My parents' lifelong dream was for me to become a doctor. From the time I was a little girl, it was simply assumed that I would pursue a career in medicine. There was never any question or discussion. In my parents' minds, if you can become a doctor, then you become one; and if you don't become a doctor, then it's because you weren't smart enough. And it was simply not possible that their daughter, whose mother is a pediatric dentist and whose father has a PhD in computer science, wasn't smart enough.
Being a dutiful daughter, I tried my very best to fulfill my parents' expectations, even though I had zero interest in medicine. In college, I took all the pre-med requirements but majored in international relations, which was my true interest. Every week, between reading essays on realism vs. liberalism and researching political crises, I trudged to labs and performed scientific experiments that I didn't quite understand. I even spent an entire summer killing lab rats so that I could list the all-important summer laboratory research on my medical school applications. The following summer, I took a year's worth of organic chemistry in just seven weeks. Taking a summer course was the only way I could fulfill all the pre-med requirements and still study abroad, and I wasn't about to pass up my chance to spend a semester in Paris.
There were more than 300 pre-med students in each class at Brown University. We were acutely aware that only two-thirds of us would get into medical school, and the competition was fierce. Aside from the rigorous academic and extracurricular requirements, we were competing for the attention of one man - Brown's pre-med dean, Bart Ripley. Each one of us had to get a letter of recommendation from Dean Ripley, a letter of great importance to medical school admissions committees.
Dean Ripley - or Dean Reptile, as I called him - was a cantankerous, bitter man who seemed to enjoy watching us suffer. "Students think I like to make them cry," he would say, "but I don't. It just seems to happen so often."
Dean Reptile knew the power he wielded, and he relished the anxiety that his presence created in us. Otherwise intelligent, confident students turned terrified and tongue-tied in his presence. These Brown students, who were taught to question everyone and everything, clammed up when he was near and didn't dare challenge a single word he uttered.
Because of our sheer number, Dean Reptile had no idea who most of us were. Yet he had to write a letter of recommendation for each and every one of us. In the semester before medical school applications were due, he held a pre-med assembly where he told us that he had to interview us individually so that he could find something to write about us in the letter. "I want you to bring two things to the interview," he told us. "A list of ten adjectives that describe you, and if you weren't human, what animal you would be." The latter sent snickers through the assembled group of students, with many mumbling "he's got to be kidding" under their breath.
Judging from my friends and dorm-mates, most students spent hours compiling and revising their list of adjectives, attempting to pinpoint what made a good doctor and what they thought Dean Reptile wanted to hear. They were nervous wrecks the day before their interview, ironing and re-ironing their only suit and practicing answers to questions they thought he might ask.
The morning of my interview, I came up with a list of ten respectable adjectives that seemed good enough. The animal part was easy. I was nervous but clear about my goal, which wasn't to impress Dean Reptile so much as to not cry in his presence.
To my surprise, Dean Reptile wasn't nearly as intimidating in a one-on-one setting as he was in a group. He barely even looked up when I entered his office. He had these interviews scheduled back-to-back for weeks on end, until he got through all 300 of us, and he seemed bored by the exercise. He asked me the expected questions about my relevant extracurricular activities and why I wanted to become a doctor. Though he was taking notes as I spoke, I could tell he wasn't paying much attention to my answers. Next we went over my list of ten adjectives, which he jotted down quickly. Then he asked, without ever looking up from his notes, "If you weren't human, what animal would you be?"
"A pigeon," I replied.
Dean Reptile's head shot up, he stared at me intently for a moment, then he burst out laughing. Taken aback, I asked what was wrong. "Well, first you tell me why you want to be a pigeon," he said. "Then I'll tell you what made me laugh."
I gave him my reasons for wanting to be a pigeon: they live in big cities; they're the only animals that don't run immediately out of the way when cars or people approach them; they can fly right up to statues, monuments, and buildings and admire their detail and architecture up close; and I liked the way they moved as they walked, poking their heads back and forth with each step. Out of a sense of propriety, I left out my favorite reason - that they get to crap on everyone's head.
Dean Reptile scribbled furiously, taking down every word. I waited expectantly, wanting to know the reason for his odd outburst. He finally finished writing and looked up at me. "Well?" my expression asked.
He explained, "When most students come in here, they've taken great care in choosing their ten adjectives. When I ask them what animal they would want to be, they hesitate or groan, saying they don't know or it doesn't matter to them. I then push them for an answer, and most people say they want to be a bird. 'What kind of bird?' I ask them. 'Oh, any kind,' they say. 'It doesn't matter.' 'No, it does matter,' I say to them. 'Would you want to be a pigeon?' When I ask them that, they say 'no, no!' and suddenly they're able to come up with a kind of bird. They usually say eagle.
"Now you come in here, and when I ask you what kind of animal you want to be, you say that you want to be a pigeon. And you gave very good reasons for wanting to be a pigeon."
I knew at that moment that my medical career was doomed. I was ecstatic.
Bio Tissa Hami is a stand-up comic. She has been featured in the Washington Post, Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, BBC World News, Dateline Australia, PBS, NPR, and ABC. She has never regretted not going to medical school. Visit Tissa's website at www.tissahami.com.
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