Chapter 03: An Interest in People

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Chapter 03: An Interest in People

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Dr. Benjamin begins this chapter by noting that he elected to go into medicine during college because laboratory work in chemistry made him realize that he is a "people person." He talks about his mother's influence on this part of his character. She taught him to "stand up for what he believes in." Dr. Benjamin also comments on his growing awareness of the Civil Rights Movement when he was in college and he describes an "incredibly moving" experience of attending a lecture by Martin Luther King on campus. He notes that he grew up in a largely black neighborhood in Brooklyn and is to this day color blind when he deals with people. Dr. Benjamin also explains his support of women, another influence from his mother. He sketches some of his wife, Nancy's, career, experiences with sexism, and her current with a Federal law court.

Identifier

BenjaminR_01_20141212_C03

Publication Date

12-12-2014

City

Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The Interview Subject's Story - Personal Background; Character, Values, Beliefs, Talents; Personal Background; Professional Path; Influences from People and Life Experiences; Cultural/Social Influences; Women and Diverse Populations; Experiences of Injustice, Bias

Transcript

Robert Benjamin, MD:

So, I don’t know, somewhere in the middle of college, I decided that although I liked the theoretical and the laboratory work in chemistry, that I was more of a people person and that I would do better to go into medicine than into chemistry.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

What were you seeing in yourself that made you say, “Yeah, I’m a people person”?

Robert Benjamin, MD:

No clue. No clue. But the interesting thing is, I actually—if you ask me in terms of my parents, it was mother the chemist, rather than my father the pediatrician, who probably nurtured that in me.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

How did she do that?

Robert Benjamin, MD:

She was just the sweetest person in the entire world. She was just, I don’t know, somehow a person who loved others and who always tried to help. I’m sure my father was that way, too, but it wasn’t so outwardly apparent. My father was sort of considered the person who knew everything, but my mother was the person who could deal very effectively with other people. So I probably got some of my political incorrectness from my father, although could have been from my mother too.I forgot to mention, I told you about her older sister who graduated from P&S. So that same older sister was active in the protest movement for women’s suffrage, and she always used to bring my mother along with her. My mother was approximately ten years younger. And she did that because she figured if she had a little kid with her, she wouldn’t get arrested. Very smart lady. (laughter) But my mother probably had some of that protest and—

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Sure. Great experience for your mother.

Robert Benjamin, MD:

—that in her as well.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Do you have an element—is there a little bit of that element of an activist in you as well?

Robert Benjamin, MD:

Yeah, I think so.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

How so?

Robert Benjamin, MD:

Oh, I don’t know. I did not learn how to be politically correct from my mother, and I sort of say what I think and get myself into trouble all the time, but it doesn’t stop me from saying what I think, so that’s, I guess, part of the political activist stuff in me, carried on into at least my older son, probably my younger son as well, but especially my older son.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

That’s not a bad thing to pass on.

Robert Benjamin, MD:

No, no. It’s standing up for what you believe in. So, I mean, I got some of that, I guess, when I was in college. The big issue was civil rights, and I was actually incredibly naïve and didn’t realize what was going on in terms of the Civil Rights Movement before I went to college, because I grew up in a neighborhood that during the time I was probably five years old or so to the time I was eight years old, the neighborhood changed from entirely white to entirely black, with the exception of my parents. So all the kids that I played with on the block were black, and I never thought about them as being the black kids on the block, they were the kids on the block, and they were my friends and I was their friend.And it wasn’t until I went to college that I realized how intense the antagonism between blacks and whites was, and, of course, like one of the good things at Williams in the middle of a bad thing, we were required—we had compulsory chapel. We had to go to a certain number of services each year. It didn’t matter what place you went or what religion, but you had to go and say you did it. Of course, many of us cheated, especially me, because I’d go to Smith and take the Smith College Chapel program and bring it back to Williams and say, “Oh, yeah, I went at Smith,” which I didn’t do.But one of the people who came to our chapel at Williams was Martin Luther King [Jr.], and so I actually heard Martin Luther King talk in a small church, small chapel, and he was incredibly moving. And I got chapel credit for it too. (laughter)

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Did you become involved at all in college with this?

Robert Benjamin, MD:

So, yeah, I mean to a certain extent. I never went to any of the organized protests, but I was a very strong supporter of the Civil Rights Movement and trying to get things done and trying to help out.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

It’s a very interesting background. You have the early experiences with a very integrated play space and then having this legacy of really strong educated women in your family. Very unusual. How has that affected you, do you think, as an adult?

