Did You Choose Your Career, or Did Your Career Choose You?

What did you want to be when you were little?

I wanted to be an actress. In particular, I wanted to be Samantha Micelli on Who’s the Boss? In the early part of the show, I thought she was beautiful and tough and cool, and I was as far from beautiful or tough or cool as my beloved Rebels were from winning the SEC last season. I asked my mama if I could legally change my name to Samantha, or in the alternative, if they would just call me Samantha. She said no.  Ay-oh, oh-ay.

“Samantha” and I grew up together during the age of Benetton and Units, perms and braces, scarves and banana clips, teased bangs (that I NEVER got right), begging for your own phone line (I never got that either), and the cools, the jocks, and the wannabes. I was definitely a wannabe. My b/f/f Samantha surpassed me, and the proof was in the Hickey episode. You can actually watch the entire episode (which I just did, and who knew the producer of the show’s name was Bud Wiser. Hmmm.) here:

The long and short if it was, I wanted to be someone other than me, and that is what an actress is.  I wanted to be just that right mix of cool girl who knows how to be “just one of the guys” to earn respect, but pretty and fun and interesting enough to be desirable, too. I wanted to be the perfect girl, the girl every guy dreams of and every girl loves to hate. Never was. Still am not. I don’t like getting dirty. I don’t sleep outside, or hunt, or fish. The closest I come to “that” girl is by loving Ole Miss football (and my husband played for Auburn, so that doesn’t earn me many points) and owning a pistol that I don’t shoot all that well.

I was, by all accounts, an over-wrought, ultra sensitive, look-at-me little girl. I made my parents and grandparents and probably the mailman if he happened to deliver a package at the right moment watch countless performances of me singing (badly) into a spoon or dance or do a round-off or whatever I thought I was good at that moment. They indulged me, I still dreamed of a stage, but it was not in the cards. Might have been that I was born in Mississippi, far from bright lights and names on dressing room doors, or it could have been that my parents just weren’t as ambitious as I was and didn’t attempt to seek out casting calls or readings or photo shoots (and I just can’t IMAGINE why!), or that I just wasn’t any good at “acting.” But for whatever reason, the dream I had as a little girl never came to fruition.

Fast forward a few years. I remember having a conversation with my mother in our kitchen, talking about what I wanted to major in. I don’t know why, I don’t remember her reasoning (though I’m sure there was some and it probably made perfect sense, which is probably exactly why I don’t remember it…because I didn’t want to hear it), but I remember her telling me she hoped I didn’t want to be a teacher. It’s funny when I think about that now, because my mama taught school for 5 minutes, but her mother was a first grade teacher for 25+ years, my aunt (her sister) just retired from teaching 2 years ago, 2 of my daddy’s sisters were teachers, and 2 of my cousins are teachers now. We come from a long line of teachers, and I do not believe in any way that my mother had anything against teachers. I don’t know if it had to do with the fact that teachers don’t make much money and she was afraid I’d be on their payroll for the rest of my life….which happened anyway, so she shouldn’t have bothered…or if, at the stage in my life, she was afraid all the boys I taught would be 2 feet taller than me, 100 pounds bigger, and I wouldn’t be able to handle a classroom. Whatever it was, I know in my heart it was out of some form of protection for me.

However, my mother had not learned at that stage in HER life that if she told me there was one thing she didn’t want me to be (or one boy she didn’t want me to date or one place she didn’t want me to go or one movie she didn’t want me to see…..), that was exactly what I was going to set my sights on. So, surprise, surprise?! What did I do? I went to college and majored in English…to be a teacher.

I never wanted to teach in secondary school. I wanted to teach in college, and I did. I went on to graduate school as a teaching assistant in the English department and taught my own classes. I was also given a one year contract after I (finally) finished my thesis and received my Masters from my alma mater But, I also ended up teaching 7th grade creative writing, 8th grade English, 10th grade English, and Speech. It wasn’t because I particularly wanted to. At different times in my life, I needed a job and the job in those areas were open. But with every class I took on, I ended up loving  it, no matter what age group it was. I really did. I loved standing in front of that classroom, talking about books and short stories and poems that meant something to me, words that I could really dig into.

