From the South Bronx To the Gates of Harvard

REY RAMOS Bronx, NY History and Science Pforzheimer House

He remembers the tears vividly.

Filled with sadness and tinged with pain, they came streaming down his mother's cheeks one day eight years ago as she talked once again to an overworked junior high school principal about her son's disciplinary problems.

And who could blame Carmen Ramos for this outpouring?

Living in the South Bronx is not easy for Hispanic immigrants. Nor is it easy trying to raise four children in a neighborhood where drug dealers operated within steps of your front door. Nor is it easy trying to make a living with only a limited education and without a firm command of the English language. Nor is it easy supporting your family after being forced to give up your job in a garment factory because of severe chronic asthma.

And now she was called to her son's school yet again for another disciplinary problem.

And now the principal of Junior High School 123 was telling Carmen Ramos that after years of disciplinary problems, he had seen enough--he wanted to place her son into special education classes, where problem students are thrown in with students with learning disabilities.

And now she realized that special education classes meant her son would in all likelihood end up another statistic in a neighborhood full of statistics.

In a life wrecked by one too many cruel blows, this one, which her son's principal was getting ready to deliver, was probably the most cruel.

And so she cried in the hope that...

But at this time, on this day, in this place, after all she had been through, maybe she did not believe in hope at all.

Maybe she just cried.

*****

One cannot help but notice the smile that slowly creased the lips of Rey F. Ramos '97 as he recounted this story last month.

Ramos can smile because he knows how far he has come since that day when his future seemingly rested in the hands of a principal. Smile because he knows his mother's tears changed his life. Smile because he knows any listener must be thinking he is telling a tale about someone else--a neighbor, a friend, a sibling.

Smile because it is hard for him to fathom now the thought of having once carried a weapon--a switchblade--to school. Smile because today he will graduate from Harvard. Smile because he will marry his high school sweetheart, Maiysha Lennon, this summer. Smile because in September he will enter the Harvard Medical School Class of 2001.

Today seemed so impossible eight years ago as he watched his mother cry and plead with the principal to promote her son rather than punch a one-way ticket to special education classes.

But on second thought, maybe his graduation today is not so hard to believe.

For those tears of his mother shook him with such force that right there in that office and in front of that principal, he pledged for the first time in his life to get his act together.

The principal reluctantly promoted him to ninth grade, and Ramos--true to his word--did get his act together and did behave.

*****

The Pforzheimer House senior arrived in the United States from Puerto Rico at the age of two, and his family immediately settled in the South Bronx, a section of New York City notorious for its high crime and poverty rates.

Soon after arriving in New York, Ramos fell into trouble in the neighborhood and at school. In first grade, he was expelled from school for disciplinary problems and was usually suspended from school two or three times a year every year after until the eighth grade, when Ramos' final meeting with the principal occurred.

At the meeting, the principal clearly and forcefully told Ramos that the school "had had enough" and threatened to place him into the school's special education classes.

"I will always remember that meeting in the principal's office and my mom's crying because she did not want me to be put into special education," Ramos says. "That really hurt my feelings--seeing my mother cry--and at that point I said I was going to behave."

The principal during the summer decided not to send Ramos to special education and promoted him to ninth grade, despite serious misgivings.

And in ninth grade, Ramos for the first time was successful academically.

"To my surprise I started to do very well in algebra in ninth grade.... Algebra sparked my intellectual interests because I liked solving problems," Ramos says. "My algebra teacher started praising me, and that was a change from other teachers who used to put me down."

At High School

He took this success in algebra and his affinity for mathematics and the sciences to James Monroe High School, a public school in the South Bronx.

But when he arrived at James Monroe, Ramos soon found out that academics was merely one of many obstacles he would face.

"James Monroe was the typical inner-city public high school: there were metal detectors at the front door, a nursery for students there who had their own kids, two shootouts in the front yard," Ramos says. "The highest math they had there was trigonometry, and the labs we had were totally atrocious and dilapidated."

James Monroe High School was in such bad shape that New York City Schools Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines decided to close the school in the fall of 1993.

This year's senior class at James Monroe will be the last to graduate from the school.

Next year, James Monroe High School will be renamed New School for Arts and Sciences and will open as a special high school for the arts and sciences.

Summer at Columbia

Ramos persevered during that first year at James Monroe and was awarded a scholarship to study molecular biology and genetics at the Summer Program for High School Students at Columbia University.

The program, which he attended after tenth grade, marked the first time that Ramos had attended classes with white students. The program also piqued his interest in the life sciences.

"To my surprise, I was still raising my hand, answering questions, and I was doing well," Ramos said. "For once I was in a class where no one was throwing erasers at the teacher, shouting out, or telling the teacher to shut up--stuff that happened back at James Monroe. Seeing this beautiful campus where kids are going to school because they want to in the summer was a whole new thing for me."

His experience at Columbia motivated him to complete an application to several top colleges during the fall of his senior year.

Yet, his sights had been set on Harvard since tenth grade.

"One teacher told me after she saw a third 100 on a biology test that if I kept that up, that was Harvard material," says Ramos, a history and science concentrator. "Ever since then I said, 'Yeah, I want to go to Harvard.'"

