Penile ponderings

The seven deadly sins. Penile Ponderings: When a professor asks you to grope your friend's organs for extra credit, what's the right thing to do?

Published September 15, 1998 9:51AM (EDT)

It all started with the penis thing. I was sitting in anatomy class, vaguely watching the professor scrawl body parts on the board, when suddenly I heard him say: "The penis can be retracted to reveal a scar, the presence of which indicates the closing of an undifferentiated vagina." By the next morning, he continued, those of the male persuasion were supposed to go home, find a mirror and locate the aforementioned scar. The rest of us -- those with differentiated vaginas -- were supposed to find the scar on "a volunteer." Then, with colored pencils, we were to trace exactly what we observed, and turn it in for a lab grade. Thirty points.

Now I'm not bragging or anything, but in my undergrad days, when push came to shove, I always managed to find "volunteers" to do things like hand out flyers for some wacko student production, auction themselves off for an excruciating date or read to bratty first-graders at the local school. Piece of cake. But was I really expected to recruit some guy so that I could lift up his penis and look for his vestigial vagina?

After class, I approached the board for clarification. "Excuse me, um, Dr.
T?" I asked. "What you want the women to do is to find a picture of the scar
in a medical text and draw that, right?"

Dr. T stared at me for what seemed like an eternity, then, finally, he spoke. "People," he bellowed in a deep voice that always reached the very last row of the lecture hall, "are not textbook drawings. Tell me, Miss Gottlieb, what will you do as a doctor when a person, and not a textbook, walks into your
office?" I tried explaining that the person walking into my office would be
given a blue-and-white gown when told to disrobe, but my friends might react
differently to shedding their boxers and having their genitals traced with
colored pencils. That didn't go over too well, though. Dr. T. sighed loudly,
as though mustering the patience to explain a simple concept to a mentally
impaired child. "Then please enlighten your so-called friends, Miss Gottlieb,
that they will be helping out in the name of science," he replied before
turning his back and erasing the left anterior testis off the board.

On the way out the door, I ran through my inventory of guy friends and ex-boyfriends who might "volunteer." I was pretty sure my guy friends would be
too embarrassed to do it ("Really, I swear, it's usually bigger than this"),
and as for my ex-boyfriends, well, let's just say it's been a while, and I
didn't trust myself around a potentially enlarged penis. By the time I got to
my car, I decided that I could do the assignment from a textbook picture and
no one would be the wiser.

I drove straight to the library, where, while waiting for my text to be pulled from the stacks, I took out a notebook containing my medical school
applications. "Please describe your greatest flaw," said one school's form.
Earlier I had started writing about my butt -- how it used to be perky and
tight and then once I hit 30 I've noticed it sinking a bit -- but then I
thought, wait: This is a med school application, not a Cosmo quiz. So I
searched my mind for an egregious character flaw, but I couldn't think of
anything worse than the fact that sometimes, if I need an excuse to get off
the phone, I fake call-waiting and say I have to go. I didn't consider using
a textbook drawing instead of a live person to be a flaw, per se. It was more
of a means to an end. Thirty points were a lot in this class.

Still waiting for my book, I moved on to the next essay: "Please discuss what you believe the role of the Honor Code in a medical school education should be." In response to this question, I wrote a long piece about how people who violate the honor code aren't fit to be doctors, because by cheating they are essentially saying: I don't need to play by the rules. I'm exempt from society's regulations. I even cited Ted Kaczynski as a case of narcissism gone awry, just to be topical. I concluded with: "If the academic setting can be viewed as a microcosm of the world at large, what will happen if people disregard the rules for their own self-interest when the stakes are higher than, say, attaining a certain GPA?"

Then it occurred to me: I am cheating, in a small way, in a way that most
students cheat, in the same way that many of us take restaurant deductions on
our tax returns for meals that weren't strictly business. I am cheating and
rationalizing my behavior with comforting bromides like "Everyone does it"
or "It's the system that encourages it" or "It was a stupid assignment
anyway." Suddenly, I was deeply ashamed that, having been out in the
real world and returned to school as an adult, I was still at a place where my
own reputation -- embodied in a single letter on a transcript -- was more
important than the power of my own convictions.

I remembered a conversation I had recently with a friend of mine, a cardiac
surgeon. He told me that when he took the MCAT 10 years ago, he freaked out
because he realized that everything he'd worked for, his very future, would be
determined by the 10 passages staring up at him from the test booklet. "I
just panicked," he said. "Suddenly my whole life came down to those 10
passages." I asked him how he manages to stay calm when instead of 10 test
passages, a person's exposed chest cavity stares up at him each day. "Well,
that's completely different," he replied matter-of-factly. "The MCAT was life
or death for me, but during surgery, I'm not the one on the table."

Sitting in the library, I decided I never want to lose perspective like that.
But if I started now, with little things like claiming a drawing is actually a volunteer, I may eventually become so accustomed to doing whatever it takes to get ahead that I won't be able to stop. When my textbook arrived, I found a clear, detailed photograph of the scar for the assignment. I knew I could get away with using this as a real penis -- I could take my indigo pencil and shade in some pink and flesh tones, add a bunch of wrinkles, maybe circumcise it or draw in a mole if I were feeling creative -- and say that my friend Bruce's penis looked like this. I mean, how could anyone besides his girlfriend prove otherwise? But somehow it didn't feel right. Instead, I took a bright red pencil, the color of blood, and printed in large block letters the name of the text from which I began tracing the tiny penile scar.

I won't get the 30 points, that's for sure. In fact, I may get a big fat zero. But at least now, I hope, I'll have a slightly better shot at caring
about the guy on the table one day. Especially if I happen to be operating on his

By Lori Gottlieb

Lori Gottlieb's new book, "Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self," an L.A. Times best seller, has been optioned for film by Martin Scorsese. She is a first-year medical student at Stanford.

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