Is there a gentle doctor in the house? Pretty soon, there will be! Soon, my episode 30 guest will become Dr. Dwayne Gentle. What better way to close out season 2 than to talk to a formerly hyper-vigilant adolescent about his path to being more spontaneous, changing his mindset, surviving medical school and living life exactly how he wants to live it.
In the beginning, Dwayne was the twin brother of Deon, one of our major players in our 2014 production of In the Heights. I didn’t have the pleasure of seeing Dwayne audition, since his primary focus was on his academics and sharing the responsibility of being co-captain of the tennis team with Deon. He’d come around and sit in the back of the room watching our In The Heights rehearsals while Deon and his best friends Manny (episode 1) and Elijah (episode 3) did their Thespian thing. I thought nothing of it, since he was a sweet young man, quiet and respectful, and he seemed to get a kick out of seeing his buddies dance and sing in the rehearsal studio.
One day, late in the rehearsal period, one of the guys in the cast dropped out and I suddenly needed someone to salsa dance in the club scene. It was a small, featured role that required someone with some guts since he had to make advances on Vanessa, try to outdo Usnavi for her attention, and get into a brawl before the blackout scene. I consulted with the cast, saying I needed someone who could do all of that yesterday, and they all pointed to the young man sitting in the back of the room. His eyes bugged out, but instead of screaming “no!” and running out of the room, he got up, brushed himself off, and was ready to go.
At that moment, he was hooked, and it was the start of a beautiful working relationship. By his senior year, he was fully entrenched in the Thespian experience, actually auditioned for West Side Story and got the role of Action in the Jets. He had such a commanding presence both on and off the stage, and poured every fiber of his being into transforming his tennis-loving self into becoming an actor-singer-dancer who could tackle Jerome Robbins’ choreography. He knew what he was getting himself into, and he was ready for the challenge, learning how to execute saut-de-basques and meticulous fight sequences. Was it a stroke of luck? Serendipity? Fate? I don’t know, but ever since that first moment where he crossed the threshold from spectator to performer, I have loved getting to know this extraordinary young man.
The words brilliant, talented and connected only scratch the surface of describing who he is. After he graduated, he went off to Stony Brook University, graduated a semester early in December 2018 and went straight into medical school at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. He is now in his 4th and final year of med school before heading into residency, which will be in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R). His goal: to become a doctor of sports medicine. It’s a far cry from his star turn with Thespians, but I think there were some things he learned there that gave him some perspective that he didn’t have before.
Somehow, when teenagers are inspired and motivated, they have boundless energy to tackle much more than their adult counterparts can. Captain of the tennis team, Thespian star of the stage, academic excellence: it never seems that there’s enough time or energy to make it all happen. To boot, his tennis and Thespians schedules often ran concurrently (thanks to Michele Bond for being a generous and understanding coach who is also a lover of theater). Despite the challenge, Dwayne managed to fulfill everything he had set his sights on, and excel in the process.
Medical school was always the end game for Dwayne, and everything he did in school was with that goal in mind.
I was very determined; I knew from a young age what I wanted to go into. I had an idea of what it might take to get to that moment.
In that light, his personality type as a rule follower who lived in a state of hyper-vigilance kept him from straying too far from the norms and expectations set for him, whether by others or by himself. Though Deon and his friends all jumped at the chance to audition for that iconic production of In the Heights, Dwayne chose instead to observe and support from the sidelines. Being on stage was not exactly part of his path to medical school.
Reflecting on that serendipitous moment in 2014 where all eyes were on him, he shared:
That was probably the first moment in my life when I didn’t feel brave but I decided to say yes as opposed to no.
What made him say yes? For starters, he saw how his brother and all of his friends were having such a great time every day after school, working hard on the project. In addition, Lin Manuel Miranda’s breakout musical that blended rap, salsa and hip hop resonated with Dwayne and gave him an easy entry into the world of musical theater. Since there is power in numbers, it seemed like a no-brainer when his friends turned to him to save the day.
I fell in love with the musical, I fell in love with the soundtrack; I loved everything that it was. Rapping, encompassing my culture and what I valued on to the stage.
What gifts did he receive from Thespians?
Once a teenager gets a taste of the glory of high school theater, it’s likely they will come running back for an encore. Needless to say, we were both grateful that he followed through when his interest was piqued and opportunity knocked.
Had I not gotten that position the way I did, with someone dropping out, I don’t know that I would have tried out the following year. To me, it was a fate thing. Everything fell into place how it did and I just happened to be there.
