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If you like Paul Farmer's story, you might also like:
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Paul Farmer
Paul Farmer
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Paul Farmer Interview (page: 7 / 9)

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  Paul Farmer

You say you were in fourth and fifth grade when you really got hooked on reading. Was there something you read at that age that particularly excited you?

Paul Farmer: I had these friends. I remember their names, the Crutchers. They owned a bookstore in a place that's now -- I went back to look for it -- it was called Five Points. It's still there, but now it's the medical area. They had a bookstore, and I went to school with two of their sons, who were twins. They used to give us books. We used to be able to go hang around the bookstore. And I remember one year, I think it was my tenth birthday, they gave me Lord of the Rings, three books in a row. And you know, I just really started reading a lot from the time I was ten on. So yeah, that was a whole new world once you really start. And it's wonderful to see kids -- like my daughter is so into reading now, my older daughter. It's just wonderful to see how that opens up universes for children. It's really great that there's so much reading going on now. But that was it for me, that was my fifth grade, ten years old. Never looked back. Always been a reader since then.

Did your parents encourage you? Were you a gifted child?

Paul Farmer: I'm not sure I understand that term anymore, because I meet kids in Rwanda or Haiti, or all over the world, who clearly are gifted, but they might not have the chance to go to school. So that kind of notion has been a little bit bankrupt for me, now that I see what it's like in the rest of the world, where the kids don't get a chance to go to school. I had the chance to go to school, and to get books and to read. That was great for me, and I'd like to see other children have that opportunity as well. My parents definitely encouraged all of us to enjoy school and to read. After all, my father was a school teacher, and my mother would have been a school teacher if she didn't have all these kids. That's where they met. So yeah, they encouraged us.

Was there a teacher or a mentor who opened up new opportunities or challenged you?

Paul Farmer: I had teachers like that every year.

I mentioned fifth grade, 'cause I had a school that, for that one year, really focused on challenging kids. We made a television show. We started learning other languages. It was great. But I actually got that all the way through, first grade on. I think that's another thing I've come to appreciate more, as a teacher myself, is how hard public school teachers work to engage 30 kids. It's not easy to do. They all feel, their parents are sending them off, you got to go to school. And some of them are going to be more interested than others. So I have a deepening respect for what public school teachers do. Junior high, high school, elementary, all of it. So I got that all the way through.

I had lots of teachers encourage me. And I still know some of them, my high school teachers. But one of them encouraged me. She said, "Well, what do you want to do?" I said, "I want to be a doctor." And she asked me where I wanted to go to school, and so I named all the Florida public universities which seemed within reach, financially. And she said, "Well, maybe you ought to apply to Duke, and maybe you'll get a scholarship." And I did both those things. I applied and got a scholarship. Her name is Wendy Tellone, and she's still involved in public school teaching. I think she's still in Florida. I saw her and was able to thank her and some of my other high school teachers last year. I have been looking back. I realized, again, that people teaching public school go in every day and have a bunch of unruly and probably surly kids to engage. It's not easy work. I'm full of respect for them now. I may not have seemed that way when I was a kid.

So what year did you go from Birmingham, Alabama to Florida? You went by bus?

Paul Farmer: Yes, by bus, and stayed in the bus. I had finished fifth grade, so sixth grade. From sixth grade I stayed in the same place in Florida.

Why Florida?

Paul Farmer: My dad was looking for a job, somewhere quiet, and we had been there on vacations -- spring -- in the bus. We all thought it was a pretty cool place, the Everglades for example. So he got a job in the public school system in Hernando County, and off we went. And we went into, as one does with a bus, we went to a campground, which was supposed to be temporary, and then it wasn't temporary. I mean, when I left for college, it was still in the bus.

Did your family buy a boat?

Paul Farmer: Yes. My dad got these -- they were called sealed bids. How does the government get rid of its surplus? Like a car, a military vehicle or a boat. He would look at these all the time. I remember one year he bid on a car. The stipulation was he had to spray paint over the side that said, "Property of U.S. Army" or something like that. I remember exactly how much he paid: $280. That was the car. And that's how he got the boat. So we had a boat that was from Jacksonville, shipped down to the Gulf Coast, and soon we moved from the bus to the boat. So let's just say, from the time I was ten, until many, many years later, I never lived in a house. But living on a boat was cool.

Why was living in a boat cool?

Paul Farmer Interview Photo
Paul Farmer: Because that part of Florida, the coast of Florida, it's very wild. It's like the Everglades. Beautiful.

For a kid who's into science, what did that do for you?

Paul Farmer: At that point, my interests in the natural world were well set, but I enjoyed it very much, being in that part of Florida. It's a stirring countryside, where a bunch of fresh water estuaries meet the Gulf Coast, and it's full of all kinds of wildlife. It's just beautiful. Not the kind of place you want to stay for a long time when you're 18, but it really was very beautiful, a good place to go back to.

How long did your family stay on the boat?

Paul Farmer: Some years. I left in 1978 to go to Duke. But they were there for a while. They were between the bus and the boat, but then we moved the bus to where the boat was.

Did something happen to the boat?

Paul Farmer: Yeah. We had to move, and the boat went on its last voyage. I was not around then. I had just graduated from college.

What was high school like in Florida? Were you challenged academically? What kind of environment did your high school provide?

Paul Farmer: I've already said I have a respect for public school teachers. I think it's difficult, you're trying to appeal to whoever shows up in the public school system. I think at the time it might not have always felt challenging, but for people who are working hard, and who can focus on the academic stuff, it's plenty challenging. But how many teenagers actually do that, stay focused on the academic stuff? I didn't very much, but I enjoyed living there, and being part of the high school scene, and I learned a lot. Then I looked back, and learned about things that I didn't learn then. Maybe I got started on that path in high school, in Florida. So I don't have any complaints about it.

Did you do well academically?

Paul Farmer: There are other people who worked a lot harder, but I was lucky enough, like I said, to get to Duke, and then things opened up, ultimately, really very dramatically for me to go to a research university. That's when I really started drawing on my interest in reading, and not just science, but everything. So really the whole world opened up for me at Duke. I'm very grateful. Most of the things that I'm doing now, the kind of medicine I'm interested in -- I ended up doing graduate school in anthropology -- all that started for me at Duke, even getting interested in Haiti. I started writing for the school newspaper. So when I go talk to university students, like some of the people who'll be here, when I say, "Look, this is a great time, this is..." -- it sounds so like a cliché that a professor might say -- "...this is the best years of your life. You're in this oasis of privilege." But for me, that was very much the case. So I can say to them, "This is a time when you really can build interest in everything from fair trade to whatever academic interests you might have." That's what happened to me at Duke.

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This page last revised on Sep 28, 2009 20:07 EDT
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