Monday, November 25, 2013

Step Giant

In my family, there are no evil stepmothers or stepfathers—there’s just the people that made and make my Mom and Dad happy. While the Walt Disney Company could be criticized on many fronts, perhaps the greatest injustice they’ve done is to perpetuate the cliché of the evil stepmother. After all, mine’s not so bad—in fact, I think of her warmly every time I pass by the books-for-sale table outside of the HGSE library and see that copy of Cane River. But while Lita has made several cameos on this blog, this post will be the first time that I’ve written about my stepfather, Dr. Mitchell Wright Spellman.

Almost thirteen years ago in late February, I got a letter in the mail. It was a card from my mother, informing me that she had eloped on Valentine’s Day at the age of 56, and gotten married to Mitchell. If I remember correctly, I think a laughed out loud a little bit, my thoughts being something along the lines of “You go girl!” At that point, I didn’t know Mitchell very well, but I knew enough to know that he was the truth, and that they would make each other very happy.

Sadly, their time together was cut short. My mother passed away from cancer later that year, at home, with Mitchell by her side. Our families mourned together, but it was too easy for us too lose touch with each other, and unfortunately, that is exactly what happened. 

Last month, as I sat down for lunch with my Aunt Jean, we somehow ended up talking about my mom and the Spellman family. I was embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t talked to Mitchell or any of his six living children (my stepbrothers and stepsisters) in over ten years. If you know me, then you know I make it a point to stay in touch. In fact, there’s a good chance that if you’re reading this then we’ve been in some kind of contact somewhat recently. The fact that I’d lost touch with an entire family bothered me enough  to decide that I was going to fix that. I wish I hadn’t let a few more weeks pass by.

Last week I got an email from Aunt Jean informing me that Mitchell had passed away after a leading a long and amazing life. I bought my roundtrip bus ticket and headed down to Washington D.C. for the memorial last weekend. It was an unfortunate, but long overdue reconnection for our families.

A few months ago I wrote about the passing of Jon, who was my friend’s stepfather and a friend to me. My young friend, like many others, didn’t feel like the term “stepfather” did justice to the man, or to their relationship. Instead, he decided to called Jon his “Faux Pa.” As I sat in the chapel, I was blown away by the life of a uniquely accomplished man, and I realized what Mitchell really was to me... he was my Step Giant. I want to share a portion of the obituary from the service so that you can appreciate what I meant when I said “a long and amazing life.”


Mitchell Wright Spellman, MD, PhD, at the age of 93, died peacefully at home with his loving wife, Olivia, on November 11, 2013. He battled for several years with a rare neurodegenerative disease. He was a pioneer among African-Americans in Academic Medicine and a loving family man.

Mitchell Wright Spellman was born on December 1, 1919 to Frank J. Spellman, MD and Altonette B. Spellman in Alexandria, LA. His parents, unhappy with segregated local schools, sent him at the age of 12 to the Gilbert Academy in New Orleans where he graduated valedictorian in 1936. He graduated Magna Cum Laude and valedictorian from Dillard University in New Orleans in 1940. He was a Charter Member of the Beta Phi Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., founded at Dillard University in 1938. He graduated from Howard University College of Medicine (AOA) in 1944 and was ranked 2nd in his class. Influenced by hi mentor, Charles R. Drew, MD, he then began 11 years of post-medical school surgical training at Cleveland General Hospital, Freedman’s Hospital and finished at the University of Minnesota where he served from 1951-1954 as Commonwealth Fund Fellow in Surgery and Resident in Thoracic Surgery. He received his PhD in Surgery from the University of Minnesota in 1955.

From 1954-1968, in Washington, DC, he was a member of the surgical faculty at Howard University College of Medicine, ultimately becoming Professor of Surgery and Chief Medical Officer, Howard University Division of Surgery at DC General Hospital. From 1969-78, in Los Angeles, CA, he served as Founding Dean, Executive Dean and Professor of Surgery at Charles R. Drew Postgraduate Medical School, Assistant Dean and Professor of Surgery at UCLA School of Medicine, and Clinical Professor of Surgery at USC School of Medicine. From 1978-2004, he worked at Harvard Medical School, in Boston, MA. From 1978-1990 his titles were Dean for Medical Services Programs, and Executive Vice President of the Harvard Medical Center. In 1990, he retired the Medical Services portfolio, but continued as Dean emeritus and Harvard Medical School International’s ambassador through 2004. He traveled extensively in this capacity around the world, including trips to China, Europe, South Korea, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.

