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This year marks my 22nd year as a student, and barring some unexpected change in my career path, it will probably be my last. My path as a student has been, at times, very bumpy. It's been filled with unexpected dips and more-expected highs. Mostly, my success in school has been dependent upon my ability to muster some extrinsic motivation.

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.

Originally posted to Coby DuBose on Criminal Injustice, Race, and Poverty on Mon Mar 18, 2013 at 08:24 PM PDT.

Also republished by Houston Area Kossacks, Barriers and Bridges, and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  and may you become the next Professor Dow (16+ / 0-)

    for the next Professor Dow.

    Keep the torch alive by passing it on.

    Beautiful diary!

    If cats could blog, they wouldn't

    by crystal eyes on Mon Mar 18, 2013 at 08:38:18 PM PDT

  •  Grizzard (15+ / 0-)

    You are a talented writer.  I loved this diary where you explained how you got where you are today and what finally lit a fire under you. If you decide to work on behalf of the unfairly railroaded death row inmates, do keep writing to spread the message far and wide.  You will be a terrific advocate for those who need someone like you.

  •  Thanks for explaining... (10+ / 0-)
    It was during Professor Dow's course that I felt inspired for the first time
    Your passion for what you do shines through in your writing, and it's nice to know who inspired you as well as how he did so.

    So glad that you make time to write here, and looking forward to meeting you.

    "Compassion is not weakness, and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism." Hubert H. Humphrey

    by nomandates on Mon Mar 18, 2013 at 09:13:13 PM PDT

  •  I really look forward to your diaries. (8+ / 0-)

    Your sense of social justice and fairness is refreshing to see from someone who loves the law. I am especially grateful for your outspoken support of LGBT rights. You've quickly become one of my favorite writers here.

    I would assume he's retired, but my good friend Tom Newhouse used to teach at the UH law school. He's a labor lawyer. I don't know if you ever had the good fortune to know him, but you two would probably get along famously. If he's around, seek him out. Go have coffee with him.

    Thanks again for the diary.

    What is truth? -- Pontius Pilate

    by commonmass on Tue Mar 19, 2013 at 03:15:02 AM PDT

  •  you are astonishing, griz. (10+ / 0-)

    the greatest gift is seeing that you have one and then making sure you keep giving it away, so it grows strong and lasts long. ha! i feel younger than you!

    thanks, again, and always.

    There is no Article II power which says the Executive can violate the Constitution.--@Hugh * Addington's Perpwalk: TRAILHEAD of Accountability for Bush-2 Crimes.

    by greenbird on Tue Mar 19, 2013 at 05:25:34 AM PDT

  •  As a life-long teacher your story is inspiring (8+ / 0-)

    to me and it is students like you who keep most teachers going. Best wishes for a great career helping the poor.  You probably won't become rich but you will save lives.

  •  My story is very similar. (7+ / 0-)

    Thank you for sharing yours - more 'reformed' academics need to speak up.

    You said the air was singing / it's calling you, you don't believe / These things you've never seen / Never heard, never dreamed.

    by CayceP on Tue Mar 19, 2013 at 06:35:21 AM PDT

  •  Thank you for recognizing an inspiring teacher (8+ / 0-)

    Recently one of our former students sent an email to one of my colleagues. She wanted her to know that she was graduating from law school in May and after taking the bar exam she would be working for a firm as a healthcare defense attorney.  She told her that it was her six week elective class in which they did a mock trial  that inspired her to become a lawyer.  She also said that educators in our public schools are not given the thanks and appreciation they deserve.

