fields, shrouded in darkness. By warmth and nurturing, I help these dormant seeds blossom and grow into hope-filled lives. Dr. Kraig, you will never know the impact your words had upon my life, but others have reaped the results. It takes rain as well as sun and good seed that is resistant against drought and disease, for prolific growth. Perhaps God sent you my way to propagate seed resistant to doubt and discouragement, to quicken dormant desires to help others. I am proud to fertilize and farm these fields.

Jenée Walker

*Name has been changed

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