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 I was graduating from law school. It was all I had ever really wanted to do, but up until then hadn’t felt the wave of emotions that I expected. Certain songs on the radio would get me misty eyed, taking on new meanings the closer I got to my graduation day.  Leaving each exam I would feel all manner of emotions – none of which could adequately be described.  Fear, anxiety, accomplishment, relief… all of that. I felt like I had failed and like I had won. 

The stage was lined with administrators and faculty members ready to hood us, hand us our diplomas and send us out to be what Howard Law called “social engineers.” No one in administration or on the faculty was anything like me, so it was going to be hard for me to find one with whom I should share this amazing moment. 

I didn’t feel what I expected to feel until I reached the end of my row on the slow march up to the stage. The bar skills professor was at the corner, and caught me off guard.

“You.”

I looked around to see who she could be talking to.  I didn’t really engage with any of the professors. I always promised to come to her office and talk to her about my plans for my bar exam preparation, but never did.  Promises to do anything besides study and take care of the kids usually ended up broken.  She looked at me and said it again.

“You. I am especially proud of you.”

She hugged me, and there it was. You know when you see the ocean threatening to produce a wave? You watch, and you can feel whether or not this is going to be a big one or just another ripple.  I felt the emotions start rolling.  I knew that if I replied, that would be all the energy that the wave needed to make the tears crash down my cheeks.  I bit the inside of my cheek, and it hurt, but I didn’t bite with enough force to beat back the lump that was growing in my throat.

“Dammit,” I thought. “Thank you,” I said. 

She reached out to hug me, and I hugged her back.  I turned quickly, hoping to divert the wave. Deep breaths weren’t working, and I think my cheek was bleeding.  People tell me that I tend to wear my thoughts on my face.  I was sad. I was happy. I was relieved. I was exhausted.  I was thankful. I wished she was one that I could have chosen to hood me, but she was standing on the sidelines as we rounded the corner and approached the stage. She got me, or at least she tried.

“Don’t you do it Mrs. Wilson,” said my classmate. I was pretty sure that I smelled a faint hint of alcohol on his breath, but we were too close to the stage for me to ask him if he brought a flask.  It probably wouldn’t have been appropriate either. I was a lawyer now, and I knew better. Eyes are always on you. Always. Cameras too.  Nobody thought to share their liquid courage with me, and I wasn’t on my game enough to bring my own.  I’d even forgotten my phone that morning.

I bit my lip instead. That doesn’t do anything but convince people that you are either already crying or holding back tears.  Then they instinctively ask if you are okay, starting the waterworks.

“Mrs. Wilson is going to make me cry…” said my other classmate as I tried to push the tears up and back into my eyes without messing up my makeup.

“Is it all messed up?” I asked her. “No, you’re good,” she said, wiping underneath her eyes carefully, and breathing deeply. In through her nose, and out through her mouth. We took two more steps toward the stage.

“They gone say my whole name,” she said with a laugh. “I wrote out the whole thing. They gone say it for my momma.”

I looked down at my card.  I had written just my first, middle, and married last name.  Looking at it reminded me that none of the people responsible for my maiden name would be there. I felt guilty for not including them.  Even if it would have been by a symbolic gesture like writing my maiden name and having it read aloud from the stage. My dad was the reason I chose Howard Law.  I was born at Howard Hospital, delivered by my mother’s med school professor. They had opted out of this moment, and in a way, I was grateful. If they had come, I'd have been taken all the way out. Likely laying in the floor (which is different from lying on the floor), wailing.

I stood there fighting back tears, but the thoughts just wouldn’t stop coming. I hadn’t spoken to my mom in nearly two years, and my brother in more than twice that. My dad and I had just had a misunderstanding, and I advised him that he should stay put.  It was cold, but I had to think about the people who had struggled with me for the last three years, financially and emotionally, and I couldn’t misplace any gratitude at this moment.

