As a young person, I took math classes a few grades up, until my eight-year old writing speed made it hard to complete 11-year old math tests, and my frustrations boiled over. In middle school, I made good grades, and in high school, I could make whatever grades I wanted. Usually that meant As. Other times, it meant that I worked just hard enough to compensate for the months on end where I'd slack off. I was often saved by my ability to cram and by natural test-taking talent, and I managed to pull a number of good grades out by some combination of good luck and good fortune.
I entered college as a history major, and I left college as a history degree holder. During the middle, though, there was a five-year period where I majored in marketing, pre-business, management, economics, and communications. I took 30 credits more than I needed to graduate, and most of those didn't count toward my major or minor.
My pre-college track was pre-law, but I didn't know what that meant. I just knew that it was something I might be good at, and I had ideas on making the world a better place. My college experience, though, almost made the law school idea a non-starter. I never had a semester in college that hovered around 3.0. I either made As - in those classes I chose to attend - or I made Ds and Fs, marks "earned" in classes I couldn't get motivated to attend.
I was focused on other things, some of them decent and others self-destructive. I ran my own writing business, composing more than 1,000,000 words for websites on topics ranging from car insurance to investing in gold. I worked as a sports reporter, routinely spending a few nights per week chasing a story. At first, it paid $30 per game. By the end of my time at the paper, some kind editors had rewarded my dedication with a 66% raise, and I made $50 per game. I left college in 2009 with a 2.32 GPA, and I was two credits short of graduating.
I spent a year trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and though my parents sort of laughed at the idea, I decided I would return to my law school roots. I made some money and paid for LSAT books, but I couldn't afford to take a true class. I self-taught the test, and knowing I had to make a very high score to compensate for my putrid GPA, I invested hundreds of hours of emotional energy in succeeding. As far as I was concerned, the LSAT was my last hope - a thought that now seems silly in reflection, but it was all-too-real then.
I managed to score well on that test, going high enough to make the very top schools a reality...if not for a GPA so sour. I managed to save up the $5,000 that I needed to finish school, and I took those last two classes online in the summer before law school. I made two As, capping my transcript with a bang, and raising my final college GPA to 2.41. At the very least, I could tell prospective employers and law schools that I had gone more than 18 months without making a grade lower than an A.
I applied to law schools far and wide, wanting first to get in somewhere and second to end up in a city. I am from a small town, and I recognized that big city schools offer big city opportunities. I applied to 16 places in all, knowing that my GPA would be an automatic ding for some, while my LSAT score would entice a few. I received far more rejection letters than acceptance letters, but I did manage to get into a few good schools, including the University of Houston, where I'm now a "3L."
Houston fit my primary criterion: it was in a large city. Having never been to Texas, and having never lived in a huge city, the move was a little bit intimidating. But I did it, and I had no idea where it would lead.
Wouldn't you know that law school presented just as many personal challenges as the rest of my academic career? The school is a mix of people, good and bad. I started law school during the back end of the recession, and law school hiring looked even bleaker than it does now. Surrounded by fellow students - let's call them competitors - we all knew the goal. Land in the top 10% and bring home the money. The goal was to do better than 60 other people in your section, and this was daunting considering almost all of them went to undergraduate schools more respected than mine.
I was initially motivated by the idea of success and by continuing my good grade trend. I had drive, but it was artificial. I still wasn't sure exactly where law school was leading, and I didn't have a big picture vision of why it was important. I went through the motions for two years. I made good grades - good enough, in fact, to land a spot at a big firm - and I thought I had it figured out. But I wasn't really driven in the way I wanted to be.
That all changed last fall, when I decided to sign up for Professor David Dow's death penalty class. As an accompaniment, I took a role in the Texas Innocence Network clinic, an experience that made the law much realer than it had ever been.
