Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Cheerleader's Baton


Early last summer, I decided to apply to law school. So since June, I have been spending a lot less time writing Lovenurse essays and a lot more time studing for the LSAT, taking and re-taking it, and working on law school applications. Since my numbers -- my LSAT score and undergrad GPA -- are not that impressive, I have been focusing on my personal statement, a two page essay that is supposed to convince the admissions officers that I am an amazing, motivated, intelligent person who will add greatly to their school's 2008 graduating class. I got the feeling that these essays are supposed to be pretty concrete, and a couple of people advised me to make sure I included at least one sentence that states why I want to go to law school. But my writing, especially when it's about my life, is rarely so clear cut. I write to express my confusion, confliction, my experiences at the crossroads of longing for and fear of the future. If I can't express these feelings, then is hard for me to find the motivation to write at all. So I struggled with this one, and ended up with about 20 versions of this essay. Below is one of the better ones; please try to read it as if you have never read anything else I've written, as if you came upon this sandwiched between other applicants' essays about how their life was changed by taking a summer trip to Honduras, working for a public defender or raising two kids. How would this stack up?

There is a cheerleader's baton buried by the storm drain where I plant flowers. It is one of the many items I find while gardening around my house or clearing brush from the vacant lot next door: car parts, pieces of furniture, a woman's purse. At first, I relished removing this refuse piece by piece, depositing it in the garbage can, to be carted away forever at the end of the week. But there is always more, waiting to be discovered by my shovel, caught in my rake or exposed by the next heavy rain.

Hortense, who supervises the community garden seven blocks away, says that if nothing else, gardening will teach you patience. I spent two years saving money to buy this house, biding my time in a run-down apartment, clearing up my credit and searching for a property within my budget. Remodeling took four months, every free minute consumed with replacing crumbling sheet rock, sanding layers of paint, agonizing over plumbing bids. Countless afternoons I worked in the house alone, struggling to follow step-by-step instructions on removing an old water heater, scraping browned popcorn texture from the ceilings, taping and floating, sanding, floating again.

These tasks, though difficult, have finite ends and immediate rewards. I gained an improved credit score when I paid off my college debt, a deed of ownership when I closed on the house, and a smooth white ceiling to stare at when I lay in bed at night. In the two years since moving in, however, I've found that outside the house itself, change in our neighborhood is incremental, and success is measured more subtly. Gangs, drugs and prostitution don't become soft and pliable like vinyl tiles under a heat gun. Poverty and desperation cannot be pried out with a crowbar. I now value the number of consecutive nights that pass without a prostitute working the park, the growing attendance at neighborhood meetings, the crack house boarded up after intervention by the newly reactivated neighborhood association.

My neighbors often use the term "relief" to describe the goal of our community activism: relief from crime, violence and poverty. Many of my neighbors are pioneers. Celia, the Flower Lady, maintains a slew of colorful plants outside the house where she has lived since 1947, when she was one of the first residents of this neighborhood, originally developed to house families of African American GIs after WWII. Noel's family, down the street, came more recently from Central America to establish a new life. Jolene, around the corner, built her own house with the help of Habitat for Humanity. Relief seems an uncharacteristically plaintive word on their lips. It reflects the pain inflicted by thieves who kicked in my front door, streets that lure kids into delinquency, junkies who steal even the Flower Lady's hanging baskets.

I am a new kind of pioneer: young, liberal, white. When I first moved in, some people asked me why I bought this place. The decision was pragmatic: because I wanted a home I wouldn't be forced out of due to rent hikes or landlord caprices; because I felt home ownership was the best way to make an investment and build wealth; and because this was one of the few properties that I could afford. Into this 600 square foot house, I have poured all of my savings, countless hours of effort, and grand dreams of financial growth. It is a lot for a little place to hold. This pressure, of big dreams in a confined space, of little money and lots of expenses, of ongoing frustrations and finite reserves of energy and compassion, defines life here. It wears on me, when I find the inspection sticker stolen from my car windshield, or when footsteps in the adjacent empty lot drive me to the back door, straining my eyes to peer out into the darkness. But it also motivates me, not only to pick up litter in the park and to join a nascent neighborhood watch, but also to find ways to address the systemic causes of our pain.

At neighborhood meetings, we talk increasingly about how to solve the problems in our neighborhood instead of pushing them on to another area. But the solutions - equal access to education, better employment opportunities, drug treatment options - often require more time, financial capital, and knowledge than we have at our disposal. My experiences teaching in a nearby housing project, working in my neighborhood, and building police-community partnerships in Austin, TX have shown me that the benefits of computer camps, litter cleanups, and prostitution stings are real, but they treat only the symptoms of communities sick with segregation and injustice. Addressing the real illness requires engagement with the slow moving process of national change via political representation, legal advocacy, and policy reform.

Over the past few years, I have reconsidered how I can most effectively contribute to this process of change. When I found the cheerleader's baton buried by the storm drain, my first instinct was to dig it up. I strained my back trying to pry it from the ground, but finally left it there. The flowers I plant around it bloom anyway. Our neighborhood association meetings end with a prayer and sometimes, a hug. Kids practice football in the park. Bobbie, next door, commends my landscaping and tells me she's glad that I bought the house. As I turn the soil in the garden, the crabgrass in my yard, or the dirt by the storm drain, I can imagine a future where we all feel some relief, and I am invigorated to pursue a career in law, government, and public policy where I can best use my talents to help realize that day.

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