I followed my classmate up the stairs. She handed him her card and she straightened.  She was already tall, but as he read her name, she seemed to grow a few inches with each syllable.  We all had taken quite a journey to get to that stage. Before I knew it, the tears were gone. They had disappeared into my throat and been swallowed up.

I scanned the stage to see who I would choose to hood me, and I decided on the one that knew the most of my story, and with whom I thought I could identify the most. She was a mom, natural hair, down to earth. I couldn't guess her age, and I could say something cliche here, but you already know.

Before the pinning ceremony, my classmates were hustling to get hair appointments. I went to her and asked if I should straighten my afro for it.  She said a very clear, unwavering, no.  She said that she had gone into her job interviews with her natural hair and her tattoos. “If you come in with straight hair, what will you do, surprise them on the first day of work with the real you?”

So afro it was.

I went to her another time fearing that my age would deter employers – even though I had come to Howard with no intention of being an employee after graduation.  She warned me not to get caught up, and to focus on what I came to Howard to do.  Then we commiserated about our teenage sons, laughed, and that was that.  We weren’t peers, and I never asserted myself as such, but I figured that she was the closest to someone who could understand where I was coming from.

Most of my professors were either married men, single women, or married with invisible husbands and families.  One professor had young, visible children, but even though our stories were in the same book, we were in different chapters, and definitely not on the same page.

I was a unicorn – a wife, homeschooling mother of three, author, and a blogger, AND a full time law student at one of the most difficult law schools in the country? Why? I bet most of my professors wondered why on earth I was taking up space in their classroom.  I could be wrong. But I don’t think I am.

I stepped onto the stage and handed him my card. He covered the microphone and confirmed with me that it was EEEva, not AYva. I nodded and straightened up.

“Eva Adenike Wilson.”

 

Photo courtesy of Kimery Williams of LemarkPhotography.

All at once I realized that my heels were too high, my hair was too dry, my neck was feeling greasy, and I may or may not have bread from lunch still in my teeth. I shook hands with each person in line, and when I reached her, I shook her hand, smiled a closed mouthed smile, and handed my hood to her.

She was determined to get it right. She fussed with my hair and the robe to make sure the hood sat on my shoulders just so.  Before I walked away, she said it.

“Congratulations. Now you can go back to being a mom.”

I can’t tell you all the expletives that ran through my head but stopped short at my teeth, but there were a lot of them. What was THAT supposed to mean? Go BACK to being a mom?

Anyone who truly knew me would have cussed her out for me.  I hadn’t missed a deadline on a blog post. I had been at ballet, African dance, jazz, and violin recitals. I had gone with the kids on family vacations. I made dinner and shuffled kids to practices. I went to karate and soccer tournaments.  I took them skiing and to doctor’s appointments and back to school shopping. I bandaged knees and… For goodness sake… I homeschooled them! What does she mean go BACK to being a mom? I never even considered stopping.

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My husband did more than his share, but I never once stopped being a mom or performing many of the duties that people associate with motherhood. I was a listening ear, and shoulder to sleep on, a belly to snuggle up to, a smooshy face to… well smoosh. What in the living… what did she mean?

Before I left the stage, I was determined to prove her, and others who looked at me through the same lens that she did, wrong. I was about to be the stuff of legend – a master legal mind.  My grades had come in, and I was validated. For a mom? Not bad. Not bad at all.

After my immigration law exam, I really believed I wasn’t going to graduate. I dug through my mental crates to find the record of my high school algebra teacher's voice telling me how to calculate the lowest score I could get to still pass the course.  I pulled over.  I hyperventilated. I added, subtracted, multiplied, divided. I solved for x. I cried. Then I drove right past the house and beyond it another fifteen minutes to get "food" that I could eat it without sharing. Failing immigration, the main reason I went to law school, the reason I am here in the United States, that’s how I was going out? Okay. Two deep fried apple pies please. Thank you.

