Mahogany

The summer before my last year of law school, I went to Nashville to see a Beyoncé concert with a friend who lived there. On the drive from the Greyhound station to her house, she caught me up on her existential crisis. She had been offered a full scholarship to attend a law school that had heavy ties to her family. This was their second time making her an offer and even though it was late in the summer, they were still willing to let her matriculate that fall. The only problem was that she didn’t want to go.

As she was talking, I was seized with this fervent desire to tell her to go. I wanted to be the responsible friend who told her to go to law school because I had just made a series of responsible decisions about my own future and if she went to law school, we’d be in the same place, geographically and socially speaking. But, the words wouldn’t really come out, so I just half-heartedly stated that it would be cool to have graduated from law school debt-free, so if she had the option, maybe she should take it.

“I just wish I knew what the right decision was. I need some guidance. I need to know which way to go.”

“There are the struggles of high-achieving students. Where are the gold stars and A+s that have guided all of our decisions thus far?”

“Girl, I had to go to therapy over that obsession with gold stars! I’m still looking to them to tell me which way to go.”

I chewed on that conversation for days and weeks after the fact. How long was I prepared to chase these gold stars that were not forthcoming? The longer I meditated on the question, I realized that if someone had asked me when I was a child/teenager what I wanted to be, and if was being truly honest with them and myself, I would have answered, “I want to be the best,” using that adjective as a noun.

Yea sure, growing up, I did express interest in various careers: I wanted to be an actress, lawyer, judge, or a philanthropist (took me awhile to realize that last one wasn’t a career), but ultimately, I just wanted to be the best at whatever I was doing like I had been all my life. It was much easier to be the best when I was younger – I had been reading long before I started kindergarten and this kid over here was picking his nose. From day one, teachers loved me and I got hooked on their praise and their awards. In the past few years, it has gotten really difficult to maintain that golden status and initially, I thought it was because the competition was getting harder, so I dug in my heels and kept pursuing the elusive gold stars. It took me awhile to realize that their elusiveness was actually absence. There were no more externally motivating gold stars. If I wanted more, I was going to have to find them within.

Nowhere was the gold star hunt more visible in law school than with the law review. Before I went to law school, I fantasized about following in Obama’s footsteps and being the first black woman to be president of the law review. Then, I arrived at HLS and learned what it meant to be on law review. From what I understand, being on law review means spending hours a week editing law professor’s articles for the magazine. When I discovered this fact, I was flabbergasted by the popularity of the magazine and the highly competitive application process. To apply, first-years stay an extra week after exams to cite a crazy, thick packet of material. This must be a conspiracy arranged by the law school professors. A bunch of them must have been sitting around one day thinking, “Dang, I don’t really want to cite and edit my own work. How can I shove this mundane task off on law students? Ahh yes! We’ll tell them it’s prestigious by tying it to competitive jobs like clerkships and professorships.” Genius.

In the spring of my 1L year, the leaders of my section arranged for our favorite professor from the first semester came to have lunch with us one day. People were particularly anxious to speak with him because he was one of the best professors on campus and he had not done law review when he was in school, putting him in the minority of the rest of the faculty. A few of my classmates pressed him about law review. Should they apply? Is it really essential to pursuing a career in academia? How did he manage to maneuver around that obligation? His answers were very vague and noncommittal, much to the chagrin of my classmates. Some of them were visibly getting frustrated with him. Could he just tell them that law review was not critical to future success so they could move on with their lives and not apply?

But he wouldn’t do it. He towed the line of, “That’s a personal choice and so, the right answer depends on the person.” The resentment was palpable, but I understood his position. When he chose not to go out for law review, he didn’t know that he would still become a professor. He made that choice in spite of the uncertainty because it was the best choice for him. And the rest of us would have to make a similar choice. This wasn’t a simple equation; all of us weren’t going to reach the same conclusion.

Grasping that concept is really difficult for people like us who have always followed a formula. Every decision made before then had clear delineated steps. Want go to college? Beast the SAT, write an excellent essay, and have superb grades. Want to go law school? Beast the LSAT and have really good grades. Simple. But then, I got to law school and my system fell apart. In law school, I felt like I was standing on a cliff. I had climbed to the top of a peak and I couldn’t find the next trail. I could see one glaring out at me, but it looked like a decoy. It promised the same, structured path I had grown accustomed to, but when I looked ahead to its peak, all I could see was quicksand. Where was my path?

