I Am 17 Percent Finished!

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of pieces sharing the experiences of a 30-something going back to law school after years away from the academic scene.

As I shuffled blearily out of my first law school exam, one of my classmates said, “Well, at least we’re 4 percent done with law school now.”

In another situation that might have earned him glares from the rest of us. But this was law school, where no detail ever goes unexamined, so just about everyone had already done the math for themselves. His remark elicited a few groans, and little more.

Finals were brutal. We were deluged from Thanksgiving onward with warnings from well-meaning professors, study tips distributed by second- and third-year students, and flyers on stress relief. Final exams were made to sound like Armageddon. In fact, they were significantly worse. Imagine trying to review and outline a semester’s worth of dense material in a few weeks. Now imagine that your professors are still pouring on the work, adding new material and recasting previously covered topics. By the time finals rolled around, my brain felt like the last moves in a nasty game of Jenga.

Four of my five course grades were based on a single final exam. The first two exams weren’t so bad; I felt adequately prepared, and I had at least a day to recover from each. Exam number three tested my stamina, but I got through it somehow. By exam number four, however, I was so spent that I barely registered where I was. The haggard faces of my classmates offered a bit of consolation. Our exams were being graded on a forced curve; I was glad that we all seemed to be starting from the same point.

Lesson learned: apparently, I should try to always operate from a place beyond exhaustion, because the grade I got on my last final turned out to be the best of the bunch.

By the end of that last exam, though, grades were the farthest thing from my mind. Christmas was just days away, and while my girlfriend took on almost all of the shopping, wrapping, decorating, and baking associated with the holiday, there were still some tasks left undone. (Full disclosure: I actually love Christmas, so I begged her to leave some things for me to do. “Please let me wrap that!” “Don’t we have any more cards to send out? No?”)

By the second week of winter break, my skin resembled a normal human color, or as normal a color as a white person can hope to achieve during a Minnesota winter, and my eyes had lost the haunted look that my girlfriend had termed my “thousand-yard stare.” I began to remember what it was like to be a regular person. There were a lot of projects to do over breakthings I’d let slide during the semesterbut there was still enough time to read a bunch of utterly worthless novels, plow through entire seasons of Tivoed shows, spend a couple of days in Vegas, and reacquaint myself with my dogs. It was fantastic.

Like all sweet things, though, it was too fleet, and soon enough I was back at school. I discovered right away that all of the stamina I’d built up during the previous semester was gone, destroyed by the cheerful sloth of winter break. Instead of studying for seven or eight hours at a crack, I could barely put in three before I wanted a nap. (To be fair, it took a long time to get used to the routine during my first semester; I have vivid memories of coming home from school during those first few weeks and nodding off whenever I sat still for more than a few minutes.)

This semester is not as disorienting as last semester was. At least I don’t have to go through that rocky acclimation period. Transitioning from the working world to the student world is not as easy as one might think. Even if you are a person who remembers her undergrad days with wistfulness and a touch of envy, think twice before you go back to schoolespecially if you’re over 30. Old brains are less flexible than young brains. Or maybe that’s just my old brain.

In retrospect, I wonder if I knew what I was getting into when I decided to go back. My decision was probably an expression of a negative preference more than anything: specifically, I did not want to continue working the kinds of jobs my English degree could get me.

A long, long time ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth and I still roamed the verdant quads of my undergrad alma mater, I read an interview with musician Cooper Seay in which she said that she’d gotten a large tattoo on her hand so she would never have to work in a bank. That might seem a bit extremea person can get awfully tired of a tattoo, and banks do not generally resort to conscription to staff their countersbut I understand where she was coming from. It’s all about negative preferences.

If I had to summarize my negative preferences, I’d say that I want to be free forever from jobs that involve mopping or answering the phone. While it’s true that I have not wielded a mop professionally since 1999, and there is no line of work that does not require some sort of response to a ringing telephone, I still set my sights on moving into a more rarified sphere of employmentone in which there would be no possibility that I would have to mop a floor after closing time or answer the phone on behalf of someone who is too important or busy to do it for themselves.

Because the idea of studying cadaver dissection and organic chemistry gave me the heebie-jeebies, an MD was beyond my reach. The only other postgraduate degree that would price me out of floor-mopping and phone-answering was a degree in law. So here I am.

As it turns out, ascending to a different level of employment is not easy. It’s fairly exhausting. Sure, I still get a little frisson of excitement every now and then when I read a particularly devastating argument or when a discussion, in or out of class, ventures into the ideological thicket where complicated policy issues reside. But the energy that propelled me through last semester has been consumed. I used to skip through the doors of the law building every morning with a song in my heart, overjoyed to be working on something so meaningful and challenging. It used to be enough to know that I was working toward a degree that would help me leave janitorial and administrative career paths far behind me.

Now the reality of the task at hand is settling in. I might not have to mop floors, but I do have to expend prodigious amounts of brain power on questions that sometimes seem insoluble. Mopping, by contrast, seems almost elegant in its specificity.

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