December, 2011 browsing by month


Kids—follow your dreams, whatever they may be. And Mr. Gingrich, clean your own damned toilets

Friday, December 16th, 2011

I don’t usually discuss politics on my blog (although, in today’s world, even something as essential to life as paying for medical care has become political). So, I hesitated to speak out when one of the men vying for the GOP nomination for president said something so wrongheaded and racist that it made me ill.

But, on reflection, I realized that this isn’t about politics simply because the person making the comments is a politician. It’s about dignity. It’s about respect for other human beings. And it’s about the truth.

Here are some of the comments made by former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich:


“Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habit of working and have nobody around them that works… They have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of, ‘I do this and you give me cash.’ Unless it’s illegal.”


Mr. Gingrich’s answer to his made-up “facts”? Get rid of child labor laws. Get rid of unionized janitors. Instead of teaching children in schools, put poor children to work as the schools’ janitors, cleaning the toilets.

Let me speak as the daughter of a ditchdigger and a domestic. They were poor, but that didn’t mean they didn’t work. My daddy worked two jobs — 16 hours a day — and took side jobs on the weekends. My mother cleaned other people’s houses because a lack of money for tuition forced her to drop out of teacher’s college in her senior year. Together, they probably worked more hours in their lives than people like Mr. Gingrich would or could survive. And they didn’t do it so that my sisters and I could be janitors, but so that we could become doctors. And you know what? Three of us did become doctors, and one became a lawyer.

That’s what my two memoirs are all about. The Ditchdigger’s Daughters tells the story of hard-working impoverished parents with a dream for their daughters to do better. Something to Prove  is the story of how I passed down that dream and work ethic down to my own children. Woody, my son, a neurosurgical resident and a cum laude Harvard graduate, is the grandson of a ditchdigger.

There were plenty of racists around when my sisters and I were growing up. They wrote us off and expected us poor little black girls never to leave the housing projects. But our parents convinced us to dream the big dreams.

Maybe I should send Mr. Gingrich copies of my books. Maybe it would open his eyes. Because if Mr. Gingrich had his way, my son would be cleaning toilets like his grandmother, and digging ditches like his grandfather. I’m not saying that hard, manual labor is something to be ashamed of, but we can do better.

Sadly, it becomes more difficult for young people when racists in high places can’t see our children aspiring to anything more than a plunger, a shovel, or a broom.

I’ll close with an excerpt from the blog of another formerly poor black child, Travon Free, whose hardworking parents made sure he had the tools to make a success of himself, and who has a few choice words in rebuttal to Mr. Gingrich’s:


 “As a child who grew up in Compton in the early 90s, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in America at that time, I watched my mother work tirelessly, sometimes juggling multiple jobs to provide for myself and my sister. Day in and day out, like many other parents in poor neighborhoods, she did what she had to do in order to provide for us.

You know what that turned into Mr. Gingrich? “A son who received academic and athletic scholarship offers from three Ivy League schools and countless other universities, a son with a college degree in Criminal Justice who graduated with honors from every school he attended, and a daughter who not only attended a Gifted and Talented Education high school, but is one year away from completing a degree at UCLA.”


Bravo to Travon Free. And to all those who haven’t yet escaped poverty, keep working. Keep believing in yourself. Don’t let people who know nothing about you discourage you, or pull you down. Pick yourself up and set yourself on the path to realizing your dreams, no matter how impossible others might say those dreams are. If I could do it, you can do it.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH

Gone almost 30 years… always in my thoughts

Monday, December 5th, 2011

Maybe it’s the holiday season that just naturally brings back memories of those we love. Or maybe it’s because my father, Donald Thornton, is never far from my mind. But even something as seemingly innocuous as doing some upgrades in our home stirred vivid memories of Daddy, who readers will remember from my memoirs, The Ditchdigger’s Daughters, and Something to Prove.

My husband Shearwood and I were talking to our security firm about improving our home security system. And it brought me back to the day that my father and mother accompanied me to Bard Hall, where I was to room, when I first entered Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City.

I would be living away from home for the first time, and in big, bad New York City, no less. My parents had already helped me settle in and, reluctantly left me in my new room. I assumed they were on their way home. Then Daddy came back to the room, carrying a heavy glass ashtray. After giving me yet another talk about how important it was for a young woman to be careful and vigilant, he handed me the ashtray, which was odd, because I didn’t smoke.

The ashtray was for security purposes, he said. He instructed me to place it above my door, so if any one tried to come in, it would fall and alert me and I could defend myself—or just run.

I thanked him, and promised I’d be careful, but I never did use his makeshift security system. I knew perfectly well that the first time I rushed out the door, I’d be the one to get bonked on the head.

But, just knowing that my Daddy would always look out for me (and yes, I believe he still does, though he’s been gone since 1983), made me feel safer.

And I still have that ashtray.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH