Thursday, July 27, 2006

I Should've Gone to Law School

My grade ten math teacher wanted me to go into engineering. He was one of those wonderful math teachers who went out of his way to persuade girls to enter non-traditional fields – especially a girl like me, with her head in the clouds, who dreamed of writing books for a living. "Be a computer engineer for ten years," he advised, "and then retire and be a writer!" I never seriously considered a career in engineering, and I’m not at all convinced that I have the personality for it, though I do look enviously upon the career opportunities available to engineers I know, who seem to find their work challenging and stimulating.

I recently heard that a former neighbour of mine grew up and became a physician; she lives in Edmonton now and is working on a research project on post-partum depression, counseling new mothers and developing new treatment methods. These are aspects of medicine that appeal to me, especially the element of human interaction. But I pretty much foreclosed that career path when I dropped biology after grade nine, relieved beyond words to avoid the prospect of dissection. I’m probably not cut out for the health sciences field either – I get squeamish at the sight of blood, and when I talk with my nursing friends, I’m always grateful that my job doesn’t involve actual bodily contact with other people (and really no contact at all with their private parts).

Law school, though – that’s the career that got away. People used to tell me I should become a lawyer – a comment that reflected my stubborn, bull-ish, childhood self, the me I used to be before I learned about negotiation, compromise, and conflict-avoidance. I considered law school in an abstract way, though never to the point of actually applying, stopped always by my inability to answer the question of what kind of lawyer I’d like to be. Having spent the last three years observing my husband’s law school experience, I’ve remained equivocal – some of his courses sounded interesting; many of them seemed mind-numbingly dull. Now that he’s articling, I’m aware that the law profession is a ravenous dog that eats you alive and spits out the bones. But that’s not to say that I’ve ruled it out entirely. And when I review all the choices that have led me to be where I am now, law school remains the road not taken.

If I had gone to law school immediately after I completed my undergraduate degree, I would have finished by the age of 25. Instead of being one year into what would turn into a five-year doctoral program, I would have been finished my education and ready to start a career. It’s mind-boggling, really, to think of how different my financial position would be right now if I had been working for the last ten years instead of spending four of them in school and the other six working for peanuts as a sessional indentured servant.

Was grad school a mistake? Certainly it was according to those who consider it little more than a high-stakes gamble, with a tenure-track position as the potential pay-off, and with failure the more likely alternative. I loved my years in graduate school and went into them with my eyes open: I knew that I wanted to teach at the university level, and wasn’t especially concerned with the status attached to my official job title (lecturer, adjunct, associate). I wasn’t accumulating debt for the sake of my education, and I wasn’t convinced that there was anything else I could do that I would enjoy so much. And I was right about all those things: for the last six years, I’ve been doing work I love. I’ve never been bored. But what I didn’t realize when I was 22 years old and deciding between law school and grad school is how irreplaceable the next ten years of my life would be. At the end of those ten years I was married, pregnant, and no longer in a practical or emotional position to pick up stakes and follow my career wherever it took me. In some ways I do see grad school as a Venus fly-trap for smart people – it tempts us with the lure of intellectual stimulation and sucks away the most potentially productive years of our lives. Attractive scholarship packages mask the fact that you are paying for those graduate seminars and dissertation supervisors, not with cash but with your future.

So to bust myself out of this morose cage I’ve locked myself into, I’m going to remember all the things I’ve loved most about graduate school – the experiences I wouldn’t trade away for anything (not even a 70-hour-a-week job on Bay Street, with a 2-hour commute to the palatial mansion that I visit for a few hours a week in order to check on how much my children have grown since the last time I saw them):

  • The Victorian Race Theory seminar that introduced me to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and to Oliver Twist, and reintroduced me to Jane Eyre so that I would never see Bertha Rochester the same way again. I remember how exciting it was to immerse myself in Victorian culture, to feel the impact of the invention of new technologies like the typewriter and the gramophone and to recognize how the anti-Catholic stereotypes I had been exposed to as a child were rooted in Victorian ultra-Protestant xenophobia.
  • The Poetry Massacres. As a grad student at a Canadian prairie university, I loved the warm, friendly, uncompetitive atmosphere; I felt immediately comfortable among my fellow grad students, with whom I threw absurd fund-raisers in which the marquee event would be a 13-minute presentation of Hamlet or Macbeth. My role was always to die in melodramatic splendour, clutching my hand to my heart in the manner of Jo March and screaming as I fell senseless to the floor.
  • My trip to P.E.I. One of the main reasons I never landed a tenure-track job is that I only ever went to conferences when I wanted to, which is to say that I’ve attended a total of three and presented papers at two. But one of those papers was given at the L.M. Montgomery conference in P.E.I. Not only did I spend a weekend roaming about the Island in June, when the red roads are lined with banks of blue lupins, but I did so in the company of a group of "Kindred Spirits" – members of my very first online community, a mailing list for Montgomery fans. I ate lobster and sampled jam, bought early-edition copies of Anne’s House of Dreams and Rainbow Valley, and wandered around the abandoned Macneill homestead at twilight, communing with the ghosts.
  • Doing research at the British Library. For two weeks I lived in central London, spending each morning combing through anti-Catholic tracts from 1850 and 1851, and each afternoon sightseeing and shopping, stocking up on tea from Fortnum & Mason and browsing through the rare books on Charing Cross Road. I’ve never been much of a sightseer – what I like is to live in another country, even if only for a short time, and I remember my hours in the library reading room as fondly as I do the Tower of London and the National Portrait Gallery. A grad school friend made the trip with me and we roamed the city together, visiting cemeteries (her favourite) and bookstores (mine), while I strove, with some success, to conceal from her the terrible, terrible lovelorn-ness that was resulting from my first separation from He-Who-Would-Be-Hubby, who had only become officially more-than-a-friend a few months prior to my trip.
  • Being paid to read. Not paid well, mind you (never that), but paid, nonetheless, to read novels and poetry, to immerse myself in Jane Austen and George Eliot, in Tennyson and Browning, with the result that I can almost invariably pick up the brown pie pieces when I play the Genus edition of Trivial Pursuit.

