Changing the Script

Posted: September 14, 2015 in Culture, Education, Medical School, Research
Tags: , , , , , ,

Photo Credit: AskmePC web design

“I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s ideas. The library was open, unending free.” Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me. I read these provocative words today while on a literary get-away to Barnes and Noble. I don’t know that I agree with Coates’ characterization of classroom as a “jail” as I actually find listening to other people’s ideas stimulating, but his challenge to chart one’s own path in seeking truth and knowledge, the “library path”, is important.

In Between the World and Me, Coates describes the vibrant yet turbulent tale of the African American experience in America. His whole book is written as  a letter to his teenage son with his best thoughts on how to live with dignity as a black man in an imperfect America. With my own son having just turned 13, I was interested to hear his thoughts. One question I wonder about is how to prepare my son for a environment in which race is still a controversial issue without making race color everything he sees.

It’s an unfamiliar challenge for many of us Generation X immigrants from Kenya, because we did not grow up with race being such a throbbing undercurrent to daily life. I am, in fact, biracial and grew up thinking it was quite natural to have a Scottish mother and a Kenyan father. It meant chapati and Scottish soup all in the same week and a common national fanaticism for football/soccer. What was not to love? I also grew up with a black (Kenyan) President, learning black (Kenyan) history.

I will pause here to say that in Kenya, we also had to learn the history of EVERYWHERE else as part of our highly ambitious 8-4-4 educational system at the time. When I say history of everywhere, I mean it. Basically if something had happened in the past, anywhere, whether that be in Northern Mongolia or Nebraska, we had to know it. But I’m not bitter . . .

What struck me about Coates’ words is how much change, of any kind, depends on our willingness to challenge the various scripts in our lives. I once tried to change the tired script and perception of Africa for my students as a vast “country” full of war, famine and poverty, but delightful animals . . . I decided to walk all around downtown Nairobi with my sister taking pictures of less familiar images, skyscrapers, fancy restaurants, malls. My mission was dramatically cut short when a few of our law enforcement officials detained me, quite concerned that I was taking pictures of multiple buildings, a suspicious act even at that time in a world of terror attacks. I was released once the confusion was cleared up, but it stuck with me that changing a narrative is not easy. It demands persistence, stubbornness, courage.


I started a new phase in my medical journey this week as I began my Masters in Clinical Research, a 2 year leave, before returning to complete and graduate from medical school in 2017. My research will mainly be in Neurosurgery, exploring the following topics:

1. The effectiveness of electrical stimulation in treating nerve injury.

2. A rare complication of brain aneurysm rupture treatment, known as PRES.

3. Patient costs of Pediatric Neurosurgical care in Kijabe, Kenya

I will also be working with Pediatric faculty on data visualization and bioethics projects. The bioethics project will involve analyzing the differing experiences of minority and majority pediatric patients in our University Hospital when facing difficult medical decisions.

Research, either personal or professional, is unique way to change the script; you can use hard earned data to challenge nonsense. I look forward to that challenge.

For today though, I am glad I could walk into a  room full of books, choose the knowledge I would seek, and create a script on the spot. Whether the original script is a skewed conception of Africa, a narrow view of each other by race, or medical treatments with flimsy support, some scripts were made to be changed . . .

  1. Malaika says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this JB! It was like a walk down memory lane…8-4-4. Ha! I don’t think I’ve ever faced such intense schooling in my life! And yes, I remember that picture taking session in town very well! Thanks for the poignant post as usual! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Kurlz! Yes, KCSE was in a league of its own . . .


  3. Poetic Liberty says:

    8 minus 4 minus 4 …. I’m also not bitter

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Kenel says:

    Jonathan, what a wonderful read! Eloquence, it seems, always invite a discourse. As a Haitian, I find myself relating to this post on many fronts. While my country has a lot of work to do, there’s more to its uniqueness than the dilapidated infrastructures portrayed in the media. Concerning our internal strife, if I was harboring a certain angst and frustration, all the while relegating the so-called “first slave country to gain its independence” as a lost cause, through your post I reckon that “changing the script”, the thinking so to speak, can be a very slow process.