  •  This is a great diary--thanks. n/t (5+ / 0-)

    It's here they got the range/ and the machinery for change/ and it's here they got the spiritual thirst. --Leonard Cohen

    by karmsy on Tue Mar 19, 2013 at 07:02:09 AM PDT

  •  Yes - great teacher inspired me in Math (11+ / 0-)

    i got a Ph. D. in math for therapy

    i knew my head didn't work right so i spent 10 years full time in college, working my ass off because it was so hard for me to learn things

    some things like language were total failures (almost)

    but the great teachers provided something that i needed from math, namely structure

    i was never good at math

    never could do math research

    but have been very active in systems

    some people with ADD and other learning disabilities are good at unstructured problems and systems because they never could fit into the mold that society wanted them to be in

  •  Inspiring teachers (14+ / 0-)

    I wish I had time to write more on this, but I'm off to the airport shortly.

    My daughter had one. In the 4th grade. She's a smart girl, but not one of those kids who can just turn it on and get an A. She needs to work. And she does. Elementary school grades are a bit nebulous, and her's were appropriate. Making progress. Improving work habits.

    Until the 4th grade. When her report card with the endless matrices came home with check marks in the "excels" column in every single subject. The teacher had told us at back to school night that he doesn't give these grades. He doesn't believe in them. Nine year olds are too young to excel at anything, he told us. So I asked him about it.

    He said he'd only give two other "E"s. Not in this particular class, in his teaching career. I passed it off as BS. This was his way of improving his student's self-esteem. I later found out he was telling me the truth.

    And for the rest of her school career, excel is all she ever did. Not because of good parenting. Not always because of good teachers. But because Mr. Staples, her 4th grade teacher, convinced her the only way she would ever be a doctor is to get all A's. And that's all she ever wanted to do. So she worked hard. And she did. And 15 years later she's a few months away from finishing her 2nd year in medical school.

    Thanks for sharing your story. All students should be so lucky as to have a Mr. Staples or a Professor Dowd at the front of the class.  

    •  yes and no (5+ / 0-)

      I agree that every kid should have a teacher who inspires them--hopefully more than one.  Good teachers, the ones who really care, are invaluable.  Often they don't realize the impact they're having at the time, only if they're lucky enough to have a student come back years later and tell them...

      But I disagree about parenting not being part of it in your daughter's case.  She's a lucky girl--you never put any barriers in front of her, encouraged her dreams and aspirations--her brother, too.

      Boarding....

      There is no snooze button on a cat who wants breakfast.

      by puzzled on Tue Mar 19, 2013 at 10:12:30 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  The Life of David Gale (5+ / 0-)

    UT, not U of H but addresses these same philosophical concerns.

    Thank you for your moving diary.  Teacher diaries remind me of the debt of lifelong gratitude I have for the ones who inspired me; Miss Foley my HS English teacher more than any other.

  •  as a long time educator. . . (8+ / 0-)

    I can vouch for the merits of this diary's offering. But it is ironic that so many people in this country don't regard teacher-educators in such a light. Yet the most important link, beyond the familial, are teachers in schools. Go figure! Thanks for a meaningful diary (because I sure get tired of the usual political diatribes posted that come to nothing, but venting). There really should be more pro teacher and pro environmental diaries that can and will make the difference. Oh, wait; I almost forget. . .we're dealing with Congress here, and so who really cares about us given their usual temperament and political agendas?

    Treat the world (yourself, and others) as part of a living organism. Everyone and everything will benefit.

    by richholtzin on Tue Mar 19, 2013 at 08:35:47 AM PDT

  •  My forth grade teachers were both inspiring (5+ / 0-)

    The severe one who I loved for that severity...knowing that the praise that came from her meant something.  She was also the one who recognized I was nearsighted.  

    The other one not so personal, but who would  expose us to classical music during our march around the room exercise time and instilled a certain richness in learning by always combining it with art & music.

    The time has come to sign onto the American Anti-Corruption Act...help it go forth & multiply! http://anticorruptionact.org/

    by leema on Tue Mar 19, 2013 at 08:40:41 AM PDT

  •  Grizz -- you are the writer I search for (7+ / 0-)

    daily as I peruse my stream.  

    Your passion for your work, your obvious compassion, your clarity in writing are all inspiring.  

