Illustration by R. Kikuo JohnsonI remember standing in line at the Social Security office with my mama. I was ten years old. I could hear the lady at the front of the line saying, “Next! Go to the desk. Next! Fill out the form.”
When we got to the front of the line, my mother looked at the form and started to ask the lady a question: “Excuse me, can I—”
The lady cut her off and said, “Ma’am, take the form, take it to the desk, fill it out, and come back. Next!”
My mother and I walked to the desk, and my mother looked at the form. Water was starting to well up in her eyes, and I said, “Mama, what’s wrong?”
And she said, “Baby, Mama can’t read.”
I said, “Mom. The first line? It says name.”
She said, “Can you write that?”
I said, “Yeah.”
“Say my name is Annie Christian.” And I wrote out her name.
And the next line said address. I said, “Mama, that’s where we live.” She told me. I wrote it. And we went all the way down the form this way until we got to the last line, where it said signature.
I said, “Mama, I think that’s when you write your name real squiggly-like.”
She looked at me, and she started to cry, and she hugged me real tight and said, “You will never know what it’s like to be ignorant.” I didn’t know what she was talking about. I’m ten years old. All I know is I was doing something to help my mama.
Because my mama and daddy both were illiterate, they wanted to encourage my reading. They decided to buy me all these books with pretty pictures on them. So as a ten-year-old, I started to gather up a real big collection of books. I had General Principles of Engineering, L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, General Psychopathology, Sex After 60, and Green Eggs and Ham. So I was ready for the world with that.
My folks loved me enough that if I had decided to drop out of school and got a job working at the factory, they would have been happy. But I wanted those things I was reading about in those books. And because I was a marginal student and a marginal athlete, there was little or no chance of me going to college or getting a scholarship.
But there was one organization that was offering me a job, and that was the United States Army. Now, thinking that the harder the job the more money you’d get paid, I said to the recruiter, “Give me the hardest job you got.” And I became a paratrooper. I had never been on an airplane in my life!
At points during my service, I would hear Army lawyers talk and noticed how with just a turn of a phrase, somebody could get promoted or not promoted, you could be found guilty or not guilty. I started thinking, When I get out of the Army, I’m going to become a lawyer! I started telling everybody. One officer said, “Listen, you don’t even have a college degree. You need to focus your attention on being a paratrooper. That’s your job.”
Well, I started taking college classes at night anyway. For seven years, I showed up at class dirty, bleeding, hurting, stinky, funky, and tired. And two years after I retired from the Army, I did earn my bachelor’s degree.
I started applying to law schools, but it didn’t take long before those little envelopes started to arrive. Rejection, we’re sorry, rejection, rejection, rejection. But one day, a big envelope came in the mail. I told everybody, “Guess what? I am going to be a lawyer.”
One of my friends said, “Hey, Ray, do you think you can help me sue the Army?”
“Hell, yeah. I’m gonna be a lawyer for everybody on Earth.”
I was not the typical law student. I was 38 years old, a combat vet with PTSD and four children. Law school was hard. After midterm exams, I found out I had failed every one. The assistant dean called me to his office. He had his back to me when he said, “You should withdraw.”
I said, “I spent my whole life dreaming about this. I’m not going to quit.”
He said, “If you should graduate, I’ll eat my hat.”
I thought about what my mama said: “You’ll never know what it’s like to be ignorant.” But I did in that moment.
Then I saw this sign announcing the Mary Wright Closing Argument Competition. This is the highlight of the year. The law professors pick the top students they want to mentor. The whole school turns out to see it. This is what I had came to law school for. This was like being a lawyer on TV. This is what I wanted to do.
My professor said, “You need to focus on academics and not extracurricular activity.”
Well, I signed up, but I couldn’t get any professors to work with me. I wrote a few notes on a paper, and that’s all the preparation I had. And the way the competition works, you’re standing outside and the whole law school is inside. You knock on the door. You go in. People make their case. You hear applause. Next person would go in, make their presentation, you’d hear applause.
Then my turn came. I knew that I couldn’t talk about any fine points of the law. I couldn’t talk about elements or torts. But I could tell them a story.
I could tell them about right and wrong. I could tell them about justice and injustice. And I closed with this line: “And just like the bogeyman that lives under my girl’s bed, made up from dust bunnies, buttons, and lost Christmas toys exposed to the light, the prosecution’s case just isn’t there.” And I walked out … to complete silence.
Soon as the door closed behind me, I heard what sounded like thunder—the sound of the entire law school applauding all at once. I couldn’t help but cry.
Courtesy Ray ChristianAnd two weeks later, I would find out I won the competition! But four weeks later, I would find out I was being academically dismissed from law school.
I was broken. I never felt so bad in my life. I thought about all the people I was never going to help, all the things I was never going to do.
And it took me a while to decide that maybe, just maybe, I did get a gold star. If I hadn’t had this stupid idea of becoming a lawyer, I would’ve never gone to college. I’d have never gone on and earned graduate degrees in history and education. I never would have become a college professor.
via amazon.comSo the journey didn’t take me to a place where I could knock out injustice in the courtroom. But the journey did take me to a place where I could combat ignorance in the classroom.
Ray Christian, 56, is a retired paratrooper. He lives with his wife, children, chickens, and dogs in Boone, North Carolina. His story “Going the Mile” appeared in our 2016 “Best Stories in America” issue.
Told live at a Moth show at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, NC