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What follows, with minimal editing, is a copy of the personal statement I submitted to law schools last winter:
My decision to apply to law school stems from an unlikely culprit: a lifelong love for superhero stories.
This is, perhaps, an inadvisable confession to make in a law school application: The legal careers of Matthew Murdock and Jennifer Walters notwithstanding, the brand of justice promoted in the pulpy pages of comics tends toward the extralegal — often violently. But for as long as I can remember, the lesson I took from comics was as profound as it was simple: that with the will to endure years of rigorous training and countless sleepless nights, the unlikeliest of people are capable of the most extraordinary deeds, on behalf of more people than they might have ever imagined. I learned well, and when I discovered my (admittedly duller) superpower of writing, I swore with all the inimitably unironic solemnity of a child to hone it so that one day, I would use it to help save the world.
This passion, bolstered by a ravenous appetite for history and politics, burned and sustained me throughout every level of my education. I’ve been lucky enough to attend one of the best high schools in America and one of the best universities in the world, both of which afforded me the opportunity to meet elected officials, speak with published authors, and learn from scholars at the top of their fields. I’ve had the chance to help lead student organizations, work on political campaigns, visit other countries, and make friends hailing from all over the planet.
But through it all, one refrain kept echoing in my mind, usually in the voice of the first of many classmates over the years who would get too mouthy about affirmative action.
“You don’t belong here.”
How could I?
I, the youngest child of immigrants from the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, a place the president of the United States charitably referred to as a “shithole”? I, a lifelong denizen of a city synonymous with gun violence? I, an adopted son of a racial community continuously damned to attract scorn and suspicion from its peers? There are times when my being able to realistically consider law school seems a twist of fate as unlikely to me as any freak lightning strike or radioactive spider bite. This voice has never fallen silent, but over time, it has been drowned out by another with a blunt counter: “Whether you belong here or not, here you are. What will you do now?”
And with the question always comes the answer: “Keep going.”
One of the fundamental axioms of comic books is Spider-Man’s fabled mantra that “with great power comes great responsibility.” But in a world where people routinely abuse great power, I’ve found the saying is best inverted. Responsibility, especially responsibility freely chosen, is what brings power; the very act of committing to a task is what brings the strength to see it through.
It’s a strength that has carried me through a life marked by struggle, be that in rehabbing from two inopportune leg surgeries, grappling with an unsteadily mercurial post-graduation job market, or getting through the infamously strenuous gauntlet of the University of Chicago. It is the strength that has helped me shrug off the doubts, both internal and external, about what my background might predict about my fitness to perform. And it is a strength I know will carry me into and through the rigors of law school. For the sake of the Haitian child languishing in abject poverty that I might have been, for the sake of the black man gunned down on Chicago’s streets that I might yet be, for the sake of anyone ever unduly made to feel like an outsider, knowing that I have the chance to even their odds motivates me to steer my unlikeliest of stories into its next unlikely chapter.
It is an uncertain time to be an outsider. Without putting too fine a partisan political point on it, recent months have served as something of an extended stress test for the strength of American institutions to protect outsiders from an aggressively overzealous executive branch unchecked by a gridlocked legislature, with often dizzying results. Many of a leftward political persuasion (and indeed, many comic book fans) believe that the law is too inflexible, too antiquated, and too glacial to effect justice in such a world; that the nebulously defined “system” is too enamored with judicial precedent to pursue progress, or too adamant on prosecution to challenge the prejudices ingrained in the practice.
But be it lawyers flocking to airports to assist stranded commuters and their families, or judges striking down hastily written executive orders, the third branch has quietly reaffirmed itself as a bulwark against the excesses of this age. When a reactionary tide threatened to sweep America back to its darkest days in pursuit of an apocryphal ideal of greatness, it was the much-maligned intractability of the law that caused the tide to dash against the rocks, however momentarily.
It is a reminder that in a not-so-brave new world where some would argue ideals like truth and justice are no longer components of the American way, those ideals still matter, and heroes embodying both walk among us still. And even if their chosen uniform is decidedly drearier than my younger self might have imagined, I know their work to be no less important, and I know my conviction to join their ranks to be no less enthusiastic.
I’m rather proud of that piece. I workshopped the hell out of it for the better part of a year; I damn well should be. In the fanciful narrative I’ve built in my head, the essay is in no small part why I made it into law school. It’s a narrative where admissions counselors knowingly tsk-ed at my LSAT score, undergrad GPA, and work experience, only to raise an intrigued People’s Eyebrow at my writing and push me through on the word of the esteemed recommenders who went to bat for me, neither of whom I can thank enough.
It is, in my estimation, one of the better things I’ve ever written. It is also, as one of my recommenders charitably put it when I sent him a draft to review, “bullshit.”
Not the bad kind of bullshit; this is not a confession that I falsified my way into Even Higher Education.™ This is not the kind of bullshit written with the intent to deceive and destroy, to insult and injure. This is not that Trumpian, Twitterati scorched-earth brand of bullshit — the kind where it’s not about masquerading as the truth so much as dropping a firebomb of nonsense into a crowd, with nary a care for who might get caught in the flames.
