Monday, June 27, 2011

Ohio University Commencement Address by Dr. Atul Gawande

On June 11, 2011, I got a chance to do one of the more gratifying things an adult can be asked to do—to return to one’s hometown to give a graduation address, in this case the undergraduate commencement address for Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

A Townie Speaks

Thank you, graduates and Ohio University, for this opportunity. I am a 1983 graduate of Athens High School. Which means, yes, you invited a townie to give your graduation address. I grew up here watching you, the students, come and go. Perhaps that should make you wonder whether it was foolish to have asked a townie to speak. I’m not sure, after all, how much you want me telling your parents about what I saw as a teenager on Court Street on Halloween nights.

What I want to talk about, though, is the huge impression you, the students, and this university made upon me. My sister and I were born in New York City. Our family moved to Athens when the two of us still had our baby teeth. And among the enduring beliefs I absorbed growing up here is a core American idea: Anything is possible in people’s lives. No one should be counted out.

It might seem strange to have learned this in a small Appalachian town. Thirty-five percent of Athens County’s population lives in poverty, the worst in the state. Almost half of my classmates never made it to college. Yet everywhere around me was also evidence that ordinary people could have extraordinary strength and contain possibilities no one imagined—even themselves.

Much of the evidence was right in my home. My parents were immigrants from India and they had somehow found it in themselves to swim against the tides of rural deprivation (in the case of my father) and of restrictions and low expectations for girls (in the case of my mother) to become doctors, to find their way to New York, to meet one another there and marry against caste restrictions, and to ultimately become regarded as local leaders here. But our town and Ohio University provided the rest of the evidence.

I remember, for instance, Karl Fry, a soft-spoken kid in the neighborhood who sometimes mowed our lawn for five bucks when I was in third grade and once showed me a nest of baby copperheads he’d found. When I was in eighth grade, he went to O.U. and made the ice hockey team. By my ninth grade year, he was a starting winger, and I used to go down to Bird Arena to watch him and the team play. I’d stand up against the glass behind the opponent’s goal where I could see up close the incredible speed of the slapshots he and his teammates unleashed, and feel the force of the Bobcats checking the other players against the boards. It seemed to me I was watching a person I had known and yet never knew existed. Karl and the team won the Midwest College Hockey League championship three times. And he also somehow worked hard enough to graduate summa cum laude in computer science, going on to become a computer systems engineer and entrepreneur.

No one comes to Ohio University anointed for the future. Nothing demonstrated that more clearly than the sports. I was here during the dark years of Bobcat football. You learned not to expect much. But you also learned you could still hope for it. My senior year in high school, the O.U. basketball team thrilled us all by winning a berth in the NCAA tournament. I drove my little red Datsun twenty-two hours down to Tampa, Florida, with three friends and two cassette tapes playing over and over—Pink Floyd, “The Wall,” was on one and Def Leppard, “Pyromaniac,” on the other—and we arrived in time to watch the Bobcats pull off a stunning, down-to-the-last-minute, two-point upset of far higher-ranked Illinois State.

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