A few years ago, while awaiting the arrival of family at National Airport, I heard my name being called by a well-dressed African-American stranger. “Don’t you remember me?’ he asked “You encouraged me to take your physics course and promised me that if I worked hard I would succeed,” he said, identifying himself. I was thrilled to see one of my former students and offered to walk him to the departure gates. He hesitated, and almost embarrassedly admitted that he was flying via corporate jet. As we finished our short sojourn down memory lane and began our goodbyes, our voices broke. I stood transfixed as I watched him stride away confidently. He had been a troubled kid who had walked into my office blaming racism for his ills. I had bought him lunch and convinced him, if he took my class, a requirement for graduation, and worked hard he would earn his just rewards. Forgive me, for saying I felt he was my own son in so many ways. I felt my wife’s hand find mine and we shared that unspoken pride.
I intervened in this young man’s life because I believe what my all time hero Elie Wiesel once said “…indifference can be tempting — more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person’s pain and despair. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbor are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the Other to an abstraction.”
To me, this young man embodied the promise of America. As I wrote sometime back, “The promise of America is not in lowering the standards to give the appearance of everyone succeeding. Instead, I believe, it is in giving everyone the opportunity and resources to succeed at the highest standards possible. The promise is not of sidewalks paved with gold. Rather, it is of hard work and perseverance having its just rewards.
No, I don’t seek to minimize the prejudices, the racism, the stereotypes, or the competition that permeates our society like it does any other. Instead, the promise of America is in leveraging the different thinking and visions that are necessarily part and parcel of this colorful mosaic people we call our nation.”
The story of Alfredo Quiñones, MD, and Ben Carson, MD, both neurosurgeons, exemplify the American Dream and the value of hard work and perseverance. However, in pursuit of that dream neither you nor I must fall victim to the peril of indifference. Yes, letting the different voices sing, the many colors shine, and the exotic aromas waft towards the heavens is also part of the American Dream.