In law school, a lot of literature about entrepreneurs crossed my path. Every time I read a story about an entrepreneur, I was always amazed at how similar his or her personality was to mine. The same struggles they faced in their structured environments, I faced in mine, but the difference between them and me was that I crave structure. As much as I rebel against it, I crave it. I like sample models. I like to see people succeed and fail at a path before I venture down that road. Entrepreneurship doesn’t allow for that monkey-see, monkey-do/don’t mentality, so I could not be about that life, hence, my presence in law school.

But, I struggled. My performance was so below average. I tried to give myself verbal kicks in the butt, but nothing worked. For a while, I thought it was laziness and fear driving my lack of motivation. I was afraid to try because I was afraid to fail. I was content to just do the bare minimum. I tried to motivate myself to excel by appealing to my competitive nature, but when I did, the voice inside would immediately ask, “For what? What will be accomplished if you do this? Let’s say we devote the next month to performing this task, then what? Will you be pleased with yourself? Oh no? So ok then, back to the Netflix marathon.”

I was disgusted with myself. I missed my high-school days when I was a hustler. Between an almost full-time job masquerading as part-time, extracurricular activities, and a full, rigorous course load, I was averaging about ten hours of sleep a week or less. Now, I was always sleeping or giving my attention to non-academic endeavors. Where had my hustle gone? I tried to have a real come-to-Jesus moment with myself. You, my friend, don’t have another plan. You don’t do well without structure, so just commit to the structure you have right here. I tried. I failed. And I tried again. I remember one night being on the verge of tears, telling a friend that my biggest fear was that I was going to graduate from law school having wasted my talents just to be a mediocre version of myself in a profession I did not value.

I wanted something more, but something more seemed childish. All around me, people were getting in line, staying on the conveyor belt, seemingly at peace with the world. And here I was fighting and screaming like a two-year old having a temper tantrum, with no better options on the line. Since I didn’t have a better plan, it was best that I stop fighting and go gently into that good night of conformity and stability.

But then, the firm I was supposed to start working at after graduation contacted me and told me that they needed me to take a year off and that I should go clerk. The absolute last thing I wanted to do was clerk and panic initially set in. Oh dear God, what was I going to do? I can’t graduate with no job. I don’t want to clerk. What will they do if I tell them no? Why is this happening to me?” And suddenly, that Philippians 4:7 peace surrounded me. This was my chance. God had heard my cry and he was pulling me out of the water just before I went under. I was being given a fresh start.

I knew when I moved down to Guatemala that I would probably be here longer than a year. True enough, by Christmas, I had decided to say another year. The only issue was, I needed to make peace with the firm I was supposed to come back to the following fall. When the partner at the firm helped me break ties with them in the best way possible, I felt so alive. Yes, now I can spend the next year figuring out what I really want to do with my life.

Still, when January of this year rolled around, I found myself telling people that my plan was to take the bar and work at a firm for a few years. I sent emails to a few friends asking them to help me with referrals, cover letters, and resumes. And then, I froze. I could not so much at look at my resume, much less edit it. I started fussing with myself again. Stop being lazy! And my conscious suddenly took the voice of Diane from black-ish, “This feels right to you?” NO! It doesn’t, but I still haven’t found my career path, so what else am I supposed to do? This poverty look is so 2015. “Has it occurred to you that you haven’t found the path because it doesn’t exist? Maybe you’re going to have to create it?”

It had occurred to me. But it has taken me two years to accept that fact. I’m going to have to create the environment I want to work in. I’m not sure what it’s going to look like in its entirety, but I catch glimpses of it here and there. My eighth graders just finished reading Narrative in the Life of Frederick Douglass and one of my students was analyzing a sentence from the book where Douglass said that learning to read awakened ideas (like freedom) that were already inside of him. Reading gave a voice to those thoughts. She said that the sentence reminded her of those color-by-number drawings where the image is already there; we just have to connect the dots to see it.

I loved that so much because sometimes it’s really hard not to feel like I’m wasting my time, my education, and my life. But my future is there; my destiny is there. I just need to connect the dots to see it. Some of them have already started to connect. I believe wholeheartedly in authentic community. I value creativity, respect, and purpose in a work environment. Every day, I learn a little more about myself, my world, and the role I want to play in it. Maybe I’m moving at a slower pace than many of my peers and that scares me, but when the panic rises, I try to anchor myself in the idea that my steps are ordered and the big picture is going to come together soon enough.

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