When Rameck Hunt brought home a middle-school report card with two Cs, his grandmother cheered and celebrated his intelligence. But not his mother. She was livid. Even when he worked harder the next quarter and transformed the Cs to Bs, his mother was still upset. As Hunt puts it, not mincing words, “My mother made a big stink over education.”
His grandmother was right, and his mother was right. He is smart, and throughout his childhood he faced the boredom in school that causes many bright kids to act up in class. He was also the child of a single mother, living in low-income neighborhoods, including the Central Ward of Newark, with no father at home.
It was only when Hunt made it into the AP track at University High School, a magnet school in Newark, that he really came into his own academically and started bringing home grades that made his mother happy. He also made two new friends.
Eventually these friends, now in their early 30s, became his partners in a life-changing decision. Despite the fact that they were from neighborhoods in which such a decision was virtually unheard of, neighborhoods in which there were few professionals of any kind, all three decided that they would become doctors.
Today Hunt is an internist at University Medical Center at Princeton, where he began working in February, 2006, and assistant professor of medicine at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. The dream, formed in childhood, has also come true for his friends. Sampson Davis is an emergency medicine physician at St. Michaels Medical Center and Raritan Bay Medical Center, and George Jenkins is an assistant professor of clinical dentistry at Columbia University.
Hunt will speak Thursday, November 15, at 7:30 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library, about “The Bond,” a just-released book by Hunt and his two buddies about their relationships with their fathers and their climb from the streets to the medical profession. For information on the event call 609-497-4301.
The moment that changed the lives of the three teenagers almost didn’t happen. Whenever a college recruiter came to their high school, they were excused from class. The day that an emissary from Seton Hall’s Premedical/Pre-dental Plus Program for economically and academically disadvantaged high school students came to talk about careers in medicine and dentistry, one of the guys suggested just cutting class.
But they ultimately nixed the idea of leaving the school grounds and settled on shooting a few baskets in the gym. But when they nearly got caught, they sneaked over to do what they were supposed to be doing. Medicine had not even crossed Hunt’s mind up to that point, but looking back, it seems obvious.
“The things the recruiter was saying were just what I wanted to do,” he says. “I wanted to do something to help people; to teach; to have a meaningful job — something I respected and other people respected; to use my brains; and to be able to make a living.”
That afternoon the three boys spontaneously decided they would go to Seton Hall together and pursue medical careers. “Had we thought about what it would take,” observes Hunt, “we probably would have been discouraged then and there.”
Hunt grew up in North Plainfield and Hillside. It was just him and his mother for 11 years, until his little sister was born. His father spent 15 years battling drug addiction and was in and out of jail or in rehab.
Hunt’s mother started working for Bell Labs right out of high school, but had to leave after a few years due to an injury. She then worked at the post office. When she was out of work due to hand surgeries and other musculoskeletal issues, the family had to go on welfare.
But Hunt took it all in stride. “What is normal to you is whatever you have in your box and in your neighborhood,” he says. “Everybody unfortunately lived in single-parent homes, were struggling to make ends meet, and had family members having trouble with different things.”
He did have a few glimpses into a world of different possibilities. When his mother was working and making decent money, for example, he went to after-school programs with kids who were probably middle class but who, to him, seemed rich. “Their parents were like Daddy Warbucks,” he says. “But I didn’t assume it pertained to me.”
Through third grade Hunt was in gifted and talented programs in public school, but for fourth grade his mother moved him to a Catholic school, where she hoped the discipline would be stronger. But it didn’t work. “The curriculum was a half year behind the public schools,” says Hunt, “and I was already kind of flip with school work. Then they had me repeating stuff we had already done.”
As a result, instead of getting into less trouble, he got into more. Calling him uncontrollable, they moved him into special education classes.
By the fifth grade he was back in a Hillside public school system due to some combination of his mother’s loss of a job, the nuns’ frustration, and Hunt’s behavior.
When Hunt moved back to the neighborhood school, though, he wasn’t as tough as the other kids. “Private school softened me up a little bit,” he says. “It wasn’t cool to be tough.”
His new environment left Hunt with a dilemma. If he wanted to go to school without getting teased, picked on, and beaten up, he had to prove himself to his friends. This meant, in his neighborhood, being ready to fight on a minute’s notice and not back down. “If you weren’t tough,” he says, “people didn’t want to be your friends, and the girls wouldn’t like you. And you always wanted girls to like you.”