He was awarded Honorary Doctor of Sciences degrees from Georgetown University and the University of Florida, and a Doctor of Laws degree from Dillard University. From 1975-1976, he was the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation Fellow at The Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, CA. He was the recipient of numerous academic awards throughout his career.

He was active on many Boards and Committees during his long career including: Member, Board of Trustees Occidental College, Los Angeles, CA; Member, Board of Directors of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan Inc., and Kaiser Foundation Hospitals; Chairman, Program Committee, Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences; Member, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Corporation; Member, Board of Directors, Medical Education for South African Blacks, Inc., New Brunswick, NJ; and Member Board of Directors, Georgetown University.

He was an avid fan of football, basketball and baseball. He particularly enjoyed the Boston Red Sox, New England Patriots, Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Dodgers. He frequently attended sporting events at UCLA and Harvard University.**


Yeah, it was a lot for me to take in also.  Then a family member read a personal letter of condolences from President Obama. As we walked out the chapel, I turned to my cousin and said something along the lines of, “Well, Scott, we’ve got a whole lot of work to do.” We both plan to do big things, but it is humbling and awesome to know that we could live a few lifetimes and never grow as tall as Mitchell. Rest in peace, Step Giant.

Pura Vida,


* Of all the impressive landmarks in Mitchell's career, one stood out the most to me. Towards the end of the service, a South African doctor expressed his gratitude to Mitchell for his role in launching Medical Education for South African Blacks during the Apartheid era, leading to over 11,000 trained Black medical professionals in that country.

** For privacy reasons, I left out the section of the obituary that lists the members of the Spellman family. But, these are precisely the folks that I'm looking forward to staying reconnected with. My thoughts and prayers are with them all.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Personal Growth

Graduate school is a time for personal growth... intellectual growth... professional growth... and yes, facial hair growth! This month, I’m doing my best to get the HGSE campus into the spirit of Movember. Every year, folks around the world grow out their mustaches in an effort to raise awareness—and money—in support of men’s health issues, particularly cancer. We call it “changing the face of men’s health.”
Just to clarify, this is not exactly the same thing as Brovember, or No Shave November, or No Shame November, while I do support all of those movements. In fact, during a recent visit by Rory*, we discussed the possibility of organizing another festival of M.E.A.T.** But I digress...
I am the captain of our HGSE Movember team, and we’re looking to make our mark on the global fundraising scene! At the time of writing this post, our team is ranked #9343 in the world. But that’s beautiful! Just think, there are least 9343 teams geared up to raise money for this great cause. Besides, we're just getting warmed up.

Part of making this campaign a success is working the infrastructure. Thankfully, I've already developed a strong bond with my local barber shop—a must when relocating to any new neighborhood. The team at Brighton Barber Co. can hook a fade up, and since my barber is Puerto Rican, you know he can handle the crazy wavy curly not quite good hair that I'm throwing at him. They are very supportive, even though I'm not planning on cutting my hair anytime soon—it's just way too cold to be cute, and according to the locals, it hasn't even gotten cold yet. Do they actually believe the things that come out of their mouths? So, my hair is longer than it's ever been since I shaved off my afro ceremoniously to celebrate graduating from San Francisco State. Maybe I'll keep it growing until I have earned the right to have you call me Master (don't worry, I won't be holding my breath for that one).

In the meantime, I'm more focused on this mustache, which I unfortunately just cannot seem to find of picture of right now. Sorry (cough, cough). Who cares if its creepy or ugly or both... it's for a great cause. If you want to support what I'm doing, you can click here or on the link below to make a large of small donation to sponsor my stache growing efforts. The money goes towards supporting organizations like the LIVESTRONG Foundation and the Prostate Cancer Foundation. There movement has even expanded to tackle men's mental health issues, which lord knows we have plenty of. 
So, I hope you consider donating, or even growing your own as a show of solidarity. Trust me, I know it's not sexy. That's kinda the point.
Pura Vida,



* Rory = my roommate while serving in the Peace Corps in Mindelo, São Vicente, Cape Verde.
** Men Eating Animals Together, a feast held on the 30th of November to mark the end of Brovember.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Little Victories

In a year that could easily be reduced to one goal—reaching the finish line—I’ve tried to keep track of the little victories along the way.  So, while I’m definitely looking forward to becoming a “master” next May, I’ve been savoring a lot of the steps along the way.

