Why I will never be called 'doctor'
I take a lot of red-eye flights: leaving in the late evening hours of California and flying back to the eye-cracked openings of Midwest mornings. I’d like to think I have some decent reasons for taking such flights: a chronic procrastinator, they’re often the only flights remaining when I book; a perfectionist employee, I like to work as long as possible; and as a sometimes long-distance husband, I like to spend as much time as possible with my wife.
But mostly I’m just cheap, which means when I take these flights I’m typically muttering under my breath some variation of, "Why did I book this red-eye? I hate red-eyes. This is the last time I’m taking a red-eye." Etc.
I was on such a red-eye a few nights ago when I traveled back to town to take part in commencement, where I’ll be unofficially receiving my PhD in English and education. After my recent oral defense, several people referred to me as Dr. Gerben, which felt good — I’ll admit — but which also felt hollow in some way I can’t quite articulate.
Over my decade-plus of teaching at the college level I’ve worked with a lot of great people, many of whom eschew the prefixed title altogether. But I’ve also worked with other great people who — for reasons perhaps only known to them — have asked both students and colleagues alike to refer to them as Dr. Soandso. It always bugged me. Mainly because I wasn’t one myself, so for very selfish reasons I grew to resent it.
Until now, though, when I officially — I suppose — can join that honorary club.
Except that after this most recent red-eye, I’ve decided to rescind my application for membership, even after I fought so hard for entry.
Triage at 30,000 feet
It wasn’t a bad flight to start: I somehow get sleepy enough on the tarmac to enter into at least an hour of slightly fitful vertical rest aided by five degrees of chair recline and a window seat. I was in the middle of the plane, right over the wing, and I barely paid any attention to my fellow passengers on the seemingly sold-out flight.
And then sometime around 2 a.m. or so, a panicked voice came over the speakers of the din-fueled silence at 30,000 feet. Whether I was half-asleep or half-awake, I was jolted by the woman asking us all: “Is there a doctor onboard? We have a passenger who isn’t responding to repeated attempts to wake her up.”
I was shocked by the urgency. I was shocked by the amount of disclosure. But mostly — I have to shamefully, shamefully admit — I was annoyed that I was awake, and that within seconds of the announcements, all of the plane lights went on around me. Sleep, or any hope of it, was over.
“Shoot,” (though she said the real word) a woman sitting directly behind me declared.
As she used my headrest as a hand-rail (a personal pet peeve of mine) I could hear and feel her confidently get up and make her way to the back of the plane to attend to this stranger in need. There was no hesitation.
In those hurried seconds, I admired the way in which she swore: not directed at anyone or anything. A simple, plaintive utterance as a form of admitting aloud, perhaps to herself, that it was time to go to work.
The woman — I barely saw her face — and several others rushed to the back of the plane. For at least the next 15 minutes (an incredibly long time it seems) they worked on the non-responding passenger. I could hear what sounded like chest compressions. There were hushed voices and calm yet direct orders for water, space, and whatever medical supplies they had onboard.
Those around me rubbernecked to get clues of action. I immediately concluded that she had died.
As I thought this, I sat facing forward, slowly giving up on sleep and quickly realizing what an awful person I was for feeling so selfish when that first call came over the intercom.
After all, no one’s ever needed my services in a situation anywhere close to that. No one’s ever needed an emergency 15-minute lecture or a quick exegesis on some dusty tome.
I don’t mean to be trivial — because teaching is an honorable and unfortunately dishonored vocation these days. As budgets become politicized, schools are generalized as “failing” or charter, and teachers fight for the basic dignity to teach curricula that they design and believe in, teaching is a profession and a calling that deserves more respect, not less. Ours is a different life than those of doctors, or EMTs, but that’s as it is, as it should be.
As I was thinking about this, my more pressing thoughts became about the people at the airport waiting for us. The people, more appropriately, waiting for her. Would someone phone ahead? Would they simply be waiting at the curb for someone who never came? Was this a grandmother who would never see her granddaughter, a mom leaving behind her son?
I wondered about the passengers next to her, or next to her body, and how they felt. Did they feel helpless, scared, disgusted in some way they would never admit to?
And that’s when it hit me: I’m not a Dr. I will never be Dr. Gerben.
The real doctors
I’m proud of my education, my experience, my mom who taught me how to be a teacher, my students who succeed sometimes despite me. But that’s why I will feel honored to continue to be called teacher, instructor, lecturer and (if I’m lucky and education survives the ongoing war against it) professor. As I walk across stage this weekend, it will feel good to be called Dr. Gerben, but it will also be the last time.
At some point the passengers stopped rubber-necking. The woman came back behind me, whispering “Sorry” to the passengers in her row. After a while the lights went down. There was no discussion of “a body” or authorities beyond those already on the plane.
A few hours later we landed, and I caught stray conversations about a diabetic and low blood pressure. I saw the flashing lights of an ambulance slowly making its way to the plane just to follow-up. Crisis, it seems, had been averted. No one had died, no bodies would be carted out.
As I slowly got up, bemoaning in my head how I’d have to struggle through the day after two hours of sleep, and once again repeating the refrain about how much I hate red-eyes, and hated myself for booking red-eyes, the woman behind me moved toward the aisle.
Though I had no bags to get down myself, I watched as she snatched hers from the overhead bin. The rows ahead filed out, and though I was next in line I thought better of it; I stayed in my aisle, turned to the back of the plane and the passenger behind me, and with a sweep of my hand offered the only payment and honor that seemed suitable:
“Doctor,” I said.
Chris Gerben is graduating from the Joint Program in English and Education this weekend. Over the past 10+ years he's taught writing, technology, and education courses. He can be reached on Twitter. He realizes that everyone has a right to be called whatever they want, so has no problem with other people calling themselves Dr. Soandso. It's just not for him.