My first job out of grad school was teaching 8th grade English in, what I would consider, the most elite school in our state. I won the kids over by giving my classroom a 60’s theme. My students’ hall passes were fake daisies and if they got in trouble, they were given draft cards with paper topics on the back to write as “punishment.” We had a reading area with blow up, plastic furniture and I hung smiley faces and peace signs from the ceiling. Before graduation, we had Woodstock. And their end of the year project was to write a book, and we set up a pretend publishing company and once each 20 page story was complete, it was stamped and bound. I threw myself into that place and those kids and their education. I say this with caution, as I know not  every one of my kids loved me (I could name a few who downright despised me), but I was, for the most part, a popular teacher. I tried my best to teach them, but I also listened to their problems and helped counsel them through their 8th grade angst and did my best to be the teacher I always wanted to have. But as I mentioned in my first post, I wasn’t even remotely ready for that world yet. I was 24, and I wasn’t mature enough or ambitious enough to sink my teeth into that type of responsibility.

As soon as I finished my thesis (5 years after I finished my coursework), I was able to teach college classes as a real professor. I taught adjunct at several different school and got much satisfaction out of it. I got positive feedback. I enjoyed my students. I relished our discussions, and I looked forward to work. Teaching The Awakening and feeling confident in my lectures because I wrote my thesis on it and knew  multiple passages backward and forward was exciting to me. Figuring out a way to explain the lack of dialogue in “Hills Like White Elephants” and hoping just one student realized the abortion issue that lay deep underneath what wasn’t said gave me a charge.  And one day, I got the word that a local junior college had 2 full-time English positions open. I knew one of them was meant to be mine.

I remember driving to that interview and meditating on the verse, “Be still, and know that I am God.” I was incredibly anxious, almost to the point of being sick. When I get that worked up, I make mistakes because I doubt myself and I try too hard and I become annoying. That was me that day. I knew I hadn’t made a good impression, and I blamed myself. I wanted it too badly. Needless to say, I didn’t get either one of the jobs, and I was distraught. Full-time JuCo jobs are few and far between our area, and I really felt like that was my only chance. And it was. For that path.

I have always believed that when God doesn’t want you to go  a particular way in the course of your life, he closes the doors so tightly that no matter how hard you prepare or try or want it, He keeps the doors shut. In my opinion, it is His way of saying no, and gently guiding you to the place He wants you to be. This is how I chose to look at that disappointment. Two positions were open. I wanted one of them desperately. I thought that was what I was supposed to do.

Turns out, I was wrong. When I thought my dream was dead,  I had my chance encounter with the Justice Court Clerk that I mentioned in my first post in the grocery store, and everything turned on a dime. I went to work for the County Prosecutor in Justice Court, and I came to respect, understand, and intensely love the justice system. That lead me to realize I wanted to go to law school. There are two law schools in my state; one, I’d be able to live where we lived and commute. If I wanted to go to the other, we’d have to move. My husband is self-employed and was working hard to build his own business and his own reputation (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Stacey-Construction/195796307113861) (and how ‘bout you like his page? Would you give my sweet man who supported me through law school by being the amazing carpenter he is a boost?) and it wouldn’t have been close to fair to ask him to uproot and start all over. So my one shot was the law school here. I described in my first post the ordeal with taking the LSAT while VERY pregnant. With my average score and enormous belly, I knew after the baby came I wouldn’t try to get in again. It was a one school, one shot deal. And I got in. The door flew open.

There were bumps along the way. I was never in the top 10, top 25, or even top 50 percent of my class, but I had a bigger objective. I wanted to be a law student, yes, because I wanted to be a lawyer, but I also wanted to be a mama, and not just any mama, I wanted to be a good mama. So I told myself that I would do what I could with the time I was allowed. At 5 o’clock, unless there was a big project or paper looming or if I was in the middle of finals, I stopped at 5 when I went to pick up my child. Someone else had been with him all day, tending to his needs, seeing him laugh and smile, and after 5, it was my turn. There were times when that decision was enough to give me a stomach ulcer driving to class the next morning. I knew I hadn’t read enough, I knew I didn’t have a strong enough grasp on what was being taught that day. Visions of this were constant in my brain:

….as I was more of this, minus the yip dog, money,  fuzzy pen and scented resume….

So no, I wasn’t the most ambitious of law students. I wasn’t trying to be on law review. I didn’t join a single club. I went to class, I read and studied as much as I could during the day, and then I went home to do the job that really meant something to me. I went home to my family.

Being a mediocre law student is probably not the route I would encourage anyone to take, unless you are trying to balance another life outside of it. If you are, mediocre is okay. Passing is okay. You will still have a degree, and you will (most likely) still get a job, but if you ARE planning to do it this way, I would advise you to start laying the groundwork for employment early. I knew I never wanted to work for a big firm, so I started talking to attorneys who had hung their own shingle or had joined very small firms in their small hometowns. This is part of your homework as a law student who doesn’t plan to be the next F. Lee Bailey. Take that homework seriously.