Luckily his friends weren’t into drugs. But his new tough-guy image didn’t involve making good grades, and his mother did not approve. As Hunt tells it, “My mother, in her infinite wisdom, thought that I was stupid.” Her solution was for him to switch schools again and go to a magnet high school school in Newark, where his mother’s godmother happened to be the vice-principal.
Having finally proven himself to his childhood friends, Hunt was annoyed. “I had just gone through my little initiation of getting my tough license and stamp of approval,” he says, “and we were going to be the baddest things in high school.”
On the other hand, Hunt admits he always knew he was going to college. “Even though I made a bunch of bad choices when I was a teenager, that was a given,” he says. His mother had always told him he would go to college, and his aunt and uncle both had bachelor’s degrees.
At University High School Hunt fell in with Davis and Jenkins, he says, not only because they took the same classes, but also because they had similar likes and dislikes. He locates them somewhere between the straight nerds and the overly social jocks. “We wanted to make sure to get our work done, but also have a little fun,” he says.
A serious brush with the law when Hunt was 15 or 16 really changed him. As he sat in a cell, charged with attempted murder after he and his friends had beaten someone up, he knew at a gut level that he was meant for something different. “That was my Eureka moment,” he remembers. “When I was sitting in a juvenile detention center around these musty-smelling guys in a cage, I didn’t like that feeling.”
The experience reaffirmed how important it was for him to stay around Davis and Jenkins. “We never got in trouble and had more fun. In that other crew, it was a badge of honor to say you had been arrested.”
Davis, too, had been arrested, and had experienced his own Eureka moment. Interestingly, the two young men did not tell each other about their short incarcerations until much, much later.
Although Hunt says that starting college at Seton Hall was less of a culture shock for him than it was for Davis, he jokes about one contrast he noticed immediately: “The grass was really greener. Literally green, not brown.”
What Hunt probably treasured most at college was the privileges it allowed, so different from his childhood. He didn’t have to share a bed with his cousins or little sister. He didn’t have to worry about eviction. He had cable television and a meal plan. “It might not seem like big deal,” he says. “I didn’t starve when I was growing up, but this was about ownership. These were my things, and I didn’t have to share with anybody if I didn’t want to.”
Another difference from his childhood was that the vast majority of Seton Hall students were white. “We hadn’t been around a lot of people who were not black,” says Hunt, “and socially interacting with them was tough. We gravitated to the few black students and kind of had our own fraternity.”
Yet there was also plenty of successful interaction with white students. He and Davis roomed together and shared a suite with two students from an Italian background, who Hunt says were the most popular white guys on campus. “They were my introduction into socializing as an adult,” he says.
But it wasn’t easy at first. “There were obvious preconceived notions on both sides, and we had to figure out a way to break them down,” says Hunt. “We found out we were more alike than we were different.”
The three doctors-to-be were very active in community service during college. They started Ujima, whose name was Swahili for “collective work and responsibility,” one of seven principles of Kwanzaa.
Realizing how much their own experiences outside of their neighborhoods had opened their eyes to life’s possibilities, they wanted to offer that perspective to the next generation of poor kids. “We thought, ‘how about if we bring kids from Newark up to the school to see there is a lot more to life than their block and their corner,’” says Hunt.
After his first semester, Hunt settled down and did well academically. His grades met the 3.5 minimum required for entry into the Access Med program, a joint program of Seton Hall and the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Selected students begin taking first-year medical courses in their senior year of college, and they receive credit toward both bachelor of science and doctor of medicine degrees. He and Davis both got in and continued their mutual quest for an M.D. together in New Brunswick.
Hunt enjoyed medical school, and after he graduated he completed a residency in internal medicine at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital. He was considering a fellowship in gastroenterology, but life got in the way.
While in medical school, he and Davis had volunteered in existing service organizations and had also started a group in North Brunswick to tutor high school kids. An article in the Star Ledger featured them and their social-action work.
Hunt was living in South Jersey at that time and was worried that the article would appear only in the paper’s Newark edition, and he would miss it. “It turned out it was on the cover above the fold,” he says. “I was thrilled.”
But for a split second, when he saw his face in the paper, he says, “I was scared. You don’t see three African-American men on the front page of a paper unless they’re dead or the police are looking for them.”
