Live and Learn
I couldn’t believe my good fortune. The law firm of my choice had hired me (and Anne, the only other law student) to become a summer associate beginning in a few weeks.
The summer job interview process was grueling and actually started the prior autumn. During what was called, “Early Interview Week,” scores of prestigious law firms came to NYU Law to meet us for a potential internship for the following summer break. Wearing what became our interview uniform (a white shirt with either a conservative navy or black suit) to every interview, I met countless potential legal employers. Being quite gregarious, interviewing came quite easily to me. I always had something to talk about. However, it was the post-interview waiting period that made me nervous. In the first few days I had bitten down my two nails until they were raw. As my friends began to receive both call-backs (and rejections), I received only rejection letters. On one particular afternoon, I returned from class and found a welcome message on my answering machine. “Hello, this is Mandy from Lord and so and so. Please call us when you receive this message.” “Oh my gosh! I got a call-back from Lord Bissell!” I shouted to my roommate. Elated, I called back immediately, only to hear, “Hi, thanks for calling. This is Mandy from Lord & Taylor. We wanted you to hear about our special private sale for our favorite customers…” Uggh! But in the end, I received the offer I wanted from a selective entertainment law firm, and anxiously anticipated the experience.
That particular May afternoon I was sitting in the kitchen of my Mercer Street apartment with my friend, Marc, reviewing the offer and a pamphlet provided to students that detailed the diversity breakdown (i.e., by gender, race, disability) of each of the law firms that visited campus. Each firm had provided the statistics to the school so that students working for the summer had an idea of its overall make-up. As I turned the page to my new firm, next to the summer intern slot were two “X’s,” indicating both associates were female. But then my mouth dropped as wide as was physically possible. An additional “X” was placed next to one of the females, marked for the disabled category. I was visibly shaken. “Marc, that X must be for me, but how is that possible?” Tears began to stream down my face uncontrollably. “This means that the only reason they wanted to hire me was to get “credit” for hiring a disabled person. It makes them look good statistically.” I became infuriated. “When they asked if I needed any accommodations during the interview, I told them I didn’t need anything special. I even joked with them that in fact, I was the fastest two-fingered typist on the East Coast!”
Marc turned to me, “What are you going to do?” “Nothing yet, but I am certain I cannot work there if they insist on labeling me disabled.” Sounding awfully like the infamous Seinfeld “Outing” episode before its time, I added, “Not that there is anything wrong with that!” Yet, despite my anger, I held my tongue and began work at the firm. The truth was I didn’t want to blow this opportunity. The summer progressed and, other than the train conductor incident described in my prior blog post (Pay It Forward), nothing relating to my physical condition came up…until my mid-summer review. As I sat with the hiring partner to hear about my performance (“Meg, it’s been a good summer. You are well-liked and hard working….”) I waited for him to finish. And then, it was time. I looked at the partner directly in the eyes. “Thank you. Overall, it has been a good experience, and I have appreciated the opportunity. But, I have one matter I need to raise.” At that moment, I proceeded to advise the partner that I resented the fact that I was labeled as disabled in their pamphlet, and that while I looked different due to my one finger on each hand, that I was not limited functionally, as I have shown throughout the summer. “And so,” I continued. “Should I receive an offer, this label would need to be removed from any similar document associated with the Firm describing me. I insist.” An awkward silence immediately followed the conversation. The partner looked at me with extreme annoyance. “Okay, Meg. Thank you.”
Only Anne received a full-time offer to work at the law Firm at the end of the summer. I can only presume that my aggressive attitude during the review and presumptions about the firm’s pamphlet did not exactly help my odds of getting an offer. In fact, as I reflect on the experience, I am actually quite mortified. Not that standing up for myself was actually a bad thing, but that my self-esteem was at such a low. It mattered so much to me in those days what people thought of me. My anger at the firm and its pamphlet was just another example of my own insecurity.
Those that have read my other posts know how much credit I always give my parents for raising me to be independent and strong. They didn’t pamper me and encouraged me to “Let go, and let live.” In those law school years, though, it seems that even their inspiration had its limits.
It is hard to believe Ethan will be heading off to sleep-away camp next week for the first time. Not surprisingly, Ethan is thrilled, John is fine, Charlie and Savanna are excited that they can go into his room and mess with his stuff for a month, and I am a wreck. While he is an incredibly social and independent boy, the thought of Ethan not being home in his bed every night with us makes me miss him before he has even departed. It reminds me of when we were trying to get pregnant for the first time, and I wanted so much to be a mom that somehow I felt I missed the baby I had not yet ever met.
The camp forms had asked about any unique issues and I had chosen to disclose that Ethan has ectrodactyly. The camp director then called to see if there was anything special Ethan would need for purposes of accommodation. Just as with any of Ethan’s teachers that have asked, I advised that he should be treated like anyone else.
Then, the other night before bed, I asked Ethan whether he was nervous about attending a camp where the majority were strangers. My mind raced back to a birthday party years ago when he rode his first kid-friendly “zip-line” and everyone in the room stared. “No, not really mom. I’m actually really excited.” Treading carefully, I reminded him that kids might probably stare when they first meet him. “Of course, E, hopefully they will simply ask why you were born with one finger on each hand, and then you can respond and move on. Reflecting on my “Blessing in Disguise” post from this past Fall, I reminded him that the fact that he looked different was merely a blessing in disguise. “You won’t have to worry about what people think of you. You will attract only the most wonderful kids; they will be the ones that want to know you.”
I paused and waited for him to digest the information and process it as best a ten-year-old could. Ethan responded, “Mom, this is not a blessing in disguise!” “It’s not?” I replied. I felt disappointment and even anxiety began to run through my body. “Nope, it’s simply a blessing. Why would I care what other people think? You don’t.” And with that, I realized that the only thing that was lacking in my own upbringing was that my parents both had five fingers on each hand, and there was no one like me to show me the ropes.