Once he said yes, he was all in, immersing himself and learning whatever he needed to in order for the show to run smoothly. .
Learning to let go
Dwayne has always been a very regulated, calculated type of person. He is thoughtful and plans every step of the way. That’s certainly a necessity when your life goal is to go to medical school and become a doctor. However, always thinking about every step that you take leading to that future can make you miss life’s most precious, spontaneous moments. His decision to join the cast opened the door to another layer of thought.
Up until that point, I haven’t done anything that I didn’t know I could do. I was very comfortable in the things I engaged with, new experiences that I sought out, but to just let go and be in the moment, is an opportunity that I got to do onstage. That’s an incredible thing that I learned while doing that in that process. To let go a little bit was a valuable lesson for me. It allowed me to enjoy the moment, explore myself more and see what comes out.
Dwayne talked about how much he got out of walking into that new experience with no pre-conceived notions or expectation. He had no idea what to think, what to expect or how he would feel when the show was over and trusted in everyone involved to usher him through. In the end, he lived through an experience that he could fully enjoy with his best friends, create memories that last a lifetime, and discover new things about himself. There’s literally nothing bad that has come out of me leaping in that way.
Learning to explore a character
After his introduction to theater in In the Heights, Dwayne felt more empowered in his second turn on stage in West Side Story. His character, Action, was a strong leader, which was supported well by Dwayne’s experience as captain of the tennis team. He started to grasp the need to balance bringing parts of yourself into the work as well as digging in to find other pieces that may not be a part of your life experience. What made the process easier was being able to go through it and bounce ideas off of his brother Deon and his best friends Manny (episode 1), Elijah (episode 3) and Kinsley (episode 18).
I asked him how the skill of exploring a character translates into his pursuit of medicine. His answer was both inspiring and heartbreaking.
It’s been a challenge for me to merge my personal life and my professional life. I think my culture, being black in America, is not really synonymous, unfortunately, with professionalism. I’ve really had a hard time reconciling those two identities. Something that makes it a little bit easier is knowing when you can turn things on and off. To know that I am capable of being this doctor has been empowering. It’s allowed me to have some more ease in the process of learning to be in these different spaces that might be foreign to me.
This is a hard part of the conversation for me to participate in. I know Dwayne as a wonderful, brilliant, talented, compassionate, capable man who is destined for greatness and a long, prosperous career helping people heal and thrive. The fact that my image of him does not translate to the rest of society, simply because of how he looks, speaks to the great inequity of our culture. We all have to delineate our personal and professional selves, but I will never have to do in the same way that Dwayne, or any of my students of color for that matter, have. While I applaud him for learning a skill in my classroom that he can use in his professional life, it is painful to hear that he has felt the need to apply those skills for cultural or racial reasons.
The good news is that he has learned to that in order reconcile the personal and professional sides, he must lead a life that he is proud of, so he can represent himself in his truest form.
How you are received in certain spaces has nothing to do with you. It’s not my responsibility how you receive me. I’m going to be me.
Other people’s problems are other people’s problems.
The love of his life
There was another huge benefit to his spontaneous decision to take a leap. In order to learn all the choreography and staging in record time, his friend Kayla (episode 9) had to step in to teach him everything he had to know. Since then, they have been Dwayne and Kayla, a power couple. That is a big part of the inception of our relationship. That holds a lot of meaning to me. Their bond is so much more special because it started with such an important experience for both of them, and has stood the test of time. They have grown into their own adulthood, whether side by side or miles apart.
Be where you are, not where you’re going
That merging of hearts has given Dwayne a big lesson in spontaneity. Over the years, he has absorbed some of Kayla’s personality, which is rooted in fully embracing the virtues of being in the moment, living a little more freely, a little less calculated.
He recalled a moment we shared after a West Side Story performance where he and I were sitting in the back of the auditorium. I must have told him something I appreciated about his performance. This is something I really try to give to my students – a moment of positive reflection about what they have done. Sometimes it’s with the group, other times I’ll point out something solo. Dwayne absorbed this exercise as a life lesson (my favorite kind) to allow himself to fully appreciate the moment when something wonderful happens, instead of waiting until after it is over.
Being 100% there, present, has been a huge theme for me. It has gotten me through school. How present can you be when your mind goes all over the place?
Dwayne on changing your mindset
Dwayne noted that changing your mindset requires a shift from being a forward-thinker, the way we are taught to do in high school, to allowing yourself to be more in the moment.
Something that served me very well [in high school] that was required in those former years to get to this point was that discipline; the hyper-focus on one goal and that was to get to medical school.