The article brought in lots of phone calls, many from desperate parents asking them to talk to their kids. It made them start to think about the big picture, and while they were still residents, the three doctors decided to start the Three Doctors Foundation. “We were three guys trying to be philanthropists with $100,000 student loans to pay,” recalls Hunt. But as people started to get wind of their mentoring activities, the news spread, and they got a couple of big breaks.
In 2000 they received the Essence award, where the magazine honors both big celebrities and people who are doing good things in their communities. The big-time honorees that year included Michael Jordan and Danny Glover, and the three doctors were the local do-gooders. The award presentation was on national television, out of Radio City Music Hall, and was hosted by Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey.
A year later, still doing their residencies, the doctors realized that their own experiences held lessons for others in similar circumstances, and they embarked on a book about their lives. “That’s why decided to share our lives — things that are personal and embarrassing, but instructive too,” says Hunt. “It was worth it to us to lay ourselves open.” In two earlier books the trio wrote about their own journeys. “The Pact” is a book for adults and “We Beat the Streets” is a book for children.
Not long before their book, “The Pact,” was to be released, Oprah invited the doctors to be on her show. “We wanted to wait until our book came out,” says Hunt, “but you can’t tell Oprah what to do. She she tells you what to do.”
With the notoriety of appearing with Oprah, their foundation picked up, and that’s why Hunt decided against a fellowship. He decided that he would rather start practicing internal medicine, which he liked well enough, and which would give him time to pursue his service interests.
When the book did come out, the responses from its readers poured in. Dozens of E-mails every day told the doctors how the book had changed their lives. Soon feedback from adults who told them they wished they had read the book when they were younger led to an adaptation for adolescents called “We Beat the Street.”
Still unmarried at age 34, the doctors decided they had time for a third book, this one about reconnecting with the fathers who were not there for them when they were growing up.
Although Hunt had developed a relationship with his father after he stopped using drugs, he still had questions. “I didn’t know a lot of the circumstances around my coming into existence,” he says, “whether he wanted me, whether he thought about me when I wasn’t around. They were questions I couldn’t bring myself to ask him.”
The motivation for the book was really to get those questions answered. The book’s structure would be alternating chapters about five-year periods in his own life and his father’s. As a result, he says, “I could indirectly find out what he was thinking about me without asking him.”
He invited the other two doctors, who had similar experiences with their fathers, to join him in the effort. “I thought it would help people heal,” he says. It did, but the journey was painful — and revealing. “I didn’t know there was hole in my heart until it healed up,” says Hunt. “I was numb, and I didn’t know I had a wound.”
Hunt learned from the writing of “The Bond” that his father had been bright, made straight As at his Catholic school, and planned to be a chemist. He won a scholarship to Assumption College in New England. “Everything was perfect,” says Hunt. “My grandmother was so excited that her son had made it out of Newark.”
The truth turned out to be a little different. “He was a bit of a geek,” says Hunt, “but he also wanted to be cool and accepted, and he succumbed to peer pressure.”
When his father left for his first semester in college, he was dating two women — cheerleaders from rival high schools. One was Hunt’s mother. When he came home for winter break, both of the young women were sitting on the couch in his mother’s home, each one looking very pregnant.
After seeing the two of them sitting there, his life started to unravel for him. Hanging around the projects with his neighborhood friends, he got high with them on the drug they had recently discovered — heroin. “He was hooked for a decade,” says Hunt. “His dreams got deferred, and he spent years battling his drug addiction.”
When his father finally managed to kick his habit, he was able to become a real father again. He also returned to college and got a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Montclair State with honors. Now he is working full time as a drug rehab counselor, and he has begun work on a master’s degree.
The new book reaches across class boundaries. “It’s not just our story,” says Hunt, “but a lot of people’s story, no matter who you are or where you’re from. It’s not isolated to one group of people or one socioeconomic class.” Medical colleagues, for example, would tell him that their fathers were physically present, but emotionally absent.
For Hunt and his father, the journey is not complete. “He never told me he loved me,” says Hunt. “He never uttered those words.”
His hope is that the examples of the three doctors’ lives will prompt people to start talking to their own parents. “Maybe a dad, or son, or daughter will read the book and say, ‘I need to start a dialogue,’” says Hunt. “I hope someone will pick up the phone and say, ‘I love you.’”