I Hear Temple Singing
By Michael Vitez
In the medical school and hospital, we are holding narrative medicine workshops. We believe these can be a great tonic for students and clinicians. They offer a break from daily pressures, an opportunity for reflection, and easy way to build community and fellowship. If you are interested in holding workshops with your residents, nurses, staff or students, please reach out to me. They take 45 minutes to an hour.
Here is an example.
At the beginning of my narrative medicine elective the other day, I had the students read the poem, I Hear America Singing, by Walt Whitman. I chose it because we are living in such a toxic time and the poem celebrates America and the American worker. I also chose it because of the writing prompt I had in mind. We discussed the poem briefly — let’s just say the students prefer more contemporary work — and then I had them write to the prompt, I Hear Temple Singing.
They had seven minutes. They could write anything they wanted. This is an opportunity to be playful, to be thoughtful, to be creative. In seven minutes, the writing is not expected to be polished or literary or even legible! Then we shared and discussed what they had written. This is the best part.
The students were brave enough to let me share what they wrote with all of you. First, the Whitman poem:
I Hear America Singing
Walt Whitman, 1819–1892
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the
deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing
as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the
morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at
work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day — at night the party of young
fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
I Hear Temple Singing
I hear Temple singing, songs of hope not heartbreak
sure there may be heartbreak,
but hope resounds surprisingly clear
The doctors sing out toughness,
strengthened not broken by the wear-and-tear
of inner city health care.
The students sing out humbleness
yet confidence in their future and
The security guards sing out reassurance,
not just of safety but of a constant
The people outside of Temple
sing out questions of sirens, gunshots, fear
but there is so much more to Temple’s song that I have started to hear.
Ali Von Deylen:
I hear Temple singing. A song of work and studying and dedication. But also one of unity. Unity despite differences. Unity in diversity. I hear Temple singing. A song of collaboration. A song of friendship and of teamwork. A song of stress but also of stress-relief. Of coming together towards a common goal. We’re all in the same boat, so we might as well work together. We might as well all sing along. Perhaps each with a slightly different tune but nevertheless one song. I hear Temple singing and must make sure to listen.
I look out the bus window
It’s 7:30 a.m. and we pass through
A street lined with shops
But each one is sealed closed
By a heavy metal door.
The garbage blows around in the wind
as a few people sitting on stoops
of abandoned buildings
Share a cigarette
or tiredly rush their children onto the bus
I am consumed by helplessness, despair
we arrive at the hospital
And I see doctors, nurses, valets
All dedicated to helping this neighborhood
They fight the things that are ailing this city
They care for the people
who confront obstacles we can’t imagine
It builds me back up as I head to school
and realize that I will do that too.
I hear Temple singing
Proud and kind, struggling upstream, against leagues of injustice in a world we didn’t create but are an inextricable part of
I hear Temple singing; voices raised for subjects too delicate for any dinner table but ours, far removed from the houses of others in our profession.
Our choir is as diverse as it is intelligent, invested, pragmatic.
In the trenches, confronted with all the things that make America uncomfortable.
I hear Temple singing, united from the top, priorities trickling down uniquely to our first days as students and beyond, roots sewn into an objectively desolate community.
I hear Temple singing, clear and strong.
I leave my apartment in silence. I drive along Main alone — spotting the occasional runner or cyclist headed in the opposite direction. I hear the humming of the Septa buses on Ridge. Cars line up to make a left on to Kelly. I hop on the Roosevelt Expressway, comforted by the pairs of headlights heading north. It’s dark but I can see the gold roof of the Greek Orthodox church illuminated by the cars as I near my exit. On Broad I hear people laughing while waiting for the bus or to cross the street. It’s dark but I can hear the city waking and I feel Welcomed.
As I turn on to Venango I see a group of friendly faces sitting outside the Zion Church. I smile and wave. On 15th I turn into the garage and wish Cynthia a good morning. I try to catch Montez’s attention but he’s asleep. It’s early yet. As I walk on Carlisle, Debbie spots me and wishes me “a good day now.” As I walk into the building, I wish Courtney a good Monday morning, and she playfully rolls her eyes. Miss Alice and Miss Maddy give me a hug, tell me it’s almost Friday and we can get through the week. I laugh and tell them I’ll be seeing them around. MERB is buzzing.
There is music in MERB: Humans flowing — smiling, groaning, sighing as they pass one another. ID card readers beep. On the hour, doors beat out a song of syncopated resistance. There is the squelching crescendo of displaced organs in the anatomy lab, the drone of a professor in tweed, the clicking of impatient feet. The collective exhale when exam time is up and all the pencils fall. 200 voices raised in exclamation, expiration.
Michael Vitez, winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism at The Philadelphia Inquirer, is the director of narrative medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University. Michael.email@example.com