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Joined Just Above the Hip

A unique bond between a TC faculty member and a former student
By Joe Levine

At first glance, Celia Oyler and John Young would seem to have little in common. She is a white, lesbian Ivy League professor who grew up mostly overseas and practices meditation and Buddhism. He is a black, deeply spiritual, award-winning former public school teacher who worked in some of the toughest schools in Washington, D.C., and whose parents grew up in the Deep South of Jim Crow during the 1930s and ‘40s.

Scratch beneath the surface, though, and the similarities quickly become clear. Both are passionate community activists with a strong sense of social justice. Both believe in education as a way to change the world. Their birthdays fall back to back -- Young’s on July 14th, Oyler’s on the 15th. Even their blood types are the same –which explains how the two, who barely know one another, became linked by the kidney that Oyler gave Young this past summer.

Although Oyler, Associate Professor of Education in TC’s Curriculum & Teaching Department, and Young, who earned an Ed.D. in 2009 from the College’s program in Gifted Education, had been colleagues for more than a decade, they had their first real conversation  two years ago at a graduation reception for another TC student.

“I asked John what he was up to, and he said, ‘Oh, not too much, I’m doing dialysis right now, and it doesn’t leave me a lot of time or energy,’” Oyler recalled recently during a conversation with Young at her third floor office in Zankel Hall.

Young nodded. “There’s a standard in the African-American community that you don’t reveal much about yourself or your problems,” he said. “I try to be open about my life, because I’ve become convinced that if you don’t let people know what’s going on with you, you can’t get help.”

In many ways, TC helped Young to acquire that point of view. When he arrived at the College in the late 1990s – just as his doctors were telling him that his kidneys were in a state of slow but sure decline – one of the first courses he took was the newly established core seminar, C&T 5000.

“The message in that course was that you shouldn’t compartmentalize yourself as a researcher,” he says. “We were urged to bring our lives into our work by examining where we stood in relation to students and the ways that our backgrounds affected how we looked at people and issues. I had never experienced that before, and I had trouble with it at first. But it’s really influenced me in the long run.”

For much of his time at TC, Young was too busy to think about his medical problems.  In addition to his studies and fieldwork, he was running a non-profit business in Harlem that works with students and their families – part of his dream to create a program one day that will support and encourage academically-oriented, high-achieving African American males.

“There’s nothing out there that says to young black males, ‘It’s okay to be smart, you’re doing what you’re supposed to do,’” says Young – himself a former piano prodigy who studied at Oberlin Conservatory before opting to pursue a teaching career. “They’re constantly bombarded with media messages to be talented at sports. Adults may be saying, ‘education, education,’ but there also has to be a focus on time management and study skills, achieving a level of literacy and numeracy – and many parents are simply unable to help with that.”

In 2007, as Young began work on his dissertation – a study of academically high-achieving, economically disadvantaged African American young men – he began experiencing severe kidney-related pain. And in 2009, right after receiving his doctorate and just as he was setting out to begin a new career, doctors told him the time had come to begin dialysis.

“It was very limiting. I had to go three days a week, for three hours per session,” Young said. “I went at in four in the morning and got home at eight. Fortunately, I was working at TC’s Graduate Writing Center, which wasn’t too taxing, so I would rest and nap and then start my day.” 

Meanwhile, as Oyler learned during that first conversation, Young had been put on a waiting list at Cornell-Weill Medical Center to receive a kidney transplant, but had been informed that the process could take “anywhere from six months to forever.”

“I’m standing there thinking, ‘He could die waiting around, and I might be able to help him,’” Oyler recalls. “So I asked what blood type he was, and it turned out we were both O positive. I said, ‘I might be a match,’ and he said, ‘If you’re serious, you would need to call the transplant center.’”

Some people were concerned about the risk she was taking, Oyler says. But after reading lots of stories on the Internet by kidney donors who said that recovery is usually quick, with no long-term health consequences, she decided to go through with it.

Throughout this past spring, Oyler came down repeatedly from Massachusetts, where she was on sabbatical completing a book, to undergo a CT scan, a colonoscopy, an EKG and other pre-tests.  “I was really shocked by how people treat you in the hospital,” she said. “No one tells you anything, they keep you waiting after you’ve been fasting. I’m an arrogant professor who’s used to bossing other people around and enjoying those white-skin privileges working for me. John was like, ‘Welcome to my world.’”

Finally, on June 16th, the procedure took place. Oyler says her second kidney took over full functioning within hours after the surgery; that she herself was up walking the same day; that she was discharged two days later; and that she walked three miles that weekend.

“I’d gone on Facebook and asked people for all these suggestions of page-turner novels, and I ended up never getting to read most of them,” she says.

Young’s recovery was not as swift, to say the least. He spent two months in the hospital, fighting infections and his immune system’s attempts to reject the donated organ. He’s better now, but will have to take immuno-suppressant medication for the rest of his life. Still, he knows how lucky he is.

“There are so many more people waiting for transplants than there are donors,” he told Oyler in her office. “I’m so grateful to you. The Lord spoke to you so that I could continue to do my work in the community.”

“When I found out afterward you were an activist, I was, like, ‘Yes!” Oyler replied. “But I’ll admit that right up until the end, part of me was hoping that something would happen that would get me off the hook. I went through with it because I had said I would.”

Young smiled. “That’s your integrity, and I love you for it.”

Anyone interested in learning more about either kidney transplantation or John Young’s educational work is welcome to contact him at either212 666-2436 or

Published Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011