I Can Only Be Me
School Daze was a coming-of-age film, released in 1988, featuring college life on HBCU campuses (i.e., life at Historically Black Colleges and Universities). Importantly, it centered on many touchstone issues within the Black-American community in our transition from the psychology of Jim-Crow-era repression to the steep and emotional climbs of professional successes, the accumulation and pursuit of wealth, and the appeals for general social acceptance. Chief among the multiple, significant motifs treated in the film was an apparently irrepressible (and destructive) preoccupation with impressing others: suggestible peers, sage mentors, lettered professors, desired mates, coveted friends (that one later discovers are mere acquaintances), and zealous competitors. Each of the main characters, from his respective and unique vantage point, sought to make a consequential imprint on others, to mean something, but by the other’s standards. And, in doing so, each of them lost touch with who she had been, before her choices devolved into the sometimes-unsettling, life-altering events that unfolded upon, informed, and reformed them. In the film’s dénouement, homecoming weekend at the fictional Mission College, Keith John mellifluously intones the moral of the story: “Butterflies begin from having been another, as a child is born from being in a mother’s womb. But how many times have you wished you were some other? Someone than who you are? Yet who’s to say that if all were uncovered, you would like what you’d see?” John, clearly connected to the spirit of the film, infused the ballad with the full meaning of the story’s message, which was, as my mother once implored, “You can only be yourself! You can’t be anyone else!”
I received that message from my mother in late 2018, over the phone, as I sat at the foot of my bed in a cozy one-bedroom apartment in an industrial neighborhood of Jacksonville, Florida. Car lots, drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, adult stores, Walmart, Home Depot, Target, a permanently-shuttered Red Lobster, a Cracker Barrel that served watered down dumplings, and I; we were a neighborhood. But what had happened to my the second-coming-of-Thurgood-Marshall moment (one of few childhood idols for me)? Where, in this, was that level of fulfillment? As I contemplated the import of my mom’s statement, marooned in the ebb of a career crisis, I began proverbially to play the reel of my life up to that moment, where my mom was insisting that I just be myself. I wondered what brought me there, to the absence of me in my own life, to the inertia of a career at stand-still, to a port city built under, around, over, and adjacent to multiple bridges, that crossed rivers miles-wide and the ocean, yet all seemed to lead back to nowhere. How had I washed ashore in the odyssey of my own life, and where had my ship sailed? And then I could not remember my career at all, thirteen full years into it! In truth, I had not been engaged in my career, not fully. I had allowed myself to be carried, altogether, by others’ expectations. I had been a willing marionette and somehow had whittled my once robust sense of self down to a dour, wooden personality. At that point, no strings attached because they had all been cut. I became aware of my absence, but what had happened?
It occurred to me that I had been the proverbial fool who rushed in.
Imagine, if you will, the destruction of prying open a flower’s bloom (a career that still needed nurturing and ripening that I willingly handed over to the first boss that would hire me), the extreme discomfort of being a square peg wedged stiff into the misfit of a round hole (expensive clothes, parfums, and a three bedroom home with a master’s retreat only a year into my first job), the folly of forcing yourself into a reality for which you are little prepared (a move to a State that I did not know and that I did not understand), the loneliness of taking up space in a sea of people whose flows crash against you and whose ebbs recede away from you (the awkwardness of loving others far more than they loved me, of desperately wanting to be liked). In thirteen years, I effected all that chaos.
I accepted my first job as an attorney without fully understanding the pay structure. I am not sure I fully understood the work! I felt desperate. Not because I was not earning a liveable wage; in fact, I was a temporary employee for Atlanta Public Schools, and they paid a fair wage. Rather, because I had graduated law school, I worried that, if asked, I would feel compelled by my ego to either lie, or tell others, bruised and deflated, that I was not working as an attorney, that I was working as the assistant to the executive assistant for the head of Math and Science. In those years, one would say that I was a secretary’s secretary.
In truth, I have little recollection of applying for that first job as an attorney. (Perhaps what’s meant for you will come to you.) I just know that the owner of the firm himself called, wanted to interview me, and that he seemed nice. Feeling chosen, by him, inflated my ego, and I thought it would be a wonderful detail when telling the story of my first job, that the owner, himself, had called. (I pity that version of me, who was not ready but was willing to accept any job as soon as it was offered.) I just needed to nail the interview, and I did! Or, so I thought. I would later learn that I only needed to have passed the bar to work at that first firm, all other credentials were largely immaterial. Warm body with law degree, meet open position. Even after he explained it, I did not understand the pay well enough to explain it to anyone else or what my work day would entail. However, once I started the work and earning the considerable wage, it was intoxicating, mind-altering! My first impulse was to eliminate all outstanding credit accounts, and I did within the first four months. My second impulse was to save, but my future fiancé wanted a house. A house was bought and two cars. I had been relatively debt free for just under five months, and that era ended sooner than it came. It was during this new era of wistfully signing loans when I began to spiritually disappear. With each new high balance credit account I signed, I lost myself and a money-driven licensed attorney began to form. He would need new clothes to fit the part and expensive colognes and designer watches and lavish vacations! Signing on to all that new debt was at once devastating and transformative. I surrendered to the new character that was being shaped by my fiancé, by my boss, and mostly by my ego. And, as all house of cards do, in 2011 it all came crashing down on me. Yes, just me because almost all the debt was solely in my name. Embarrassed, we tucked our tails, packed what we could, and moved to Savannah.
