Defying life's harsher realities, a can-do spirit fulfills dream

Graduate: At 22, Ricky Grisson has endured a childhood of hardship and terror, but he never wavered. Now, medical schools beckon.

May 21, 2000|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

His dreams were born of the naivete of childhood.

Bill Cosby played a doctor on television, so young Ricky Grisson wanted to be a doctor. A friend told him that Johns Hopkins was the place to go, so he wanted to go to college there.

But dreams often wither in the stern light of reality, especially when life begins in the housing projects of Athens, Ga., where a single mother keeps her family clinging to respectability by cleaning schools and nursing homes.

Dreams fade away when a father becomes a divisive presence, trying to drive a wedge between a boy and the sister who always looked out for him.

They disappear when that sister heads down a different path -- cutting school, having sex, getting pregnant.

Such dreams die when the child who dreamed them sits in the living room of his house, cradling his mother in his arms as blood pours from seven gunshot wounds. Or when, a year later, a favorite uncle dies of AIDS in that same room.

But dreams can stay alive if the dreamer works hard and finds help and stubbornly holds on.

On Thursday, Ricky D. Grisson will graduate from the Johns Hopkins University.

Dreams come true.

"I-can-do-that" attitude

He arrived at Hopkins four years ago with one of the school's most prestigious scholarships. He was a Hodson Trust scholar. He leaves with acceptances to a half dozen medical schools, trying to choose between Harvard and Stanford.

Though he has seen more in his 22 years than most will in a lifetime, and can talk with sophistication about topics ranging from family dynamics to biochemistry, you can still see something of that naive little boy in Grisson's eyes.

It's the kind of naivete that defeats cynicism, that gives him an I-can-do-that attitude.

It's the kind that made Grisson try out for football as a freshman in high school."I never made the team, but I did practice with them."

Or, in his senior year of college, sign up for a course in voice at the Peabody Conservatory."I always thought I could sing. I learned I have a lot of work to do."

Or, in his freshman year at Hopkins, wondering how he would stack up against the prep school graduates, manage a perfect 4.0 grade point average."Things got a little harder after that," he says of his final 3.7 GPA. "But that's not bad."

It's also the kind of attitude that kept Grisson on the path he started down in elementary school, when he was put in classes for the gifted and talented.

Grisson has a long list of those he credits with helping him. The mother who never finished high school but encouraged her children as she labored year after year. The preschool teacher who became a trusted adviser, the big sister who protected him from bullies, the pastor at church, the friends at school, some professors at Hopkins.

There was a high school math teacher who still gets cards from him on Mother's Day.

"Ricky realized early on that the way to get out of the circumstances his family was in was to let school do what it is intended to do," says that teacher, Anne Brightwell. "He wanted to learn everything he could, so he made every teacher around him feel so great. He wanted us to teach him, to supply the stuff we are dying to supply students, but so few let us."

Playing, staying together

There was also the string bass.

In fourth grade, a program at his elementary school distributed instruments to those who could not afford them. His sister Shondachose the viola. Ricky picked the bass.

They would lug the instruments home from school and sit in their house hour after hour, bows against strings, making music.

"It was things like `Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.' We were just kids."

But it kept them inside, off the streets that claimed so many from their neighborhood.

"It gave us an opportunity to stay after school to practice," he says. "And something to do when we got home. I didn't really want to go outside."

Shonda had been held back a year, so she and Ricky were in the same grade. They were never in the same class.

"I was placed in the gifted programs," Grisson says. "My sister was in the behavioral disorder programs. But we used to tell her that the school system had a policy never to put brothers and sister in the same class. Playing the instruments was the only time we actually had class together."

Grisson says Shonda was by far the better musician, but when they reached high school, the program that provided the instruments was no longer available. The music stopped.

On different tracks

He still wonders what would have happened if they had kept playing. Instead, a couple of years later, Shonda got pregnant and dropped out of school.

Grisson didn't play football, but he ran track and cross country, joined ROTC, and got involved in student government, an Explorer post, academic honors groups and teams.

In some ways, the tracks they were put on - gifted for Ricky, behavioral disorder for Shonda - led to their logical conclusions.

But Grisson knows there was another reason for Shonda's troubles.

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