This keynote talk was presented by Lionel Traubman, DDS, at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco, on the occasion of the first Dedication Ceremony for Incoming Dental and Dental Hygiene Students, September 3, 1999.

A Special Message To New Dental and Dental Hygiene Students


       New students, this is your day. And I would like to contribute to it a couple of stories and my thoughts about you, and about these exciting years ahead for you. It's about caterpillars and people, about idealism and your eventual graduation.
       Today is a Dedication. It is a first for this institution. You dedicate yourselves to this school and to excellence. We dedicate ourselves to you.

You, the students

       And who are you? You are very gifted women and men. And your presence in this room is earned and hard won; we know that. You represent quality and success. In fact, you are the result of a 5-billion-year success story. Think of it - everyone in your line said "yes" to life , often in the face of great challenges and obstacles to overcome. Thus, you are here. You are the end result of a grand success story, and the pride of your family.
       Yet, none of you got here alone. You've all had lots of help. Take a moment now to remember and feel gratitude for those who helped you. Close your eyes and see them - parents, mentors, neighbors, ancestors. See them in your mind's eye. Thank them.
       You, I imagine, are feeling both proud to be here, and a little nervous about the future. Perhaps you've looked at the curriculum ahead of you, and even watched students in the clinics, and felt a bit like a caterpillar wondering how it could ever be that you will become a butterfly - a dental hygienist or dentist. Well, you will, and you will fly. And you will get quite good at it.
       And to learn to fly, you have chosen this University to be your mentor. We have chosen you. We're married! It's a big deal.


       I will not say much today about academic and technical mastery. I assume you know how necessary excellence is to your patients' health and your professional career. I presume you will devote yourself to being the best you can be.
       But dental and dental hygiene school is not only about facts, techniques, and teeth - not just about anatomy, physiology, periodontal health, root canal therapy, oral medicine, and prosthetics. It is not about money and prestige. It is about people. It's about relationships. It's about spirit. And it's about time, for ceremonies like this.
       When I was a freshman here, I was barely 20. In those days a person could work exceptionally hard and get into this school after two years of undergraduate studies. That's the path I chose. I was young and far from home.
       U.C. was known for clinical excellence, and there was a devoted faculty that would settle for nothing less. However, there was not an abundance of empathy. There was a distance - an unnecessary distance - between us students and instructors. And it didn't help.
       But time did reveal a handful of individual teachers who would bridge the chasm, relate to us more personally, listen to us, affirm us, and help us feel more human. They showed me the importance of the student-teacher relationship, and the difference one person can make.
       So you can see why, when Dean Bertolami phoned with the idea for this day of dedication, and the invitation to be with you, I was thrilled. It was about the rightness of this kind of day for us. It felt like a big step forward for dental education - any education - and for life itself. It is what students need; it is what teachers need. It is a blessing.


       I would like to say something about blessings. In my tradition - the biblical tradition, Torah - Isaac gives his blessing to Jacob, his son. Jacob, in response, is interested in receiving the blessing then passing on the traditions and high principles. This story has great meaning for me.
        That we women and men bless one another is very important. Many of us have had the opposite experience, where someone significant in our life has withheld approval or support of ideas or goals that were dear to us. We did not receive the blessing. This withholding can be devastating.
       So today we bless one another. Call it Dedication. You dedicate yourself to this great school and to excellence. We dedicate ourselves to you. We are for you.

We, the dental school

       And who are "we?" What is Cal? Last year we were America's #1 dental school recipient of Research and Training grants from the National Institutes of Health. Cal received 50% more than the next most gifted dental school.
       On the National Board examinations, the Dental Hygiene class scored fourth in the nation, out of 212 schools. And 1/3 of the clinical teaching staff here are volunteers; they teach because they're needed, because it's right. That's the kind of people you will be around, and the nature of this school.

Listening: Being a good friend

       As we dedicate ourselves today to our relationships - between students and faculty, between you classmates - let us dedicate ourselves to listening to one another. Listening is one of the great acts of learning, of cooperation, of healing - of love!
       Most of what I know about listening I have learned from my wife, Libby. She is a master listener, and my gratitude for her and what she has taught me is beyond words.
       A recent study revealed that newly graduated health practitioners tend to talk more than they listen to their patients. But as good health practitioners move through life they become better questioners and listeners. As a result, they become better diagnosticians, thus better healers of body and spirit.
       I suggest you begin right away in school to master the art of listening - to your teachers, to your patients, to yourself. You will become better students, better healers, better friends.
       And friendship will be important to you classmates. True, you each got here by being strong individuals. But this education is rigorous and demanding, and you will need to be friends to one another. Encourage each other. Succeed together. Become a learning family.

Beyond books and techniques: Lives you will touch

       When I was a freshman like you, I felt sort of "in a fog." At first my dental education felt rather intellectual and technical, and subjects seemed disconnected. Perhaps you, too, can't visualize how it will all fit together, and that you will spend your life helping human beings. From your first day, it will help you to remember that it is all leading you to be intimately involved with people's lives. You will touch a lot of people, and they will touch you. I'd like to personalize this.
       One patient that gave me great joy was Sharon Anne Stout. I loved watching her grow up. Sharon wrote fine poetry, was active in drama, and held jobs after school in her junior and senior years at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory. Two years ago, she graduated cum laude. Then, this Spring, and just before Sharon was about to schedule her appointment in our office, she had a tragic fall onto her head. After several days on life support, she finally died. Sharon always thought about other people. So, as she lived her life and planned, in death she donated five of her organs to give life and sight to others. As Sharon's dentist, I was able to offer comfort to her mother, Colleen, and sister, Audrey, also my patient. In return, I was reminded about what is important and great in life: relationships and helping others.
       I tell you this so you will remember, while sitting in classrooms and laboratories, that you will be intimately involved in people's lives. You will share birth, graduations, marriages, illnesses, and even death with many, many people. You will help people celebrate, mourn, and heal. You will influence them in many ways; and they will touch you. So pay attention to the knowledge and technical skills you learn today. They will all come together for the great benefit of real people like Sharon.

