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On Doctors and Teachers

Detail: "Doctor's Visit." Jan Steen

For most of my life, the doctors I knew where my doctors. Immediately this strikes me as an outrageous lie, or oversight, because my father was a medical doctor and so was my mother’s father. But they were psychoanalysts and the doctors I speak of are not shrinks. The doctors I knew in my previous life were my doctors — I had a pediatrician and later I had a regular doctor, and in between I had the health service at the college I attended.

Sometimes I had to go to the emergency room. Sometimes these emergency-room visits inspired in me a kind of love for the doctors who treated me.

I saw one of them walking across Central Park a few months ago. From amidst the strolling evening figures walking past the Delacort Theater was a figure from a decade or more prior. At first an unplaceable yet familiar face who I insisted on stopping. Then it came to me, “Yes! Yes! The guy who fixed my broken nose! Are you a doctor?”

He was wary. But he stopped to talk, a figure with his suit jacket over his shoulder in the summer evening, and then later gave me his card. That doctor had a fantastic nose by the way, a Solotaroff nose — i.e. one that looked like it had been mashed in a elementary school fistfight and then the face grew around it to accommodate the new shape, a face with character. Amesian. But I digress.

This world of doctors who are doctors was from my old life. The main features of the old life, seen from my current perspective, were that it took place in New York and that childhood was something to be recalled. (also I had time to think and play basketball.) The new, current life takes place largely in New Orleans, in a world in which childhood is not a memory or even a time life  but a condition — it must be managed, coped with, appreciated, enjoyed, photographed, occasionally eulogized in its passing seconds, and always bowed to as an unremitting fact.

Also, in New Orleans, I know a lot of doctors. It’s a quirk of the city. “You can make a lot of money as a doctor in New Orleans,” a doctor acquaintance remarked to me recently. By this I think he meant that you can make doctor money and in New Orleans those dollars go much further than in other places.

I might know a few New York doctors, too, if my child was enrolled in school up there. But come to think of it she was enrolled in school up there for a whole semester last fall, while I was on leave, and I don’t recall going to birthday parties at the homes of doctors, whereas here in New Orleans I am in the company of doctors often. They are, as the saying goes, some of my closest friends.

I also know some teachers in New Orleans, and these people I know primarily as teachers. By this I mean I know the teachers of my children, especially of my now kindergarten-age daughter. They have done an amazingly good job. But they don’t get paid much.

This has led me to think about the way we regard both teachers and doctors. They have something fundamental in common. It is this: in certain instances we come to them on our knees. We are supplicants and they are gods. They can save our lives. Or the lives of our children, which amounts to the same thing.

But doctors are in charge of pain and death, and teachers are in charge of growth and life. It would be nice if doctoring was a more proactive affair in America, if the financial incentives were ore geared towards preventing the ailment rather than curing it. Which, in a way is the work that teachers do.

We pay more — in cash, in esteem — to alleviate the pain we know than we do for being introduced to the worlds of pleasure and possibility that we — and our children — can only start to imagine.

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