Robert Benjamin, MD:

I’m still pretty much colorblind when I see or meet people or talk to them. I mean, it’s just they’re people. They’ve always been that way.I’m a strong supporter of women, so my wife, as an example, when we came here, we had young kids and she stayed home and helped raise the kids and get things done. When I was an intern resident, she taught at a high school out on Long Island. She taught English. But when we came here, and for, I guess, a few years before while the kids were just beginning to grow up, she stayed at home with them and took care of them. They didn’t have daycare at that time. But one of the things that she did while she was here was she would take some courses at the University of Houston to give her a little bit of an intellectual break from the kids, and we’d be able to get somebody to take care of the kids one day and she could go to classes and she could go to some classes at night. Then as they got a little older, she went back and got a PhD in English for fun. And I remember during that period of time that people looked at me as if there were something wrong, “Why do you let your wife go to school, get a PhD? What’s the use of that?”I said, “Why not? Education is good, you know.” She should have education.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Well, even the phrasing, “Why do you let your wife?”

Robert Benjamin, MD:

“Why do you let your wife?” I mean, the other thing I remember of a time when she went to look at a new car, and the guy at the car dealership said to her, “Well, why don’t you bring your husband here and I’ll show him what to do,” as if she couldn’t make a decision about whether or not she wanted to buy a car. Needless to say, she didn’t buy the car from that dealership.But she went on and got her PhD in English, and then she decided that since she couldn’t get a tenure-track teaching job in English here, because I guess the only two real options for tenure track were Rice, which didn’t have any openings, and U of H, which wouldn’t hire its own graduates immediately, so she had the option of taking an non-tenure-track position, and she said, “No. I’m too good for that. I’m not going to do that.”One of her teachers suggested that she consider going to law school because he thought she’d be good at that, so she went and turned around, and after she got her PhD, she went to law school and got a law degree. And since then, she’s been working in the federal courts as a judicial law clerk, which is sort of the equivalent of a physician’s assistant, I guess, a mid-level provider, if you will, in the courts, except she’s been doing it for twenty-five years, or I guess more by now. So she pretty much writes the opinion and the judge signs off.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Very neat, and I’m sure her writing skills—

Robert Benjamin, MD:

And her writing ability and her—

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

—and analysis of language and that. Yeah.

Robert Benjamin, MD:

Oh, yeah. I mean, how she got the job was also—it’s fascinating. It doesn’t say a lot about me, but it says a lot about her. (laughs) At one point during her law school at U of H, one of the options for a course was you could take what they called an internship with a judge. She’d applied, and she got a position with one of the federal judges and was working there and obviously knew how to do literature researches well and knew how to write well. And he was the one who said to her, “Have you ever considered getting a clerkship after you graduate?”She said, “No.”He said, “Well, you really ought to consider it, because it’s good experience, teaches you how to do this and this and this.”She said, “Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.”He said, “Well, you need to apply. There are some openings in the courthouse now. Just apply for all of them, but you’ve got to submit an application, because it’s very competitive, and so you’d better put in your application as quickly as possible, because you’re in a small window of time.”She said, “Okay.”And a couple of days later he asked if she’d put in her application, and she said, “No, I haven’t had time yet.”He said, “Well, you’d really better hurry up and do it.”She said, “Okay,” and so she put in her applications, and a couple days later he asked her if she’d put in her applications yet, and she said, “Yes, I did, Judge.”He said, “Fine. You’re hired.”

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

(laughs) Sounds like you’re really proud of her, actually.

Robert Benjamin, MD:

Oh, yeah. Yeah. She’s very much a part of my life.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

That’s neat, very cool. Sounds like that feeling that you’d met a kindred spirit all those years ago was right on. So did you get married at the end of college?

Robert Benjamin, MD:

At the end of college, when she graduated from college. So she was a year behind me, she graduated from Smith, and probably within two or three days, we got married.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Wow. Great. And then off to medical school?

Robert Benjamin, MD:

Well, I was already in medical school, because I was a year ahead, so I’d already started. So I had one year there without her, and that was a hard year.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Yeah, I bet.

Robert Benjamin, MD:

Then we got married and got a place, an apartment near medical school, which was good. We were lucky that my parents clearly helped out financially, but she got a job teaching. Well, I guess she didn’t get a job initially, because when we first got married, she had to take some extra graduate courses to be able to get a teaching certificate in New York.

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Chapter 03: An Interest in People

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