My boss in Savannah was quite different from the first, the one in Atlanta who had convinced me to accept a job I did not understand. During the interview with this second boss, he was gregarious, swaggering, bold, and highly-confident, as if he were being interviewed by me. I was both concerned and enthralled. We were one year apart in age, and had both begun our careers as attorneys relatively late and during the same year (2005). But his first six years, according to his own telling, had a few months of defeat, many triumphs, and he had emerged a well-respected world-beater, who invoked fear in insurance adjusters and police officers alike. By his assessment, I had been mostly a “transactional attorney,” and he invited me to the real world of being legal counsel: courtrooms, hearings, trials, and depositions. He offered me an opportunity to join him and be, in his words, “a real attorney.” I gladly accepted. “It’s about time,” I thought. I was surprised at the revelation that I had not been a “real attorney” and I was not sure I agreed. Even still, in truth, I wanted his panache! I wanted to regale my friends with tales of how I “dissected a police officer’s testimony with surgical precision.” I wanted to return to our now two-bedroom, one bathroom apartment triumphant from a full day of cross examinations and dressing down insurance adjusters. I had found another personality to mimic, this one brash, sometimes strident, always sure, and never withering. I wanted to be him.
A year in, I genuinely liked the guy! He goaded me on, boosted my confidence, took the training wheels off of my bike and pushed! I pedaled steadily because I feared his reaction if the bike tipped over. He was temperamental and demonstrative, but it was working. Except for his harshly direct manner with practically everyone, I had become him, or so I thought. You see, he wrote the script for all my first hearings and case conferences. If I suddenly felt unsteady, I could look down at his notes and find a sense of direction and balance.
But I was Icarus headed for the sun.
One particularly busy week, my boss, who worked from home, did not have time to help me prepare for the weeks’ scheduled hearings. He did ask if I felt ready, and I waved him off, feigning confidence. I assured him everything would be fine. I was lead litigation attorney, and foolishly believed that my assurance was based on a solid foundation of repetition and knowledge. As it turned out, it was based on my boss’s notes and his friends who would often coincide with me at the hearings and who would nudge me in the best direction. Without my boss pulling the strings, I flailed about the courtroom, tripped over my thoughts, and struggled mightily to seam together two well-worded sentences essentially requesting that the Court bind the two cases up to State Court. I was the very meaning of ungainly! If brown people could blush, I was crimson red with unease. I have told the story of how the judge rated my performance that day in particular, before the entire Court, my colleagues, and their clients, as “good but not great,” he leaned into the mic. Unsolicited. I thanked him awkwardly and remembered to ask to be excused. The judge seemed to remember his mercy and allowed me to leave without further assessment or comment. The last I recall of that experience was dissolving into a gelatinous blob and oozing out of the room. I was not my boss. I could not be him.
On my way out of the courthouse, the bailiff coincided with me in the hallway. As our eyes met, I decided that the judge was asking me back to dress me down for seeming so ill-prepared. It was my imagination. To my surprise, he revealed that he was shocked to hear where I worked because he thought of me as having more sophistication than my boss. He then urged me, “Keep that. Don’t become like him. You have a lot of promise and integrity.” The Universe was exhorting me, in that moment, to be me.
And thus began my professional awakening. I began to give thorough and intentional thought to how I wanted to prepare for hearings going forward. What were the outcomes I sought? What legal maneuvers had I learned and how could I apply them? What, as a general principle, was my aim. It was then that it occurred to me that it was not about me. It was the client who needed me, so how could I best serve his needs? I began to take a rather studied approach to all hearings and received great ideas from district attorneys about the proper motions that would put an important issue before the Court. After one client’s hearing, an accused person waiting in the gallery for his own hearing followed me out of the courthouse to tell me how impressed he was with my performance and how sure he was that my client’s charges would be “dropped.” I was stunned! I must have floated back to the office on cloud nine. The shift began when I made the work not about me but about the quality of service I provided to the clients.
And, with every change, a string attached to the marionette I had become was severed. When I could no longer be controlled, by boss separated me completely. In his terminating letter, he wrote of my loss of passion. It now makes sense that he held that opinion because he was no longer connected to me, and I was no longer connected to him.
I re-emerged during a long, thoughtful daydream in 2018. It was the oven’s timer that jolted me. The banana bread I was preparing when my mom called was done. I tested their centers with toothpicks and placed both loaf pans on the same cooling rack. I reset the timer. Wide awake, I went out to the balcony to gather a vague idea of my neighbors’ comings and goings and some basil for a spicy Pugliese red sauce. Assured by my memories, I understood why I was where I was and that it was where I should be. It was not yet my time for anything other, nor anything more.
For the next hour and a half, and then the next two years, I pieced together the puzzling choices of my past; I needed to learn from them. They comprised an often startling and heavy history I refused to repeat! I gradually softened by woody approach and became a human again. My friends began to recognize me and so did my parents. However, the person I subsumed fifteen years earlier, under the character I created in order to be liked, was gone. What we feed grows; what we starve dies. So, I opened myself to an entire world of possibilities. For a few years more, I occasionally would fall in and out of that old character, and the Universe would send a messenger (a new friend) to remind me that I cannot be Perry Mason or Thurgood Marshall, nor a stony-faced attorney with stolid sensibilities.
Because as you can only be you, I can only be me.