Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Personal Essay for Law School

Last fall, I applied to law school on a wing and a prayer, figuring my decade-old university grades and last year's LSAT score would not be good enough to get into a program that sees 2,000 people apply and 300 be admitted. It is something I have always wanted to do, but it wasn't so fixed a dream that I would stop at nothing to achieve it. I applied because I needed to know if it would become reality. Had I been rejected, it would have stung a little (all rejection does), but I would have been content finding work that was satisfying and meaningful without becoming a lawyer. Lo and behold, I got in. I will be a student again this fall, full-time, for three years. 

I don't know a lot, but I do know that when the universe hands you something this big, you weigh the decision carefully. When I applied, I was highly encouraged by Rich to do it now, and not down the road when the girls were older, which I thought would be more suitable. Now that this is happening, I see how the timing aligns with so many other plans and seasons to come (in parenting and life), making now a perfectly suitable time. 

I had to write a personal essay as part of my application. Ten years out of school, I knew that if I wanted to wow them, it would come down to this essay. I worked on it very hard and made every word choice deliberately and carefully. I thought I would share it here because the next few years are sure to be challenging, and I want to be able to return to this essay that the people who love and support me have also read, to remind me pour que?

Read it, or don't. Here is my essay:
The most formative lesson in my academic life was the one I learned when I put the books away and looked out my window.

I moved to a small, Dene village in the Yukon, outfitted with my education and na├»ve presumptions. I expected to witness high criminal recidivism rates fueled by addiction and poverty; my undergraduate studies told me these issues plagued Canada’s Indigenous population. The village had a reputation as a dysfunctional former mining boomtown where alcoholism was rampant, its economy coasting on a recent influx of cash settlements for residential school survivors. The houses looked derelict, but the cars in front of them were shiny and new.

I began work as a teaching assistant and supply teacher at the small elementary school. On my first day, I was greeted with kids who threw chairs in anger, mocked me for speaking “white”, and who wouldn’t make eye contact as they tried their best to ignore me. They didn’t want to learn my name. I wanted to know their stories.

Trained as a researcher, I went home and opened my aboriginal law textbooks. Section after section revealed despairing patterns that did not bode well for my lofty goals of making a positive change in the remote northern town: Geographically isolated, small, with a history of residential school survivors, and a shallow genetic pool from which members could choose partners. I began to readjust my expectations. I put down the books to become a student of the village.

My husband was one of the village’s three Mounties, and through his work, I saw the recidivism patterns play out. When I sought to understand the larger picture through historical context, those patterns became less about numbers and more about stories. The town existed on the back of its own social ills, the fallout from generations of traumas too complex for a new outsider to fully grasp. Working in the school, I learned how very differently childhood looked when placed against the backdrop of broken families, neglect, and domestic abuse.

The alcoholism was rampant. Children adopted the adults’ coping mechanisms as soon as they realized their prospective life chances, which was usually around seven or eight years old. Teen girls were more likely to end up pregnant without knowing how it happened than they were to finish high school. Grade 2 students traded cigarettes for snacks when there was no lunch prepared for them at home. After years of being formally educated to ask relentless questions and follow paper trails for answers, I learned to choose my questions wisely and consider alternative perspectives.

I slowly connected with the Dene people, interviewing them for human interest pieces as a freelance journalist and attending community events. I accepted an invitation to help establish a sentencing circle, enthused that, finally, I could contribute to something that both employed my knowledge and created lasting change. Our board met twice before townspeople lost faith, motivation, or a measure of both. There were only a handful of reliable sober adults, and their lifestyle choice made them outcasts. Enacting positive change by establishing a sentencing circle sent the message we were somehow better than everyone else. The sentencing circle’s positive merits were outweighed by its being an unwelcome change.

I thought I knew, but I didn’t. One of the threads of wisdom from which we get to pull as we progress through our lives is the acceptance of what we don’t know. I know I want to lean in to better hear the voices of the marginalized, the vulnerable. I want to see those who have fallen between the cracks and ask them how they got there. In collecting their stories, I want to know how to move forward with them.

I want to know how our country’s legal framework can be used to help those who cannot always help themselves. I want to know how our legal system isn’t working, so I may play a small part in helping its moving parts evolve.

I have been collecting stories, these past 10 years. I have interviewed former Prime Ministers, revered Elders and elite athletes, while developing the courage to ask difficult questions. I have spoken with bereaved widows, victims of horrible crimes, drug addicts and dangerous offenders. I have learned from each interview, and am left hungry for more: More stories, more clues, and more perspectives. I made myself a career as a freelance journalist while I raised my four children. I have enjoyed producing articles that spark conversation, teeter on the edge of controversy, and make timely issues accessible to wide audiences. Working as a young mother has proven how much can be done in time that is managed effectively.

On assignment for a national newspaper, I went back to that small Dene village a few years after moving away. I admit I hoped to see evidence of positive change. I learned some of the kids had died tragically by suicide, car crashes, drowning. A little girl who had been turning tricks at age 10 had an abortion and the fetus had been her uncle’s baby. Many of her friends had become very young mothers. It was so much worse than I had expected. On the long drive back, I cycled through disappointment, grief, and guilt. I had the power to leave, to learn, to be supported by a healthy network of family and friends when so many of them did not.

I am of no greater value than the vulnerable, the victims, those born with the cards stacked against them, barely given a fighting chance to succeed. I have been given a pretty good lot in life. My privilege affords me opportunity, and I do not plan to squander it.

I have found great purpose writing Gladue sentencing reports in recent years. Each assignment sees me research and tell someone’s story, providing context and history to paint a picture of an offender’s life. I endeavor to make them human, fallible and accountable, but subject to the conditions into which they were born. This work has ignited a strong desire to pursue further education and training in Indigenous justice initiatives. The Aboriginal Law and Indigenous Legal Traditions option is an element of the University of Ottawa’s legal curriculum that holds my interest. I am highly interested in being part of the developing Indigenous legal framework following the era of reconciliation. It is in legal study, in law school and beyond, that I hope to understand more about the systems within which I may help those who continue to fall through the cracks.

I am hardwired to setting lofty goals that I accomplish with vigour. I follow curiosity’s thread, wherever it leads. I carefully unwrap clues at each juncture of that thread, learning each lesson before moving on. I arrive now with enthusiasm, prepared to study law and apply my existing skills to an endeavor I plan to see through and build upon.


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