Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"The Single Advantage"

Around this time, in September of 1966, with a mixture of excitement, trepidation and a screaming ignorance of what I was about to get into, I pulled open the heavy, oak door and stepped into the building, a First Year student at the University of Toronto Law School.

Five or six weeks later – I can no longer remember which – I quit.

(And became something else.  Ultimately.  It would take a while to find out what that would be.)

A short background, as I have mentioned this before.  Late that previous June, the day immediately before I would fly off to spend the summer at the Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop at UCLA, I crossed the street from the University of Toronto campus, heading for the “kitty-cornered” University of Toronto Law Building. 

Signing up for law school was easy for me.  I was an “A” student, and my transcripts were across the street.  I was assured the paperwork would all be taken care of.  I wrote my name at the bottom of some page, and that was that.  

Why did I sign up for law school?  It was not because I wanted to be a lawyer.  I had a couple of distant cousins who were lawyers.  I’d watched Perry Mason and The Defenders.  My brother had recently “Passed The Bar”, but I don’t think he wanted to be a lawyer either; he was just being practical (he was about to get married.) 

Not only had I little tangible idea of what being a lawyer actually involved, I had zero aspirations in that direction. 

What the heck was I thinking!

I was thinking two things:  In September, you go to school.  I had done that since I was three, so that habit was seriously locked in. 

I signed up for law school, so I’d have somewhere to go in September. 

(In the world I grew up in, after college, you either went to more school or you got a job.  “More school” looked easier.  And forced me less quickly into the role of a grownup.  A theme I shall return to shortly.)  (If I ever actually leave it, which I do not believe I do.)

My other thought was that I knew I was great at “school.”  Venn Diagram: 

I’m great at “school.”

Law school is “school.” 

I’ll be great at law school.

(Imperfect logic, as there’s a prediction involved.  But the probabilities leaned definitely in that direction.)

One last thing before I dive in.  My experience at the Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop had been – forgive me for using an overused word – transformative.  American strangers had appreciated what I did.  (Up till then, with the exception of one success in a college review, the accolades I received derived exclusively from my triumphs at camp, where they knew me, and they knew my family.)  Though I would end up writing and not performing, I had been irretrievably, not bitten, but viscerally embraced by the bug.  Which made law school a contrastingly stonier terrain. 

Starting with…

The Dean’s Speech

The guy literally said this at our first day’s “Orientation”:

“Look to your left of you.  Look to your right of you.  By the end of this year, one of you will be gone.”

I had been threatened with this bullying before.  It was “Scare Tactics One-Oh-One” – academic “Booga-Booga!” meant to terrorize students into buckling down.  Of course, there’d be a natural “culling process”, the weaklings falling by the wayside.  But no way he was talking about me. 

As Gomer Pyle used to say, “Surprahse!  Surprahse!  Surprahse!”

What do I remember about law school?  What I mostly recall from that crackling nightmare of panic and distress is that my classmates wore suits, and the print in the law books was very small, two flashing signals that I was in the wrong place.  My only suit was purchased for my Bar Mitzvah years earlier, and I could not fit into it anymore.  And my eyes are not happy with tiny print.

I might explain that law school involves a different kind of thinking than I was used to, but I’d be traveling down the wrong trail.  Or barking up the wrong tree.  Leave us sidestep the traveling and the barking, and say, I’d be missing the “Big Picture.”   

Which was…

In a word,


My fevered thinking being,

When you get your B.A., you’re a College Graduate.  That’s not a job; it’s an educational plateau.  On the other hand, when you graduate from law school,

You’re a lawyer. 

Which is also not a job,

It’s a lifetime vocation.

Holy Catfish!

I am twenty-one years old!  Why am I monkeying with lifetime vocations?

I visited a career counselor/social worker my Aunt Bea recommended for four sessions.  At one session – I am not making this up – I arrived holding an enormous “All-Day” sucker in one hand and a lit cigar in the other.  You would not need Doctor Freud for this one.  I was transparently conflicted. 

I was encouraged to understand that any decision I made would have no permanent repercussions.  If I left law school, I could always – should I later decide that I wanted to – go back.  I was also encouraged to understand that deciding to leave at this point did not equal failure – equals shame – equals my life is ruined forever.  I was simply unready at this point to make a life-determining decision.

So I left law school.

Though my departure brought immediate relief, despite the professional assurances, the film that began playing incessantly in my head was of me, as a homeless derelict, wearing a heavy overcoat (even in summer) I’d found discarded in an alley, aimlessly walking the streets, scavenging trash cans for discarded treasures.  Or pizza crusts.

As it turns out, especially as this time of the year rolls by, “making the right decision” does not immunize you against second-guessing and wistful thoughts of “what might have been.”  As, once again, my introduction has gone on longer than I had hoped, I shall postpone my stroll down “the road not taken” until next time.

You are, as always, entirely welcome to stroll along.


Chuck Kingsfield said...

It's likely your fault for the Great Lawyer Shortage that engulfs North America?

Saw one of your Becker episodes today - Lucky Day, I think is the title. Very funny. Lots of laughs. Thanks for that. You wouldn't have been doing that for the masses if you'd followed the law. Tho you may have created a whole new genre of entertainment: 'legal' comedy.

Did Canada not have military conscription when you were 'of age?' Trying to recall if I ran into any Canadian troops in Vietnam, but my memory fails me - again.

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; your counselor was inspired to suggest to you that course of action. Maybe they had an alternative motive or not, but for you it worked. You certainly don't regret not being a lawyer do you?


p.s. Chuck; Canada had conscription only during WWI and WWII. The last year of conscription was 1945. Very few of the conscripts fought and died so political tragedy was averted. The war in Vietnam was one that Canada would not participate in. It was officially neutral IIRC, and subsequently accepted draft dodgers from the USA. Canada did not pursue or deport US draft dodgers.