Living and practicing successfully, from the heart

       I would like to say more about success in dental school and in dental practice. I cannot do it without speaking again about the blessing.
       I have been in private practice since I was 24, and have treated over 17,000 different boys and girls, in about 150,000 appointments in my 3-chair office. To do that well, everything depends on relationships - again wanting the best for each other, blessing each other, dedicating ourselves to one another.
       So, in our pediatric dental office, on our last work day of the year in December, what do you suppose we exchange? Gifts, of course. But also, blessings. It is the time of Christmas, Chanukah, Ramadan, the Season of Light, or whatever it is for you. We give each other written blessings to affirm and thank one other. Gathered together, we read them in silence. Are there tears? Yes. Is this the highlight of the year and the season? Yes. Does such intimacy harm our "professional" relationships? Of course not; everything is better. For us, and for our successful work together year-long.
       That is why I am so heartened by today here at the University of California. Life will be better for you students, for the faculty, for dentistry. I know it, because I've experienced it. It is what works in real life.
       For science without a soul is a prescription for disaster. And health care without heart does not work. Beginning today, let us - faculty and students together - dedicate to injecting more soul and wisdom into science, more affection for people into healthcare.
       For sure, during these next four exciting years, learn your science and dental skills, and be excellent. But, equally, seek science and wisdom - what serves all of life, all of Earth. Become science-wise, health-wise, relationship-wise, and Earth-wise. That balance is just what's needed.

Paying attention to yourself

       And one more prescription for balance. During dental school, as you help others, also pay attention to yourself.
       Many of us who choose dentistry are Perfectionists by personality. This is a double-edged sword. One side is that we make great dentists and hygienists. We understand excellence and will not settle for less. The trap is that we are "self-forgetting;" we lose track of what we need for our own physical and spiritual health.
       When I was here at U.C.S.F. in the late '50s and early '60s, I lived in the Alpha Omega dental fraternity house - two years in the dirty basement and two years in the hot attic. In both rooms, though, I always had my surfboard strapped to the wall next to my bed. And, when I could on a weekend, I'd put the board on top of my '57 blue Chevy and go out to Seal Rock or Pacifica, or even down to Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz. I'd spend the day with a friend, surfing, napping, and eating a fresh pie from the local bakery. If there wasn't time, swimming or ping pong at Millberry Union was my refuge.
       So just be sure not to forget yourself, and to play and have fun, too. Be a balanced person. It will make you a better dentist or hygienist.
       And on this educational path, you will continue to discover more and more about dentistry, and about yourself: what you love, who you love, what gifts you have to give back to dentistry and to life - the world - just as you have been given to.
       You may be drawn to private practice, education, or research, or a combination of those. Most of you will like general dental hygiene or dentistry, where you will understand, educate, and treat everyone in a family, from infancy through their "wisdom years." Some will pursue postdoctoral education in a specialty, or work in the U.S. Public Health Service. You may become an educator, with its special rewards: being a role model for new students, training the next generation, and special relationships with other faculty on the cutting edge of science. Educators get to move beyond the four walls of one's office. They influence the few who maintain the health of the many.
       You needn't decide tomorrow; take your time. But be aware of what you are drawn to, as you discover your destiny - what you were born to be and do.


       In closing I assure you that some day you will be a dentist or a hygienist - a butterfly - helping thousands of people to heal. You will be rewarded: a place to practice or teach, a home, perhaps a family. You will have privilege: money, intelligence, creativity, influence. I hope you use your influence to serve the whole world, even beyond dentistry.
       In the epoch 1980 TV film series, Cosmos, Carl Sagan has spent 12 hours describing the miracle of how our fabulous global living system came to us. He then concludes: "We know who speaks for the institutions and the nations. But who speaks for Earth?" I hope you will speak for Earth, for the end of war, for a culture of wisdom that respects all - all the nations, races, religions, species. And our precious and limited air, water, soil and resources upon which totally depend all future generations and their health. For all is one.
       All through dental school, to the end of your life, do not lose this idealism. In dentistry, always hold to the highest standards of excellence and compassion that will develop here at the University of California.
       People will tell you your high principles and dreams are impossible, impractical, too idealistic. Don't fall for that. Because, in my experience, some of which I have shared with you today, what is idealistic is what really works in everyday life. This is the life I recommend to you.
       And I hope these ideas, and the stories I've told, will help you become the best students, healers, and human beings you can . . . and to get your degree at graduation. Working together - dedicated students and dedicated faculty - we'll be sure that happens. We bless you.

Lionel "Len" Traubman, DDS, MSD
Dentistry for Infants and Children
2555 Ocean Avenue (Suite 104)
San Francisco, CA 94132
Voice: 415-333-6812 -- Fax: 415-333-6813

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