I didn’t order graduation invitations. I didn’t take graduation photos.  My classmates were posting wonderful pictures online showing their joy and pride in their monumental accomplishments. I was paralyzed. I just watched them be happy. I couldn’t celebrate until I knew I would be graduating.

I just couldn’t believe it was happening.  I still have nightmares about missing exams. This experience left me with some sort of PTSD.  Soldiers know that they can’t go back to normal life. No one expects them to.  They have gone through an experience that only a select few people in the world have gone through, and they are forever changed. 

“Congratulations. Now you can go back to being a mom.”

Why didn’t she think that this experience would change me? After all that, her statement implied that even as I stood there in my cap and gown, and she pulled the hood over my afro, I was standing there unchanged. My moment of diversion, or maybe even temporary insanity, was over. There she was, a professor, a dean, and a mom – but me? Oh really? I can go back to…. Okay.  I got something for that. As I gritted my teeth and smiled for my photo as I left the stage, all I could think was, “...watch me be great.”

Fast forward one full month.

As I wait for my actual law degree to come in the mail, looks like she might have been right. The month has been filled to the brim with family vacation, doctor’s appointments, play dates, trips to the library, more doctor’s appointments, entertaining house guests, laundry, cooking, cleaning, practices, recitals competitions, more laundry, shuttling kids, assigning chores, snuggling, movie nights, and being tired. Sound like I went back to being a mother to you? It does to me. The only thing that I have done in the past month that is remotely related to my law degree is be judge, jury, and bailiff when my kids nearly come to blows over a game of three way chess.

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To be fair, I knew this would happen. My son graduated too, and he is leaving for college. This is an important summer for him.  We have to shop for school and talk about the future and sing old songs and watch even older movies.  I have spent three years with my mind and my attention spread thin, so I didn’t think it would be good for the kids, or me, to go straight into studying eight to ten hours a day for the bar exam.  I talked with my bar prep professor briefly one day, and she said we would work out something so that I could study over the course of the year. I’ll need the time, and so will my family. Look at that. Look at me... momming like a boss.

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Truth is, I’m not your average law student who is single, child free, and in their twenties. I am married and entered school at the end of my thirties with not one, not two, but three children – three homeschooled children who didn’t deserve to have their world turned upside down because of my dream delayed. I did my best to give them a normal life while I was a full time law student – as normal as it could be anyway.

I’m not as angry as I was when I left that stage. I don’t hear her voice in my head mocking my three years of hard work and sacrifice. I take it for what I now believe it was meant to be… sarcasm. I think she wanted to acknowledge that she knew who I was when I handed her that hood. That she remembered me, and that she knew why I chose her.  I choose to believe that she saw me walking down the hall with my kids several times over the last three years. I’d be willing bet she heard my kids cheering for me from the front row in the moot court room when I went up to receive my awards. I’m pretty sure she was included in the mass email that my professor sent out when my project for copyrights class was featured on Huffington Post Parents, and won a Voices of the Year award.

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“Congratulations. Now you can go back to being a mom.”

 

Photo courtesy of Kimery Williams of LemarkPhotography.

Maybe she really did think that I couldn't possibly have done all of the things that a wife and mom must do for her family while I was a full time law student, but I choose to believe that she was being sarcastic. I am almost certain that she meant this to be funny. Sarcasm relies on the obvious and the absurd in order to be truly funny. How could she have been serious? She is a mom, she knows that it is a 24 hour, 7 day a week, 365 day a year job. You can't start and stop.  The fact that I was there, in law school, at 41, is evidence that I take this motherhood thing seriously. I never stopped being a mom. Never. Not for a second. As the self professed princess of sarcasm, I pride myself on my ability to spot and deliver a good punch line. She made the best "mom-in-law-school" joke ever, and it took me a whole month to get it. 

Lawyers are not the best comedians. One day I'll think back on how angry this made me and laugh. Not today though. Too soon... Too. Soon.