When I was in first grade I was a ballerina, and I thought that was what I would be for the rest of my life. I wasn’t dedicated, or particularly graceful, but I absolutely loved to wear the sparkling dresses and tutus that all five year olds wore for their recitals. I love putting glitter on my face, and feathers in my hair, and the heat of the spotlight on the stage. My dance teacher used to tell me to visualize the performance – to picture each plie and arabesque and leap across the stage. She said that if I visualized it perfectly, that I would perform perfectly.
It turned out that her visualization was no match for practice and hard work – or for a growth spurt that never came, and a pair of hips that were too wide for ballet. Or for flat feet. But that didn’t stop me from trying to visualize the rest of my life.
2.5 kids, a white picket fence, a kind of loving husband – maybe a dentist, like my father, or a general practitioner. . .even a pediatrician would be okay. When I got a little older my visualizations became a little more precise – an Ivy League education, high marks on report cards, fantastic internships working for high end non-profits and spending a summer in New York City. A stupendously liberating and, in hind sight, self-interested backpacking trip across Europe in the summer between my junior and senior years. Graduation day. I used to think that my first grade ballet teacher must have been on to something, because everything that I visualized happened, down to every last excruciating detail.
One thing I never visualized what came after the cap and gowns and celebrations. Either my imagination didn’t reach that far, or my ambition didn’t. Which was how I found myself sitting in the career services office, December of my senior year. I never quite had hit that growth spurt, and my feet dangled embarrassingly from the cushioned desk chair that they gave to the advisees to sit in. My career advisor was a middle-aged woman who had graduated from Brown twenty years ago and just never left. It makes me wonder what makes her competent to give career advice, when her own career has dead-ended in an interior office with no window and, as far as I can tell, no chance of promotion.
“Anna,” she says, peering at me through a pair of oversized glasses that I’m almost certain she doesn’t need – it’s an unkind thought, but I’m not feeling particularly charitable at the moment. I don’t want to have this meeting, and I don’t want to be sitting indoors just weeks before winter break, and I most certainly don’t want to talk about a future that I haven’t yet had the opportunity to visualize. “We can’t help you secure a job if we don’t know what you’re looking for.”
I obstinately avoid her gaze, focusing instead on a small pot of African violets sitting at the edge of her desk. I kicked my feet idly, feeling even younger than usual in the oversized chair. There aren’t any pictures on her desk – nothing showing that she might have a husband, or children, or any kind of life outside of the Brown campus. In contrast, her undergraduate degree hangs on the wall behind her, framed obnoxiously in some kind of gold gilt.
“Anna,” she says, her voice the long-suffering sigh of a disappointed parent. I shift my gaze to the mug filled with pens. Some of them are the normal, cheap ballpoints that Brown puts out at admissions tables every weeks, but some are the even cheaper ones picked up by a distracted traveler at a hotel, or residing within the folds of a checkbook at a restaurant.
“I don’t know,” I finally say, honestly. “I’ve been trying to think of what I want to do, but I just don’t know.”
“Well, where do you see yourself in five years?”
Five years is a hard question, because it’s too short a time. I can tell her where I see myself in twenty years – heading up an environmental non-profit, adoring dentist-doctor husband and a pair of smartly dressed teenage children. Twenty years is easy – it’s the in-between that I’m not so sure about.
“That’s a very laudable goal,” my advisor says, “but not an easy one to meet. Have you considered getting a graduate degree?”
I have, of course, but I don’t really know what the benefit would be to having a master’s in political science as opposed to merely a bachelor’s degree, and I tell her as much.
“Have you considered law school?”
The phrase kicks around in my head for the rest of the day. The truth is that I haven’t considered law school, but everyone around me has.
“It’s just like acting but for smart people,” my dad has been saying for years, with my mother always following up with an over-eager “you like acting, don’t you, Anna?”
My adoring boyfriend of the past two years (soon to be broken up with, thought he doesn’t know that – he’s planning on joining the Army, and that just doesn’t fit in with my visualization) has repeatedly encouraged me to take the LSATs. “What’s the worst that could happen?” he asks. “You get into a good school and then have to make a decision?”
My advisor for my poli-sci major has mentioned it, too, in a slightly more intimidating and demanding way. He told me, point-blank in my junior year, not to expect to have any success if I wasn’t willing to either “sex it up” (a comment which had me automatically crossing my legs and uncrossing my arms) or heading off to law school. I adamantly told him that I wasn’t willing to go the route of Sarah Palin, all big hair and phony smiles, and he quite adamantly told me that I’d better start working on some admissions essays.
It’s an idea that grips hold more and more as I walk back to my small, overly crowded apartment. It’s a way to keep from having to enter “the real world” for another three years, a way to continue with academia, a world in which I am both very comfortable and very capable. I close my eyes, and picture it. . .
Admittedly, the first image that comes to mind are the arched ceilings of the Gothic cathedrals I had seen the past year while traveling through Europe, but I’m able to fill the halls with tall bookcases, dim lighting, and rows upon rows of students studying. I try to picture myself in the midst, but can’t quite get that far.
When I broach the subject over the phone with my parents, my mother is ecstatic, while my father just mutters a little about “mounting student loans.” My roommates are similarly supportive, and my adoring boyfriend just smiles and kisses me on the nose. I apply to take the LSATs that very night.
I spend the next seven months desperately trying to visualize law school, but try as I might, I can’t picture any of it. I can picture graduation easily enough – the bell-bottomed sleeves of the robes, the floppy doctoral hats, the robes and stripes and general rituals of the event – but I can’t picture anything leading up to it. I consider dropping it, time and time again, and returning to the relative sanctuary of my parents’ guest bedroom, and possibly working as a receptionist at the front office for my father until I figure my life out, and move to New York City with some of my friends. But I’ve sent in the letters, and talked about it ad nauseum, and I still have that visualization from twenty years in the future swimming in front of my eyes. So in August I break up with my adoring boyfriend, say a tearful good-bye to my three best friends and roommates, and join my father on the front bench of a U-Haul for the ten-hour drive to Marshall Law School.