On the first day of class, Professor Dow asked us to say a few things about ourselves. One of the queries asked why we were taking the class. I answered candidly, though in retrospect, my answer seems suspect. I said it was because I am a TED fanatic, and Professor Dow was the one member of the UH faculty who had given a TED talk. All of this was true, and it was why I took the course. I had watched his talk, titled "Lessons Learned from Death Row Inmates," and I'd wanted to know more. Much of law school is theoretical and esoteric. This was real, gritty stuff. In the video, Professor Dow describes what it's like to meet with people who most call monsters. And he draws big-picture solutions on how we might best prevent violent crime. Beyond the intellectual pursuit of that kind of answer, I was drawn to the heaviness of the professor's work. While others might have written papers about parts of the law, it was clear that his experience came from being an important part of that brave group trying to gum up an ugly Texas death machine.
It was during Professor Dow's course that I felt inspired for the first time, and many of the fine people here at the DailyKos have been forced, at one time or another, to read my thoughts on the matter. I'd do more than listen in class. I picked up all of the professor's books on the subject, and I read through countless law review articles. I cried through portions of professor Dow's novel, as it tells a chilling, real-life story of one of his clients, who he stood beside right until the moment when the man's heart stopped beating.
You see, Professor Dow isn't much like other professors, either in style or in substance. He dresses quite plainly, and you might catch him playing with his dog around the law school. In class, he imparts knowledge and doesn't waste by trying to embarrass students who haven't read the case law for that day. He puts it out there, and if you're smart, you'll savor the opportunity to learn from someone with his type of experience.
In his work, Professor Dow is open about many of the details of his life and his personality. His book, Autobiography of an Execution, invites readers into his kitchen and into his relationships with his son and wife. It was clear to me that he was driven by something much deeper. Perhaps it was some notion of justice. Maybe it was a combination of the brains and heart, as death penalty work forces upon its practitioners the need for a skilled mind and a deep reservoir of compassion. I read of the professor's soft spot for the homeless, as he'd carry bottled waters or one dollar bills to give to them. I read of his fondness for poker. I saw a bit of myself in those things, as compassion for the poor often blinds me and the adrenaline surge that comes with poker often fuels me. It's that combination, I think, that's necessary for death penalty work. Good poker players have to relish the risk, and they have to be prepared for the idea that they might lose. And in order to zealously represent a person convicted of murder, you have to have a sort of compassion that eludes most people.
One of the themes of the professor's work - both in class and in his writing - centers on the inadequacy of the indigent defense apparatus. He's unapologetic in his praise for those good lawyers who defend the poor, but he's justifiably harsh in his criticism of those bad lawyers who, through either a lack of skill or a lack of desire, fail their clients. As I read through case files in our innocence clinic, I came to see those most people writing to us are legally indigent. Most of them got screwed in one way or another by a lawyer who did not have the decency to investigate one aspect of their case or another.
It was as if the professor had opened my eyes to a sort of reality that I hadn't recognized before. He inflicted me with life-altering knowledge, and, for better or worse, I wasn't going to be able to do anything else in the legal field besides this. I came to realize that there's no way I could be happy working in a high-rise at a big civil firm if I knew that hoards of poor people were in need of a passionate lawyer to defend them. Who would give dignity to the condemned if Professor Dow and his cohorts didn't do it? And what amount of money would it take for me to sleep well at night knowing that a person might be in prison because I chose not ignore something that was right in front of my eyes?
I began to write on the topic, and reading the work of Professor Dow and people like Stephen Bright, I found my voice. I applied and earned an internship with Houston's public defender's office, and I started to do some work on the ground floor. My contributions have been nominal to this point, but I've put myself there.
I owe a great debt of gratitude to my professor for his ability to articulate such an important message with such a driven tone. His passion appealed to my compassion and his intellect appealed to the part of my being that wants a mental challenge. It took almost 22 years, but I finally found what I believe to be the highest expression of what meager talent I might possess. To me, that's always been the career goal - to find the field and the job that produces the greatest expression of whatever gifts I've been given. And that didn't happen until I found an extraordinary teacher willing to talk, with honesty, about his experience.