But Ramos still had to navigate through a high school guidance system that was not accustomed to having one of its students apply to a top-notch school.

"Teachers did not want to write me letters of recommendation, and those that did would write them on these little pieces of paper, and I had to go and type them up and bring them back to them so that they could sign it," Ramos says. "I had to do everything."

Despite his many trials at James Monroe, his desire to become a primary-care physician in his home neighborhood kept Ramos focused.

"I have always wanted to be a doctor because my mother is a chronic asthmatic, and when I was nine I used to think she was going to die a lot of the time," he says. "Every time she would go to the emergency room it was me to like she was being revived again; so I envied this power that this physician had to influence someone's quality of life and actually save lives."

But sometimes in his neighborhood it was difficult to focus on any career goal.

He still harbors deep resentment against those in the community who once laughed at him when he told them he was going to make a difference or who complained about the decline of the community while heading to a liquor store or talking to a drug dealer.

"Everyone says the neighborhood is so bad, but then they don't do anything about it," Ramos says. "I grew up angry at the community itself, the drug sellers, the killers, those are the people who are screwing everything up for everybody."

At Harvard

That anger, along with a gamut of other emotions, accompanied Ramos when he arrived at Harvard in September of 1993.

He soon became frustrated with his school work, which seemed to come easily to his classmates but was hard for him to grasp.

He became angry at his fellow students who had the opportunity to take advanced placement (A.P.) courses in high school and had already studied the material in his first-year premedical courses.

"It was tough because students had had the courses already, and that really ticked me off," he says. "It was my first experience with the material, but everyone else was saying 'Oh, I remember that; that was from A.P. Calculus or A.P. Chemistry', and I'm like 'What are you doing taking this class?'"

He also became disenchanted with his daily schedule that first year.

His routine was a tiring grind of science courses, labs, training with the Army Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), membership in the Black Students Association (BSA), and work at World Teach Inc., a nonprofit organization that sends college graduates overseas to teach English in developing countries.

"It was very hard here academically, socially, physically with the army, a job and all of these other things to do, but the work was something that I had to do because of my financial situation," Ramos says.

Despite the hectic schedule, Ramos' work ethic and dedication made an impression on his fellow classmates and his professors.

"I remember in this class of 300 people seeing this Hispanic student in the front who was hanging on every word, who really seemed to be enjoying what he was doing and who always seemed to know the answers for the hypothetical questions that I was posing," says James E. Davis, senior lecturer on chemistry and chemical biology and Ramos' instructor in an introductory chemistry course. "I was tremendously impressed with him."

Although his work and academic schedule were grueling throughout college, Ramos still managed to squeeze in at least a few hours a week of fun activities.

"Rey is so very hard-working and intense...We had this thing we called 'efficient partying,'" says Vivek H. Maru '97, one of Ramos' current Pforzheimer House roommates. "We would study really hard until midnight on the weekends and then bike down to MIT for a frat party. That way we could study a lot and still arrive during the best part of the party."

Yet despite the ups and downs, the highs and lows, Ramos maintains his belief that he and his classmates are tremendously fortunate to have had the opportunity to study at Harvard.

"I was reading this Time magazine article at a medical school interview, and every page I would turn and every article I would read, I would start thinking about all of these issues," says Ramos, who wrote his senior honors thesis on the recent controversy over HIV testing for newborns in New York. "I was reading and thinking about all of these questions which Harvard and all of my academic classes here teach you to ask. I will not be able to read things without asking these questions again."

Medical School-Bound

The next things Ramos will read will be scientific journals and gross anatomy textbooks in the Countway Library at Harvard Medical School.

He chose Harvard over Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore because of the superior quality of the Harvard faculty and its outstanding academic and teaching reputation.

Ramos hopes to return to the South Bronx and work at a community health clinic in his old neighborhood.

"I want to be a living role model for a lot of the kids growing up there," Ramos says. "I want to be a powerful contrast to the drug dealer on the corner and to tell the kids, 'Look, we both came from the same place and now we are both back here--do you want to be like me or do you want to be like him?' and I want a lot of people to choose my side and to make sure to show them that there is light at the end of tunnel."

And in this community, not only role-models but also bilingual physicians who grew up in the area neighborhood are needed.

And so at least part of the Rey Ramos story will end today, as it began eight years ago, with his mother's tears.

But these tears will be different.

They will be tears of overwhelming happiness and joy as Carmen Ramos watches her son become the first in the family to graduate from college.

They will be tears of pride as she watches her only son graduate magna cum laude from Harvard College.

And yes, these tears today will be tears of hope. Hope because Carmen Ramos knows that her only son has his life back on track. Hope because she knows that her community will be better when her son comes back to practice medicine there.

"All throughout school, we were always told, 'Success is getting out of this hell-hole,'" Ramos says. "But the way that I have always thought about that was, 'No, success is cleaning up this hell-hole and making it good for everybody.' That is success."CrimsonMatthew P. MillerREY F. RAMOS '97 takes one last look at the John Harvard Statue as an undergraduate.