But my personal statement is still, in the same sense that I imagine many personal statements are, bullshit. Not because the things it says are untrue, far from it — even those who barely know me could recognize the fundamental truths about myself woven into its words. It’s bullshit because the things it doesn’t say are the proverbial truer words that never get spoken.
It doesn’t say that in the story I would have written for my own life, becoming a lawyer was never in the cards. Who knows, it very well still may not be. Writer, politician — surely. Professional athlete, president—less likely. Blue Power Ranger, Auror — don’t count me out just yet. But lawyer, or attorney, or judge, or justice, or magistrate, or paralegal, or clerk, was never part of the plan, no matter how much I loved a good argument or debate. And while the narrative I painted in my personal statement is an accurate portrait, there are still shades missing.
It doesn’t mention that you’re afraid you’ll never find that balance, and will just keep zigzagging to and from the extremes.
It doesn’t say that the curse of graduating in the age of social media is having a window that leads directly into the lives of your classmates, your peers, and your friends — all of whom, it feels, are doing way better than you in every facet imaginable. It doesn’t say how this sense of stagnation, when juxtaposed against everyone else’s apparent forward momentum, doesn’t so much feed your inferiority complex as pump it full of steroids and Lucky Charms marshmallows.
It doesn’t say how every rejection letter or cold shoulder from a job, fellowship, internship, or contact who a friend swore could hook you up, feels like another nick leading to a final death of a thousand cuts. It doesn’t say how the demon of depressive insecurity that nestled into your brain sometime after your ninth birthday keeps whispering that this isn’t a fluke, or a dry spell, or a rough patch — it’s the world snapping back to the way it was always meant to be, one where you very much Do Not Belong, and Never Did.
It doesn’t mention the loneliness of green circles and red flags marking friends and relationships gone by, all the “we should catch up sometime” plans that you knew would never happen. It doesn’t mention that you suspect this is happening not because of the standard drifting that comes with the passage of time, of moves and new jobs and graduations, but because those people have realized that you were never worth their time. It doesn’t mention the fear you think you see reflected in your family’s eyes that all the faith, time, and money they’ve invested into keeping you alive, healthy, and relatively happy is going to end up being for naught.
It doesn’t mention the flash of envy whenever someone in your social circles hits a major life milestone — an envy from which not even your closest friends, people you wholeheartedly love and would do anything for, are immune. It doesn’t mention how this envy Digivolves into a blaze of unbidden, shameful rage whenever that milestone is reached by someone you’ve styled as a rival— someone who might be perfectly friendly to you and have no idea that in your darkest moments, you use their success as motivation to dig deeper to try and “beat” them in your own mind.
It doesn’t mention the mad-scientist arrogance, which should’ve been beaten out of you by freshman year of high school, but still pops up now and again telling you that you’re meant for better than this — you’re better than all of them, you’ll show them all. It doesn’t mention that in the push and pull between arrogance and insecurity, in the gulf between being The Greatest Man That Ever Lived and just another turd pooped out by a Caribbean shithole, you’ve never found the balance in truly believing that you’re okay. And that just being okay, in and of itself, is okay.
It doesn’t mention that you’re afraid you’ll never find that balance, and will just keep zigzagging to and from the extremes.
The essay doesn’t say that law school, then, was not so much a calling as an escape, not so much a choice as a last resort to kick-start your life back into high gear. A shot in the dark hoping to hit a target, a Hail Mary under the Friday night lights praying to fall into the right hands. A final chance to show your peers, many of whom have graduated or are on track to graduate law school too, that you can stand toe-to-toe with the best of them; that you haven’t peaked, that you still got it. A door to break back into the societal echelon where you think a graduate of the University of Chicago belongs.
It doesn’t say that, even then, you’re not sure you made the right choice.
There’s the debt, of course. The nasty, tricksy debt, the debt that we hates so much, yes we do, precious. It doesn’t mention how much the debt scares you; not so much for the price tag itself, but that in your haste to make it go away, the lofty ideals you profess to champion will be forgotten as childish naïveté by this time in 2021. It doesn’t mention that you think you already know what the answer will be when you have to make the fabled choice between public interest and corporate law.
It doesn’t mention how you’ve internalized the dozens upon dozens of books and articles and videos imploring students to avoid law school, pleas that often come from people almost exactly like you, people with liberal arts degrees from Ivyesque universities that are sitting and gathering dust as your career remains stillborn. It doesn’t mention the fear of the depression and alcoholism and suicidal ideation you know are endemic in the profession at a rate that drastically outpaces the rest of the workforce, a fear compounded when you objectively look at yourself and see how many warning signs you’ve thrown up in the past few years.
For every lawyer out in the world fighting the good fight and law student waiting in the wings to reinforce them, there’s one on the opposite side — and right now, it looks like the other guys are running up the score.
It doesn’t say that, for all your honest praise, your faith in the legal system isn’t as resolute as you made it out to be. That for every lawyer out in the world fighting the good fight and law student waiting in the wings to reinforce them, there’s necessarily one on the opposite side — and right now, it looks like the other guys are running up the score. It doesn’t say that you had a sinking feeling about how the Supreme Court was going to come down on the Muslim Travel Ban That Was Definitely Not a Travel Ban, and that the future of American jurisprudence was one where the final word on law would come from a court shaped by the hands of Donald Trump.
Trump. By name, it doesn’t mention Trump, and that may be the bullshittiest part of all. “Without putting too fine a political point on it?” Really? Putting too fine a political point on things has been your entire raison d’etre for years. To this day, there are still strangers in Chicago who only know your name because of your online presence ranting about the news of the day.
Your personal statement could easily have been: “I want to go to law school because Donald J. Trump is the president of the United States and I don’t like that,” frantically scribbled over and over again in blue-green crayon. It would have been just as true as what you wrote. It doesn’t mention how you’ve been nurturing a hatred for the man since 2011 when he elected himself king of the birthers, and how that hatred slowly erodes any sense of goodwill you’d normally bear to those you consider your political opposites.
It doesn’t mention that your sense of optimism as a black American was curb stomped into a coma on election night 2016, and then taken off life support later that spring. It doesn’t mention your bitter realization that with a career in politics and writing sputtering in the mud, your screaming into the void online was doing next to nothing. How if you really wanted to stick it to He-Who-Wears-Abnormally-Long-Ties, law school was as good a bet as any, even if it meant setting aside what you had really wanted.
It doesn’t say that the real reason you love superhero stories so much, apart from the fact that you’re a man-child still endlessly amused by kickass music and colorful costumes and things going kabloosh, is that you’ve known for a long time that what is legal and what is right aren’t always in lockstep. It doesn’t say that this is especially true when people who look like you are involved. It doesn’t say that what’s always drawn you to the rebellious in fiction and in history alike, to the upper right-hand corner of alignment charts in RPGs, is the wish that more people would choose doing the right thing over the legal thing. Or failing that, that fewer people would hide behind the law to justify doing the wrong thing.
It doesn’t say that in going to law school, part of you feels like you’ve conceded defeat on that score.
It doesn’t say that as a black person living in a country that, at times, still seems torn between seeing black people as property at worst and only three-fifths of a human at best, you don’t think you can ever be truly comfortable with the law — or those who write it, practice it, review it, or enforce it. It doesn’t say that however to the right you may be of your leftist friends, or however #SleepyWoke you may be on the spectrum of social justice orthodoxy, there are days when you share their conviction that a system built to exclude certain groups of people will never treat them fairly — no matter how many enter the system with the intent to reform it. And that preying on the belief that you could succeed where so many before you have tried and failed is the system’s greatest weapon at perpetuating its worst behaviors.
It doesn’t say any of these things.
It doesn’t say any of these things, because you know how the game is played. You know that none of these things, however true, are what people want to hear. So while you don’t lie, you also don’t say the truest truths, instead opting for the ones that are simply true enough.
In other words, you bullshit.
But for all that I just wrote about that bullshit, I also don’t think it matters much. Because I think it’s the good kind of bullshit. The kind of bullshit a parent might tell a child, that a teacher might tell a student, the kind that might be passed between friends in the day or lovers in the night. It’s bullshit in the way that “everything’s gonna be okay” is bullshit, or that “America’s best days are still ahead of her” is bullshit, or that “Kingdom Hearts III is definitely coming out in January, for real this time, we’re super serious you guys” is bullshit.
It’s the kind of bullshit predicated not on what you know to be a lie but on what you sincerely hope could be true. You hope that in speaking it into existence, you can pluck it out of the air, nail its feet to the ground, and make it so. It’s bullshit that stems from things I think we all want to believe. That we’ll get a fair shake; that due process and equal protection aren’t theories but principles to be actively defended; that as imperfect as the law may be, no one is above it. That in a country that has so often styled itself the city on a hill, the vanguard of justice and freedom on a global stage, the practice of what we so loudly preach is paramount.
It’s bullshit that speaks to the best of us, and asks the most from us. And for all the forcible disillusionment the past three years have wrought, after investing so much time believing in and convincing other people of that bullshit, I’m not prepared to let go of that last great illusion just yet.
I don’t know if I want to be a lawyer. I don’t know if I should be a lawyer. But I know that I can be.
So that’s why I’m here. Because I need to believe my own bullshit. I need to believe that for all my many faults and failings, I’m still capable of pulling this off; that I might be that one liberal arts sucker in 10,000 who doesn’t come to regret this as the worst decision I’ve ever made. I don’t know if I want to be a lawyer. I don’t know if I should be a lawyer. But I know that I can be. And in a world where Rudy Giuliani is still in the game, there’s probably room for one more person who shouldn’t be a lawyer, but can be, and who’s working to help those who need it the most.
I’m in the place where Frank and Alicia promised that if I could make it, I could make it anywhere. I’m surrounded by classmates that seem like a damn good bunch of people so far. As unlikely as it seems even to myself, here I am, standing with a shot, one I don’t intend to throw away.
And if it all blows up in my face… well, then.
I suppose there are worse cities for a comic book nerd to find himself stranded for three years than the Big Apple.
And so we go.