    Great diary.  Me, I'm a high school drop-out.  Undiagnosed dyslexia.  Still, I earned a living as a professional writer and editor for thirty-five years, and no one ever asked me about my college years.

    Well, one did.  I was working in television, and after being there for years commented on how many people around the table that day had gone to Yale.  My producer asked "Where did you go?" and I answered, "To work."

    Thanks for being an inspiration and an upright guy, Grizzard.  You're a welcome voice here.  A relief, in fact, from all the bitching and moaning.

    "Throwing a knuckleball for a strike is like throwing a butterfly with hiccups across the street into your neighbor's mailbox." -- Willie Stargell

    by Yasuragi on Tue Mar 19, 2013 at 09:21:04 AM PDT

  •  Inspiring post! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    nomandates, Grizzard

    It's all about passion, and fear holds most back from displaying that in all classrooms of life.

    Glad you found it!

    The art of listening is the ability to pay attention to that which is most difficult to hear

    by dRefractor on Tue Mar 19, 2013 at 05:46:29 PM PDT

  •  I remembered a math teacher from high school (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    kurt, Grizzard, Lorikeet, bewild

    He was known for a special agreement he had with the school - he would come in late, but always stayed to cover "after school detention." The reason, it was rumored, was that he also had a family bakery and he had to work there in the mornings.

    He taught Calculus, and he commanded the classroom of high schoolers masterfully. "Where are my stars," he'd ask when he had a difficult problem, and he'd pick on the most unlikely students - overly made up 'greaser' girls who knew the answers. (He knew from their homework). My friends and I had always been teachers' favorite due to our wisecracks and cleverness. He didn't acknowledge it.

    In his class all that mattered was understanding mathematics. If you had nothing mathematical to offer, you didn't exist. In high school that stung, so I earned his attention by studying math.

    Years later, I had finished medical school and was driving past a bakery and recognized his last name on the window. I pulled over and walked in, really just in case. I found him, now older, less paunchy - more emaciated - sitting in the back at a desk.

    I told him I had been through 12 years of school including high school, college, and medical school and that he was the best teacher I'd ever had.

    He smiled, pulled off his glasses and waved over the entire staff of the bakery toward where I stood. Once he had his audience he turned to me and said, "Would you mind saying that again?"

    I could barely hold back my tears as I told him and his staff at the bakery that he was the best teacher I ever had.

    I was moved that he still wanted that public acknowledgement, and honored that I had arrived that day to deliver it.

    "Jersey_Boy" was taken.

    by New Jersey Boy on Tue Mar 19, 2013 at 06:59:52 PM PDT

  •  Well written... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Grizzard

    ....too bad the Obama administration is interested in mandating the mechanization of learning experience for the Nations K-12 teachers thereby dooming millions of American children to schooling experiences that will fail in the development of their imagination.

    Educational experience based on non-consensual behaviorism is authoritarian mind control.

    by semioticjim on Wed Mar 20, 2013 at 06:44:00 AM PDT

  •  I had a biology teacher in 7th & 8th grade (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Grizzard

    Very special. I should note I was the school outcast, the one you could not be friends with if you did not want to ruin your own social standing. He did not give a shit. All he cared about was how much I loved science. He made me his lab assistant and gave me independent study projects. It was not until I was a college senior that any teacher did that again!

    I also, if I may, want to share a story about my mother. When she died my father & I were looking at photos of her to decide which to show at his funeral. In one, she was standing with a young man in cap and gown, he had his arm around her shoulders and I asked who he was. Turns out the young man was what is called borderline developmentally disabled. Everyone told him to leave school, he'd never graduate. But he really wanted that high school diploma. My mother worked with him after class, showing him how to help his memory and problem solving and improve his study skills. And he did graduate. He invited her to his graduation and every year until she died sent her a holiday card. Those of us for whom learning comes easily would find it hard to imagine the struggles people like this young man had to go through.

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