Sometimes its is hard to break graduate school down into a step-by-step process. This is partly because I really don’t have a lot of different graded assignments, so it can be difficult to know how I'm actually doing. In fact, I may even get through this entire program without taking a single exam. I do have a heavy load of reading every week, but my final grade in most cases comes down to three or four papers. I would love to believe that my professors at HGSE have reached some higher level of enlightenment, realizing that constant evaluation is not the key to successful learning. More likely, they have more important and desirable things to be doing than grading a bunch of quizzes every week.

So, it's up to me to remind myself that I am, in fact, making progress everyday, without having to rely on constant feedback in the form of grades. A couple of weeks ago in my Developmental Psychology class I felt one of these baby steps being taken. In a class like this, I sometimes feel a (ridiculous) pressure to produce some new scrap of knowledge that hasn’t already been stumbled upon in the thousands of studies done by more experienced professionals. Otherwise, what’s my contribution to academia? Am I just a glorified undergraduate student? Our professor and teaching fellows were describing an experiment that they conducted, the results of which left them scratching their heads. We were all having a having a hard time explaining some inconsistencies between young children’s ability to identify another person's false belief and their inability to predict how that person will actually feel based on that false belief. After scratching my head a bit too, I made a suggestion for how the study design could be tweaked to answer the question— something along lines of, “Did you try doing X?” The teaching fellows looked at each other, then looked at the professor, then scratched their heads a bit more. Hearing them say “You know, we didn’t think of that!” was like music to my ears. Just to be clear, I wasn’t basking in the ignorance of others—quite the opposite. The teaching team actually seemed pretty excited, like they finally had a fresh lead in a hard-to-crack case. For me, it was reassuring to know that I could take what I’d learned in the class so far (the old knowledge), and apply it as a contribution towards producing some new knowledge. 

I don’t expect you to be as excited as I was by reading about the twice-weekly thrill that is my Psych class. Thankfully, I’ve been finding some little victories outside of the ivory tower as well. Last Thursday the Wolfpack* hit the town to celebrate Halloween. I did NOT win any costume contests—that would be a big victory, and therefore inappropriate for the theme of this post. But, I did meet the man who deserved first prize, and that was pretty sweet. Behold... PBR2D2!

We all know that my favorite kind of victory is the kind that happens on grass, and I’m glad to report a few of those too. I’m actually not the only coach in the Special Studies Program at HGSE. My small cohort also includes the Harvard University Men’s Swimming & Diving team coach, as well as Dan, who is the defensive coordinator at St. Sebastien’s High School, where he also teaches. We were treated to some local Friday night lights when the Arrows came to town to take on the undefeated Knights of Buckingham, Brown & Nichols. Just to clarify, that is a school, not a law firm. In a beautiful upset, Dan’s boys knocked off the Cambridge side, giving us yet another reason to drink beers and go dancing. Thank you Dan, thank you boys.

My Knights finished off their season in top form, with a draw against a team that many might say should have run us off the pitch. After having tied against them earlier in the season, I actually wanted the win, but when the final whistle blew, the boys of Cristo Rey were proud of themselves and I was proud of them. 

But, even sweeter than the little victory that was actually a tie, was the email that I received from a teacher at the school earlier in the week. After my post in early October, a few of you expressed concern and wanted to make sure that I was doing OK. I assure you, I was and still am, but I guess now would be a good time to explain what it was that was weighing heavily on my mind. Shortly before writing that post, I found out that several of my players were not getting it done in the classroom, and the situation was serious. I took it personally because so much of my work is built on the belief that participation in sports can have a positive impact on a student’s academic performance. So, when I saw those progress reports it was quite a rude awakening. I did my best to make a gameplan to “support” those students going forward, up to and including “inviting” them to join me at the HGSE library for an entire Saturday. Here’s a portion of the email I recently received about one our students.

"I just wanted to take a moment to express my appreciation for the work you have been doing...  Earlier this week, he turned in his second reflection paper... completing all his missing work.  More importantly to me, however, is the improvement in his attitude and the quality of his contributions in class.  I... know that he responds best to pressure and a challenge from someone who has earned his respect by demonstrating that they actually care for him.  Thank you for taking the extra time out of your schedule to provide another positive model for one of our students—they can never have enough." 

I think a lot of us would take a pay cut in exchange for receiving a few more emails like that from our colleagues. I’m looking forward to continuing to develop as a coach and teacher, and using everything I’ve learned from this season at Cristo Rey. On that note, I still have time to celebrate one more little victory in this post. I recently found out that I’ve been accepted to attend the NSCAA Premier Diploma course in January, giving me a chance to earn the highest award that the organization currently offers. Wish me luck!

* Wolfpack = the fun people people with whom I do the fun things that I do.