Once he actually got to medical school, he realized that the hyper-vigilance he gripped was not serving him as well as it had in the past. Instead, it was the source of excessive performance anxiety. Grading in medical school is all about how you perform relative to your peers.
Inherent in the process is comparing yourself to other students, which didn’t go well for me. It took up a lot of my time. Even when I wasn’t doing work I was thinking about it and worried about it.
That process gave him pause, enough to question his career path. He decided to take a six-week break at the beginning of his third year from school to re-evaluate his priorities.
Through therapy, some serious reflection and analysis, [I learned] it was my mindset: I found I need a work-life balance – that’s the only way I can survive. A deepened spiritual connection, I’ve come to find that that’s all-important for me to lead a balanced life, to feel good in whatever I’m doing.
While he hasn’t completely lost the discipline that drove him to where he stands, he has learned to temper it. I have a fraction of that now. I know and feel that you can’t plan everything. You can’t prepare for everything. That’s made me more present. At some point, you’ve gotta trust what you’ve set up for yourself and that you’re doing everything you need to be doing. Now the anxiety he felt about testing and trying new things has melted away.
Dwayne’s strategy for surviving medical school
Another part of what Dwayne grapples with is the fact that medical school has to be your whole life. The challenge is to do what it takes to do well while staying in touch with the other parts of himself: What gives him joy while he is going through the grind? Who else is he aside from his pursuit of the title “Doctor”? Since his six-week hiatus, he has learned to ground himself in the present, and put more focus and reflection on himself which has made his journey into adulthood more enjoyable and satisfying.
I probably would not tell an incoming medical student how I do things, because I don’t know that it could work for anybody else but me. That’s a sentiment that should be passed on to every upcoming medical student: you’re going to get a million pieces of advice, but they might not do it for you. You have to figure it out yourself. What do you actually need?
His strategy for surviving med school aligns with his more mindful ways. Contrary to popular practice, he works to stay away from medicine as often as he can (within reason). He has taken up running and finds long distance road races to enter. He engages with music and creates beats, something that has been a passion of his for many years. It’s just another way to connect to the people that I care about the most; that’s where I like my energy to be spent the most outside of medicine. Instead of burning himself out by endlessly trying to achieve a specific amount of information to cram, he makes a more space by deciding how long he will work, then stepping away for the day to recharge the mental and emotional battery. It takes the anxiety of setting concrete goals away and allows him to absorb more into his brain with a calmer heart.
Whatever I get done, I get done. Put it onto the next day if you don’t finish. It frees up my mind to do other things and to live my life exactly how I want to live it. Being able to engage with other things has allowed me to stay more present.
What has gotten better in adulthood?
Despite the fact that he misses his adolescent energy to do everything, the quality of how he spends his time has improved. Even in this conversation, I really feel like I am here, like I have the space to think and really connect with my dear Tirro. Everything that I do I feel like I have a little bit more presence with. That makes me enjoy it infinitely more.
If Dwayne could counsel his younger self, he would encourage him to explore more in high school. That’s the time to do it. That’s when you have the most time, mental freedom, and that’s when it matters the most. Just go for it. Do everything.
If he could extend that counsel to students today:
Now is the time to establish your discipline. It doesn’t have to be academics. Find something that you love in your life. If you can build up your discipline and dedication to engage with that thing over time, that will confer a lot of confidence when you do get to new and more challenging places in your life. Push yourself a little bit in the things that you enjoy.
Delving into my spirituality. Dwayne puts time into meditations, mantras, and connection to beyond my physical self. It helps to alleviate his anxiety and remind himself that he is capable of doing what he set out to do. Part of his outlook is that everything is one big experience, and accepting the good and the bad as part of the whole.
Running. The mental challenge of the long run requires him to trust his body and coach himself through the difficulty level. He enjoys the training process on the open roads, even when it snows (bless his soul), because it provides another mediative moment to be present and focused on himself.
Tapping into my other interests. The experience of being a med student can be very one-dimensional. A person is the sum of all of their parts, not just the most impressive or immediately recognizable of their efforts. Leaning into the other parts of himself has been empowering for him as he nurtures his identity as a human. I’m going to be a cool doctor, not just a doctor.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for joining me and my amazing alumni for seasons 1 and 2 of Changed for the Better: the power of arts in education. I have been overwhelmed by the love and support for sharing their stories. I’m working hard on season 3 – in the meantime, if you’ve missed any episodes, visit my Changed for the Better blog and catch up on some inspiring interviews!! You can also catch up on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts!