Friday, May 31, 2013

Substitute Teaching Moments

I have had some interesting experiences since I began substitute teaching a couple of months ago. There have been times when I felt like I was going to explode and just wanted to walk out of the class and the building, never to return. There have been other times when I just considered myself blessed by being amongst children with whom I have interacted.

The worst day so far was when I subbed for a junior high biology teacher at a school in a not-so-great area. There were over 40 students in most of my classes ... It just wasn't pretty. I remember texting Mark mid-way through the day saying, "I'm in hell." It certainly felt like it. He texted back expressing compassion, then wrote, "Try to find the Buddha in each one of them." Um, wrong thing to say. I texted back, "I'm more worried about find MY Buddha." I have not returned to that school.

Interestingly, however, I substituted at a high school in that same area and the kids were respectful and well-behaved. Perhaps because it was a Resource class, i.e., an English class for kids who are learning-challenged. The regular teacher had left a quote of the day on the blackboard to be discussed, something Judy Garland said:

"Always be a first-rate version of yourself rather than a second-rate version of someone else."

We had some interesting discussions about that quote. I asked each class if they knew who Judy Garland was. Blank stares. "How many of you have seen the original Wizard of Oz movie?" I asked. Recognition. I explained that Garland acted in a number of movies, but her real fame came later, as a singer. One of the kids said, "What kind of music did she sing? R&B?" How could I explain what kind of singer Judy Garland was to a group of kids who were born a whole generation after she died? I didn't try.

Speaking of Judy Garland, I found another quote of hers that I liked:

"For it was not into my ear that you whispered, but into my heart. 
It was not my lips you kissed, but my soul."

More recently, I had an opportunity to substitute in another junior high in a poorer area of Salt Lake. In fact, when I met the teacher for whom I would be subbing before school, he told me that this school's area was the poorest in the state. Nevertheless, the classes were, for the most part, reasonably well-behaved. (Ooooo ... Did I just reveal a prejudice?)

One of my classes at this school was composed of a dozen or so ESL (English as a second language) kids. Some of them, the teacher had told me, were refugees. After I took roll, I asked them to tell me where they were from and how long they had been here. Three of them were from Nepal. Another girl was from Iraq, another from Egypt, another from Indonesia. A couple of boys were from "Africa," they apparently choosing not to say which country. Others were from Mexico. I told them that I used to be a lawyer and had lived in Utah for 17 years. (Is that possible?)

One of the things that touched me about this class was how they helped each other read and pronounce words, sometimes translating in their native language to another child. Another rewarding moment came when one of the students said I'd be a really good teacher if I decided to do that (i.e., if I become certified). I was surprised and asked why. Several of them immediately said, "Because you're so nice. Kids like that. Most substitutes are mean and they just yell at you." Now that was heartwarming.

Another poignant moment came in another class as I was teaching about the Great Depression. I asked the kids why it is important to learn about the Great Depression and about what it was like back then. Some of them commented that we study history so that we won't make the same mistakes. I then talked about the financial collapse in the fall of 2008 and the Great Recession that followed in its wake. One of the students proceeded to describe how his family used to live in Sandy, a relatively affluent suburb of Salt Lake; but his dad had lost his job and their house was foreclosed and they had to declare bankruptcy and move to the area served by the school. He was very matter-of-fact about it. Considering my own current financial situation, I was touched by his candor and equanimity. I was grateful that I was in that classroom that day. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Accepting What IS: Leaving Law Behind

In yesterday’s post, I started out writing about how being a lawyer had defined me for most of my adult life. In fact, in hindsight, it was a role I could fit into, much like the roles I took upon myself as Mormon priesthood holder, husband and father. I suppose when one is trying to escape from whom one essentially is (gay), such roles are very convenient. I didn’t need to define myself from the inside out; rather, I could let my roles define me from the outside in.

I also went into law for the same reason many have done so – because I couldn’t think of anything else to do and it was a profession. That may sound cynical, but it is a well-known fact – at least within the legal world – that many entered the profession for the same reason(s) I did. 

Of course, I felt I had an aptitude for it and I was interested in it, but I had periods of doubt all along the way. These started in my very first year of law school when I seriously considered leaving and getting a master’s degree in history. I had other periods of doubt during the course of the next 20+ years, but I stuck to it because it provided a means of supporting my family, and I was a heck of a lot better suited to it than other career paths I might have chosen.

And again, the same issues of roles and definitions continued to apply over the years. And then there was the status thing: being a lawyer (attorney) carried status.

That being said, during the years I worked here in Salt Lake, I never really felt a part of the legal or firm cultures, for many reasons. One was my Canadian legal education, which is very much based on English law and the (historic) English legal system. The case law we studied was different. The cultural values were different. The ethos was different. In Canada, the practice of law – at least when I started – truly was viewed as a profession, not a business. Even the nomenclature was different. In Canada, I was a "barrister and solicitor" or "lawyer" ("attorneys" were holders of powers of attorney). For years after being admitted to the Utah bar, and still today, I referred to myself as a "lawyer," not an "attorney.”

Yada, yada, yada.

Fast forward to 2011. I had come out in the fall of 2010, but I didn’t come out at work until the ax fell. In the end, I lost my job because I had never become a shareholder (and, in point of fact, no corporate associate attorney had become a shareholder in the firm since the early 1990's), because I filled a very specialized niche in the firm, and because the economy collapsed in the fall of 2008. In short, though the firm was very happy with my work, keeping me as essentially a staff attorney was no longer sustainable.

Since May of 2011, I have tried to locate another position and I have also tried to do contract work in the area of my expertise. Though I believe that if the economy were strong I could do well in the area of contract work, the economy hasn't been strong - particularly for transactional corporate attorneys. The unemployment rate among attorneys in Salt Lake City has been rumored to be around 40%. Anecdotal stories are plentiful of attorneys with many years’ experience not even being able to obtain jobs as paralegals, let alone as attorneys. 

And did I mention that I am 54? The bottom line is that the economy sucks, I’m over 50 years old, and I had no client base when I left Parsons. For those not familiar with today’s legal world, an experienced corporate/securities attorney of my vintage who has no clients to bring to a firm makes them, well, pretty much unemployable. But beyond that, anyone over 50 in this country is pretty much unemployable - period.

It took me a long time to finally come to the realization that, barring a miracle, my legal career is over. It has taken me even longer to overcome the shame of that. But I finally came to see the truth of a core Buddhist teaching: the failure to recognize and accept what IS, causes suffering. Or put another way, the gap between reality and wishing reality was different causes suffering. One may wish reality were different, but that doesn’t make it so.

But grasping that principle and putting it into practice are two different things. I have made progress. I have more progress to make. Particularly in the shame department. And in the area of rejecting efforts by some who refuse to accept, let alone see, reality and would like to see me accept the shame they would put upon me.

Which brings me back to yesterday’s post. I had started out writing about the need to embrace my life, rather than be ashamed of it, the need to tear down walls and dividers and to be who I am, without fear, without shame. I had intended to write about some of my experiences substitute teaching, which I began doing a few months ago. Instead, I ended up writing about leaving law behind. 

I guess I needed to do that.  Meanwhile, I'm off to teach 4th grade today.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

My Career as a Lawyer

One of the reasons why I decided to recommence blogging was a need I felt to be more open to others (and by extension, myself) about aspects of my life right now. Ever since I came out, there have been walls and dividers in my life, shutting off the view from various persons. Of course, living in the closet for decades had taught me the importance of walls. But, gradually over the course of the last two years, out of a desire to be released from the power of fear, I have been removing walls and dividers.

[Note: This post ended up going in an entirely different direction than I had anticipated. It also became much longer than anticipated. Thus, I decided to split it into two posts, which will probably end up being three ... but who's counting? Meanwhile, the practice of writing and ruminating is healthy for me.]

One of the biggest challenges with which I have been dealing over the past two years is the loss of my job as a corporate/securities attorney in late May 2011. Being a lawyer had defined who I was for most of my adult life. When I was in college, I planned to go to law school, but then got diverted onto a different path when I went to work for our family business. Then, a few years later, life events propelled me path onto a path to law school.

I finally took the LSAT in late 1983. My plan was to enroll after I completed my LDS mission, I having joined the Mormon Church by that point. When I got back from France, I applied to and was accepted by several schools. Which one I chose would determine my future; I chose BYU. I also chose to get married, which occurred in the summer of 1986. Two months later, I was to start classes.

But another diversion occurred: we decided for various reasons (which seemed perfectly logical and "inspired" at the time, but which fundamentally altered the course of my life) to move to Vancouver, where my former wife was from and had lived for most of her life. I enrolled a year later in the Faculty of Law of the University of British Columbia.  

Three years later, in the spring of 1990, I graduated and began my year as an "articling student" at one of the premier business law firms in Vancouver. "Articling" is based on the British system and is roughly equivalent to internship in medicine. After one year of being paid less than my secretary and "learning the ropes" and passing the bar exam, I was formally admitted into the Law Society of British Columbia and continued as an associate at the same law firm, practicing securities and corporate law.

The Hong Kong Bank Building in downtown Vancouver where I worked for five years.

I hadn't planned to go into securities law. It just happened. I was never the high-power high finance corporate law guy. I just wasn't that into it. But I won the securities prize in my third year of law school and happened to start working at my new firm for one of Canada's premier securities lawyers, and the rest is history. With each passing year, my area of expertise became more specialized, moving me further away from a general practice.

In 1996, we moved from Vancouver to Utah. I knew I couldn't practice law here at that time, but I was ready for a break. By late 2000, however, the situation regarding the State Bar's treatment of Canadian lawyers had changed. If I went back to law school for a year and took some prescribed courses, I could sit for the bar exam and be admitted to the Utah Bar. This is what I did (2001-2002) during which time, I worked at Parsons Behle & Latimer, a large law firm here in Salt Lake, practicing securities and corporate law. I took the bar exam in July of 2002, was admitted to the bar three months later, and for the next 10 years I worked at that same firm - until May 2011.

To be continued ...

Monday, May 27, 2013

Back in the Saddle

I have gotten back in the saddle. I have decided to start blogging again on this private blog. I have missed writing. Now that I have absorbed the shock of Mark's prostate cancer diagnosis, I recognize that I have felt something missing in my life: my writing. So, I'm going to give it another whirl - but no promises as to how faithfully or how long I will write this time.

Mark and I have also got back in the saddle of our respective bicycles. Neither one of us had been our bikes since returning from our cycling tour last fall. I wasn't sure, frankly, whether I could remember how to shift gears. But it all came back, of course, once we got out on the road last week after returning from Maui. 

We went out today and rode I don't know how many miles. Last year, I kept a detailed log of how far we rode each day. This year, I haven't bothered setting my Garmin watch to calculate how far we've ridden, how many vertical feet we've climbed, etc., etc. We're just going out and riding.

Of course, I am way ahead of where I was last year, when I had to build up confidence, strength, stamina and the capacity to breathe. It has been immensely gratifying to feel the strength in my legs and in my lungs.

There is no cycling trip to France planned for this year, but we will be going to San Francisco in late July - early August to ride the Marin County Century (100 miles). On the way out there, we're going to stop in Lake Tahoe for a couple of nights and ride around the lake which, weather permitting, should be absolutely spectacular - all 72 miles of it.

I still haven't perfected the art of the "selfie," as is obvious from this picture taken today. Less nostrils, please.
We do hope to do another Erickson Cycling trip next summer, if the gods are favorable - i.e., if Mark is in good health. All being well, we will tackle the Eastern Pyrénées, hopefully with some of our friends from last year's epic Corsica trip.

I am pleased to say that Mark is doing very well after commencing hormone therapy in early April. His strength and stamina is excellent. As most readers of this blog will know, he retired from Emergency Medicine after the diagnosis came down, but he is still very much involved in his hospice work. Part of his responsibility is to be on call periodically, and this is his week. Thus, we had to stop a couple of times today on our ride so that he could take calls.

Yours truly has also been trying to figure out the panorama feature of his new iPhone 5, my previous phone having given up the ghost shortly before we left Maui. I'm still working on it. I have to ask my 14-year-old how to do it. Meantime, the lead photo and the following photo are my initial attempts at figuring the *!$x& thing out.