I did my homework, and I also applied for an externship, which, in my opinion, is a necessity if you are trying to work your way in to getting experience before you graduate. I begged my professor to place me with the Rankin County Prosecutor. It was a sought after position, because I was aware the Rankin County Prosecutor had a reputation for being a) brilliant, b) and willing teacher and mentor and c) one who only accepted students who wanted to actually jump in to the arena and participate, who begged to try their own cases and who weren’t afraid to lose, but reeeally wanted to win.  I was sure someone else who carried a lot more weight with ten times better grades would get it. But I was persistent. Actually, I bugged the dog out of that lady because I knew I not only wanted that experience, but I needed it. I understood the Justice Court backward and forward, I felt I could try a DUI case in my head with my eyes closed with my former boss’s voice inside my head, and I already had relationships with many of the attorneys who would be defending their clients there. I wanted to learn from the best, and I wanted the chance to see if I could actually do what I thought I could do.

My persistence paid off. I got the externship and spent 2 semesters working for one of the best county prosecutors this state is lucky enough to employ. He liked the fact that I understood the circus that is the Justice Court. He liked that, even though HE knew I was nervous, when I walked into the courtroom and shook the hands of those male attorneys who were 20 years my senior, I looked them in the eye and wore my poker face. He liked that those same attorneys responded to me with respect. And so as soon as I said, “I’m ready, “ he believed me, and he let me try any case that came up for trial that I wanted to try. And I won all but two. I still mourn those two.

I had finally found my stage.

From that place, I went on to graduate from law school, and instead of becoming a prosecutor (as those jobs are harder to get than college English positions), I decided to run for Justice Court Judge. Working in the Justice Court as an assistant prosecutor under a man who was willing to take a chance on me gave me a new confidence that I never dreamed I would have, and it also gave me a different understanding of how the court worked. Having someone believe in me, praise me, show me my strengths, kindly point out my weaknesses in order to help me improve, and give me the opportunity to prove myself made me realize that I was so much stronger than I realized I was. Winning was a boost, but Prosecutors tend to win more than the defense; just the nature of the beast. I knew that. What was exhilarating was realizing that I knew how to negotiate; I knew what questions to ask; I knew all of the angles; I knew what I was doing. I had not felt so sure of myself since I taught The Awakening to college freshmen. When the opportunity came to me to run for Justice Court Judge, I knew in my heart that I wanted it. I was scared no one would take me seriously, I was scared that I would lose, I was scared that I believed in myself too much and that I would win and fail. But when someone gives you the opportunity to live your dream, when someone gives you a stage, and you succeed, the fear is still there but it is only a small voice that emerges in the quiet moments. Confidence becomes your persona, and it doesn’t mean you don’t have insecurities. It just means you don’t listen to them.

Now, I am a practicing attorney and a justice court judge. I also sell jewelry on the side (and we are having a fantastic Mother’s Day half-price sale, so if you are in the market, go to www.stelladot.com/marshastacey for some great deals).  I went in front of a judge in Chancery Court today to argue a motion, and it was my first act as a lawyer, and it felt good. I’ve been sitting on the bench for 5 months, and though I still have a lot to learn and a long way to go, it feels good. I look back on what I wanted to be as a little girl….an actress….and I realize, dreams really do come true. “Be still, and know that I am God.” Plans don’t always come in the form we think they will or should, but God has a way of helping you become that person He meant for you to be.

I have to believe deciding on who you will be when you grow up begins with a longing, a desire to be something, to do something, to create something, something that you know you love, something that you hope you will be good at, to be needed for something, to provide a service to someone, to give back, to feel like you have a purpose. You pay attention to closed doors and open windows, you walk through them, climb through them, smile sadly at them and turn the other way. But at some point you realize, when you listen, when you pay attention, when you fix your sites on a goal, no matter how old or young you are, no matter what anyone else says, you figure out your strengths and you maximize them. You determine your weaknesses and you minimize them. And you find that person who can instill confidence in  you and you let them build you up and give you the opportunity. And you don’t pat yourself on the back when you soar…you thank God for the wind that holds you up.

I think my career and I chose each other. What about you?

One thought on “Did You Choose Your Career, or Did Your Career Choose You?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s