College of
Human
Medicine

Monika Dietrich

Fall 2013

What is a reflection but the picture I see in the puddles? The picture is filled, edge-to-edge; I am there, looking back at myself. Around me is the background: the living city, the events happening around me, the people on the street. The water gathers on a foundation, without which it would have washed away. I ponder Flint, and how the images that are echoed to me have changed since my way here was made.

Ask me to stand on shaking ground
my feet will falter
but I could stand firm
on peaceful earth, strong, still and good

There was a time, I have been told, when this city shone in the glory of a booming car industry, in wealth and success, and in a strong middle class. The brick was freshly laid and the sidewalks were smooth. Elaborate fountains fed off the Flint River, and new buildings boasted in their grandeur. This is not the Flint I have made my way through in the past year and half, or which has changed me. The rain falls on cracked pavements, and this is the foundation.

A few months after I had established Flint as my home, I was invited to volunteer for an enrichment center a few miles north of downtown. We spent the morning in a park next to the center, two friends and I, picking up trash that had collected over the past year. The trash consisted of many different items, which mostly fell into two broad categories: alcohol containers and fast food wrappers. So new to Flint, and not a native, I had been feeling distinctly like an outsider to the city. What was my role, and how could I really tangibly contribute? As I walked through the grass, trash bag in hand, I had the greatest sense of satisfaction. It was a rush. Here was this park, beautiful, big, full of opportunity. It was so littered, so covered in the probably years' worth of trash and abandon. All it took was picking up a vodka bottle here, a McDonald's wrapper there, and within a few hours, in my eyes at least, it was gorgeous! We spend the afternoon handing out vegetables that had been donated to the neighborhood around. The experience was a relief: not because I felt I had made any sort of major difference in anyone's life, but because I think I made a step forward in understanding Flint. The park was already there... it just needed some work.

Many months later I had a slightly different opportunity to work in the earth of Flint. Friends and I spent a few hours working to plant a community garden in a lovely old neighborhood with dusty mansions and run-down houses all around. I love the idea of a garden. It takes soil that has always been there, enriches it, uses it, and the result is nourishment for everyone around, what is not to love? Flint is poor, and much of it abandoned. I have seen scores of roofs with massive gaping holes, from flames that have licked there way through. There are so many porches, warped and bent in shapes fit only for a Dr. Seuss book. Liquor stores have supplanted grocery stores, and brush has defeated lawn. So yes, perhaps I appreciate gardening more than ever before. I think I am better able to recognize the value that is growth from a tiny seed, and my responsibility towards helping it grow. Nothing but weeds will grow if it is not planted; what a shame, if it doesn't?  

The tree is silent unless heard
resounding nothing;
moreover am I
if you aren't there for me to smile

In the shimmering puddle, filling up the image, is everything around me. This city is not Flint without the people here. They change my reflection as much as the foundation, as much as myself. They are constantly moving in and out; some spend just a second, others linger in the background, and each change what I see looking back at me. They are my background.

Bryant Elementary sits now empty and abandoned, but last year it was the scene of some of my most formative times in Flint. More Wednesdays than not, I spent the afternoons in classrooms at the school. My first drive to Bryant, I wound around and through some neighborhoods, half lost, half curious. Where did I know this landscape from? Ah, yes. Quito, Ecuador. It was a snapshot of a developing country, somehow dropped in a "developed" nation. Bars on windows and doors, slathered paint weathered by decades, dilapidated construction sites interspersed between stores and churches. So when I stood in front of my first class, and looked at each of the little faces, it was with the understanding that many of these kids came from an environment and background very, very different from my own.

With class sizes in the thirties, with children 6 and 7 years old, and without good resources, it was not easy for the teachers to teach, and it was certainly a challenge for the novice medical student. Each child played a role in shaping my experience, whether particularly challenged and acting out, or bright, eager and curious but without enough attention. Yes, this nation is one of opportunity. We all have the opportunity to fight to the top, but some of us have to fight a whole lot harder than others. These little children, they will have to fight very, very hard, and from the moment they are born. So I am surprised when others are surprised how many of these little ones will turn into adults living in worlds of crime, homelessness, substance abuse, violence or gangs. Of course! It is the exceptional child who will begin to fight tooth and nail from such a young age. In a wealthy suburb non-exceptional means he will live a normal life; in North Flint, MI this means he will more likely than not end up in jail.

In a primary care office, when we see a child who we deem not to have the same capacity as her peers to function intellectually, socially or physically in her surroundings, we call this "handicapped." I had the wonderful opportunity to volunteer for a sports physical clinic at the Elmer Knopf Learning Center a while ago, where we saw 200-300 children so that they could participate in the upcoming Special Olympics. I loved working with these kids; they were each so unique from the other, each with their own challenges, each with their own ways of communication. One child, we'll call her Anne, was especially memorable to me. She ran over to me when it was her turn, cropped blonde hair bouncing around her smiling, enthusiastic face. She wore a long, flowered dress, which showed off her passion for fashion, which she expertly gathered before plopping down in the chair in front of me. It seemed, during our brief encounter, that she was as much trying to make me feel comfortable as I was for her. She smiled and laughed loudly at every joke I made, and the compliments were flowing. Perhaps she knew what alienation was like, so she tried her absolute best to make sure no one else would feel that way. It reminded me how intuitive and bright children can be. This experience solidified my desire to work with children in the future, and for this I am so grateful.

Children who are handicapped are at such extreme disadvantage, I am so glad there are resources out there for them, even if there could always be more. Children from poverty are also at extreme disadvantage, but I am not sure this is as widely recognized in our country. I don't know if this is because of our attitude of 'freedom,' which states that anyone can rise to top, which infers self-blame if you don't. Or perhaps there is just a lack of understanding: very few people will have the opportunity to stand in front that classroom like I did. Either way, Flint has given me a better understanding of what is important in my field. Brim to brim in my little puddle there are children, and there are many more I cannot see. They are all looking back at me, as I look at myself, and asking me: what's next?

Sometimes it seems I'm so solid:
bones, muscle, blood, skin;
but I shape like clay,
and the world keeps sculpting away

The puddle shimmers, and at times it is hard to see my own outline and features, to see myself. I have changed, certainly, from before Flint, MI, but how? A part of Flint has always been in me. My great-grandparents moved up from the South to Flint for jobs, and this was hometown to my grandmother, birthplace to my mother and three uncles. Hick's Portrait Studio, which I pass all the time on Corunna, was the origin of both the baby picture and high school graduation photo that I see when my mother reminisces. So certainly Flint must have already shaped me?

How? This question is as difficult to answer as truly seeing your own image without judgment. Maybe it is better to gauge when measured in my desires for the future. What do I want? I want to be somewhere with a population that is profoundly underserved. I never want to feel I am blind to the need that is around me. I want to feel I am contributing in some small way to the greatest needs of our society, because if it is there, how could I not? I take pleasure in the spirit of a city that is grappling out of the pit of poverty; it is the strongest spirit I have yet to witness. I want to surround myself with people who have it, in the hopes I myself can become stronger. I want to surround myself with people like the nurses and doctors in Flint hospitals, people like my patients.

The picture in the puddle distorts with every raindrop, every ripple, and every child's boot that splashes happily through it; Flint the city, Flint the people, Flint myself. I can't predict what will happen, just that change most certainly will.