Friday, January 17, 2014

Faking It; Making It

January 16, 2013 would have been marked the 3 year anniversary of my marriage, except that my divorce decree had arrived in the mail just four days before. I hadn't seen Ben in more than 6 months, since he rolled out of sight towing a U-Haul trailer to South Carolina. In less than three years we'd lost two children and run what was once a bright and hopeful marriage into the ground.

I wasn't quite sure what I was doing with my life anymore. Out of necessity I had taken a job as an associate attorney in a worker's compensation defense firm. I had lucked out - I loved my job. But every day that I was tucked away in an office pushing paper, I couldn't help mourning the fact that my well-honed trial skills were being wasted. When I graduated from law school, a mediocre student but an award-winning trial advocacy competitor, anyone who knew me would have assumed I would be a trial attorney. I loved trial practice. I loved criminal law. I still love them both.

When I was invited to judge the high school mock trial competition on January 16, 2013, I rightfully anticipated that I would be the work comp world's lone representative. In the judge's room I greeted the attorneys that I knew, but was generally a stranger in the close knit community of legal practitioners. I was relieved to be paired with Layla to judge a round. Layla, a deputy district attorney, had been my opposing counsel in the last criminal matter that I handled before accepting the job at Mullen & Filippi. My client and I stood firm in our position that we would take nothing short of a dismissal of charges, or trial. I'd put on a bravado until my client was offered a conditional dismissal, at which point I waived good-bye to my first opportunity to go to criminal trial, and stood by my client as she accepted the deal.

Layla and I sat, this time not as adversaries, as the presiding judge, in-house counsel for Chevron and hardly a criminal trial attorney or judge, introduced herself. The competing teams, West High School and Garces High School, then introduced themselves and the round began.

You cannot watch a high school mock trial competition, and not marvel at the fact that these are high school students, speaking and arguing and objecting like experienced adult attorneys. You cannot love trial like I do, and not feel as though you are watching some penant baseball game. I shared my horror with Layla, an experienced trial attorney herself, as the umpire made bad calls and the players suffered the consequences. I felt alive. I felt like this round mattered, and like I mattered for being a part of it. I felt like I was watching these children blossom before me. I felt like I was watching them change. Someday, some of them might be my colleagues. I felt hopeful, on this day that had three years ago been filled with a hope that was crushed by the sad, sad circumstances of a miscarriage and Gabriel's fatal diagnosis and death. I felt like maybe it was okay to keep going.

When West High's teacher coach asked me to join his team as an attorney coach for the 2013 and 2014 season, I had my reservations. I was a loyal East High alumni, and it was hard to imagine betraying my alma mater to coach at another school. I reminded myself of their team of four attorneys, each Hispanic girls in whom I saw some element of myself, and I agreed.

Beginning in August, and week after week after that, I've watched this talented group of students develop before my eyes. When Gabriel was born, I had an opportunity to see a human brain and watch as it functioned, limitedly, in my son even when the doctors had told me that he would not function, that he would likely not live to leave the hospital. Now, while I practice with the West High team, it is as though I am looking inside their skulls, watching their brains grow before my eyes. Where last year I judged them in a competition round against Garces, a private school with a tremendous rate of graduates who go on to college, and saw them lose, this year I have witnessed them transform that loss into energy to face Garces again. With pride I stood as their coach as they again met Garces in competition. With pride, I learned that this year, they won.

These students are bright, intelligent, college-bound young adults. Of course, they are a breath of fresh air when it seems all we ever hear anymore about American teenagers is their proclivity for drug and alcohol use, teenage pregnancy, and wasting their lives. But these students are more than just smart kids. They inspire me every day, because there's just something about them that makes me think they are going to change the world. They're already changing the world, just because they're in it, and they are going above and beyond just attending their classes every day. They are consuming the high school experience with zeal, with an energy that makes me certain that their lives are just beginning, and they are going to do amazing things with the rest of their lives.

Sometimes I hear the words of Professor Pritikin, my trial advocacy coach in law school, pouring out of my mouth. "Everything that happens in these rounds, you make it look like you wanted it to happen. Don't let the judges see that you've hit a bump in the road. You fake it until you make it. You get objected to? So what? You wanted that objection. You get overruled on an objection? Who cares? You planned it that way. Do not waver. Do not back down. It's all part of your plan. Even if it wasn't." As Pritikin throws his voice in our practices, I admonish myself to live by my own rules, to do what I'm telling these kids to do. Slowly, I'm learning to practice what I preach. I've been faking it and have recently realized that now, I'm making it.

As I've watched them grow in the last few months, I've also found my own life falling into place. A year ago I wondered if I'd get another chance at love - which I desparately wanted - again. Since then Marcos has walked into my life, and just when I was beginning to think that he had completed the picture, we learned that we were expecting even more. Figuring out the shape that our budding family will take has been no easy task. Preparing the mock trial students for competition hasn't been easy either. But they have both been worthy endeavors.

On Wednesday night the West High students, after having won their first round against Garces, were paired up against defending mock trial champions Centennial High School. My sense of competition when it comes to Centennial High's academic programs runs deep, as I vividly recall losing to them in debate competitions during my four years of high school, and most notably having lost to them during my senior year in the Bicentennial We the People state mock congressional hearing competition. I wanted this win.

"It just occurred to me that this isn't just a competition among the students. It's kind of a competition between the attorney coaches," Marcos noted after the Wednesday night round. I was stunned that this had just occurred to him.

"Yes. These attorney coaches, they probably don't think of me as competition. They don't even know me. They've never seen me in a trial. I do administrative law, and I'm in my own world, and I'm no threat to them. But yes, I feel comptetitive. The Centennial coach is a deputy DA, and he's done trials. So yes, knowing my students are competitive with his, it makes me proud. I'm proud of our performance tonight. We played to win. We might have won. These kids, they make me so proud. They're unbelievable."

We lost our round against Centennial. The structure of the competition is such that Centennial will now inevitably be in the final round and may retain their title as the district champions. West High is in the running to take 3rd place, a significant improvement over their 7th place from last season, with the hope of winning the championship next year close enough to taste. We'll only lose one student, a senior who will graduate this spring. We have something to aim for, and much to be proud of.

And I am a changed person. I've spent the last year growing and changing too. I'm learning that sometimes you lose, and losing sucks and I'll always think it sucks. But there's still so much to be gained, even in loss. A loss is an opportunity to try again, to reach even higher, to improve yourself, and to walk away with even more than you started with.

I've frequently thought of myself as a failure when it comes to Gabriel. I failed to grow him "right," I failed as his mother to protect him. But then I think with pride of the way he defied the odds, the way he survived for ten days when the experts told me I would be lucky to have him for ten hours. I think of his death as one of the deepest losses of my life. But the ten days I had with him, they were some of the greatest days of my life. For those ten days, I had it all. For ten days, I was on top of the world.

There will always be defeat. There will always be loss. And there will always be a chance to win again.

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