    Indeed, the Haitians’ resolve and pride given calamities (e.g. earthquake, hunger, greed, and racism) continue to surprise even myself—but what other choices are there? The tumultuous 200-year history (and by extension, many African nations) suggests a paradigm shift in modus operandi is paramount. If we are to bask in the aforementioned moniker it is imperative that meaningful incentives be apportioned as a quid pro quo for forward thinking. However, your post illustrated that there’s still room to be appreciative of what we have. I grew up in a biracial home (stepdad, non-practicing Jewish-American) and my childhood memories (e.g. school, our mannerisms, soccer, rain) of the country (my city and the outskirts I was fortunate to visit) tend to send the adrenaline pulsating and careening throughout my arteries and veins. One simply can’t forget where he/she is from.

    To change the status quo (an oft unpopular view, perhaps by the elite of any country), it is sometimes necessary to accept the nonsense (I dare say) that is so pervasive. With a morale in disrepute, the prognosis of any country cannot be good (i.e. consider Greece, a once proud nation; the prolific library in Alexandria, the mathematics of the Pythagoreans, Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophies, and astronomy). Rewriting the script requires zest; it requires more than fresh ideas and enthusiasm. Apparently, cultivating relationships, given people’s propensity to be in a state of entropy, is quite possibly the greatest determining factor to making progress.

    Only then, will a clean bill of health be prima facie evidence of maturity, which comes with growth.

    (On neurosurgery)

    Interestingly, I haven’t seriously contemplated a career as a physician even as I’m a big fan of neurosurgeons Sanjay Gupta (alas, Monday Mornings was discontinued), Ben Carson (his personal story only) and Alfredo Hinojosa (exemplifies the US as the beacon of hope)—the first two from Ann Arbor, Michigan!

    I’ll end by saying my dad and I share the same awe about the wonders of the brain—one where technological imitations often fall short. I wish you continued success!

    Thanks again for an engaging read.

    (The first reply likely stretched too long; I may slightly alter it to address a wider core)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Kenel, thank you for your generous words and thoughtful response! One of the reasons I enjoy blogging is getting to hear unique perspectives from around the world of which your reply is a perfect example. Your connections to the Haitian experience gave me much food for thought. I once directed a play called “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf” in which Toussaint L’Ouverture was prominently referenced and he certainly challenged the script. I’m also glad to hear that you and your dad share my fascination with the brain, the only organ that can study itself! Great to hear from you Kenel . . .

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Kenel says:


    Jonathan, it’s been a few days since I discovered your blog and let me just say that given your professional background, “ActingDoctor” for your blog is so fitting! There’s enough interesting content here that merit a reply each. A bit of restraint is necessary, however.

    The play you directed sounds like it brought out the very best from you, creatively speaking. In addition, I’m impressed you’ve read of Toussaint Louverture—the man was instrumental in Haiti’s independence! I imagine a lot of fun, too, resulted from the project. I thank you for the enlightenment.

    At this moment, the neurotransmitters responsible for alertness are threatening to stay in the synapse a little longer. However, the tired and befuddled neurons declined the offer—the chapter on general relativity being the culprit.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Again, you are very generous Kenel. Yes, directing that play was transformative. I had the privilege of working with 5 talented actresses who brought Ntozake Shange’s words to vivid life. By the way, I appreciated the “neurocreativity” of your sign off!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Kenel says:

    Very interesting experience there directing such a recognized play! Concerning the neurocreativity, I guess it was on… ‘script’. Jokes aside, the intent was out of a genuine appreciation for the physiology that makes us who we are. Glad you caught that. 🙂

    Enjoy what’s left of today and have a great week!


  8. I would definitely want research to change my script too. But it’s kind of early now to make a concrete decision. I wish the medical education in the Philippines were like the US and that I can have research too, but it’s just different. Just different, we are trained differently, and I guess based on what the country badly needs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I appreciate your comment and recognize the challenges you must face with changing your script in the context of the Phillipines. But you seem like a thoughtful and motivated person, so even if your script looks different than mine, I’m sure you will find a way to make a meaningful change . ..

      Liked by 1 person

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