"You're a doctor?” The prisoner’s smile was large and his laughter was deep. “You ain’t no doctor!” He had met doctors before and in his judgment my personality and demeanor were totally inconsistent with the medical profession. He didn't know me well as our interactions were limited to softball games twice a month. I was part of a church team that had been playing games against the prison team for several years so we didn't see each other often.
Our teams were polar opposites. The prison players were large and muscular men, most of whom were of Hispanic or Black descent, almost all of who were significantly tattooed. We were on the pale, scrawny and inkless end of the athletic spectrum. We had very little in common in our daily lives but found common ground on the softball field.
I was the youngest player on the team. When we first started going to the prison I was just 22 years-old. I was not comfortable back then with starting deep conversations with older men I hardly knew so I related to the prison players the only way I could. Like any self-respecting athlete, I starting talking trash. I soon realized I had unwittingly opened a door to better conversation. My joking insults showed that I viewed them as people, not as targets for conversion. Laughter became a bridge.
For the following 7 years of play I continued to joke and have fun with the inmates. I didn’t talk much about myself so they were not aware that I was attending medical school. The last game I played was the Saturday after I graduated, just before I moved away to start my residency training. Realizing I would never see these men again I intentionally said my good-byes to the prison players between innings. Many shared the one inmate's assessment, I was not like any doctor they had known. To them I was too young and too much of a jokester.
Looking back I see the inmates' amazement as a compliment. The response was not due to a perceived lack of intelligence or ability, it was because they knew me to be genuine, fun-loving and approachable. As I consider it, I think their perception is something to strive for. It was and is a good thing to be viewed by others first for who we are and how we treat others, not by our education and profession. A valuable lesson I learned in prison!
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