Not a bad bargain, on the whole. Yes, I’ve mortgaged away my future, but at least I did it for the sake of some really, really good books.

13 comments:

Veronica Mitchell said...

Beautiful last line. That says it all.

And in my case, grad school introduced me to a fine husband who has given me two fine children.

Anonymous said...

As long as you are happy, that is all that matters! Great post...

metro mama said...

Those are wonderful experiences to dwell on. Don't, for a second, regret the road not taken--the "70-hour-a-week job on Bay Street, with a 2-hour commute to the palatial mansion that I visit for a few hours a week in order to check on how much my children have grown since the last time I saw them".

So not worth any amount of money.

crazymumma said...

I know absolutely nothing about university and grad school. I was a late to the plate art school student...
What read from you tho' is your happiness.
Anne

lildb said...

G, promise me that, someday soon, you're going to post at length about your commiseration with Lucy Maud, and how well versed you are about all things her/Anne.

Promise. Me.

Because, really, anyone who could be so very Anne, wandering around the MacNeil homestead, communing with the ghosts, has something to say on the subject.

p.s. I'm so glad you chose the path you did. So VERY glad.

xo

sunshine scribe said...

I've with lildb - please tell more about all things Anne. I got chills reading that part. Sincerely.

Your grad school choice has brought all those fabulous things you listed ... and two stunning children, a loving partner and road taken that has given you the opportunity to enjoy them .. and those great books ... instead of the 70 hour work week and 2 hour commute.

And if at some point, you want to travel down that law school road ... there is nothing to say that you can't . You are still young my friend. And so fiercely bright that I bet you could reinvent yourself over 100 times and be equally successful at each.

Jaelithe said...

Most young lawyers I know are miserable. Wealthy, but miserable. The majority work long hours in an extremely competitive environment for troublesome clients and bosses who don't appreciate them. They are forced to travel frequently; sometimes they are forced to relocate to another branch of their firm with little notice.

I used to be a part-time nanny when I was in college. The mother of the children I watched was a reporter and freelance writer who started working from home after her first child was born. The father was a lawyer, just a year or two out of school. He worked 60-80 hours a week. He went out of town every other weekend.

The day his wife told him that his two-year-old daughter had run up to an anonymous man in a suit at the drycleaners, and thrown her arms around his legs, screaming "Daddy! I wov oo!" that grown professional man burst into tears.

I think you made the right choice . . .

penelopeto said...

I think that you're really lucky - doing something stimulating, challenging and that you love.

and a conference at green gables?! oh, i knew i should have gone to grad school!

Becky said...

Grad school for me was a cross between a necessary evil and real-life-avoidance therapy. It took all of my 5 1/2 years of grad school (including the 8 months I took off to have a child) for me to be ready to have a "real job", and now that I've got it, I'm still not sure it was all worth it (and really, can a postdoc even be considered a real job?). I never thought of law school, though. I'm far too impatient to be thorough enough for the legal system.

Heather said...

When I saw your title I wanted to scream NOOOO!

I'd have to say the whole lawyer thing is HIGHLY overrated. I'm not busting my butt on Bay Street (knew that wasn't for me right away) but really? There are tons of other, better careers than "lawyer." I've never done the cool things you have.

-from another argumentative child

Kristin said...

Wonderful post... I found out I was accepted to grad school 3 days after I was pregnant with my first child... I deferred. And deferred again. And again. Until I realized that I probably wouldn't really ever go and I had to just let it be... sometimes, I really wonder if it is too late...

Mommy-Like Days said...

Tee hee--nice to remind ourselves about why we made the decisions we have, and that (as per our friend Amy S) those decisions were the best decisions we could have made at the time. Period. I was just thinking the other day about the end of high school when you told me the 90s were going to be our decade--they were pretty fun :) And of course, the new millennium is still working itself out. . .

Mayberry said...

That lupine picture ALONE is worth big bucks!

Of course I relate and sympathize as a fellow student of literature (although I never went to grad school). I was the one reading four or five novels a week (half of them in French) while my roommates suffered through organic chemistry and materials science engineering.