Behind the Spotlight, Part 2

“You have five minutes remaining.”

When the test prompter gave the five-minute warning I started to panic. I had only answered five questions and I had 30 more questions to go. I learned from the Kaplan Review when you had five minutes left that meant it was time to guess. In the LSAT you did not get penalized like the SATs for answering incorrectly. So it was best to fill in your scan sheet, leaving nothing blank.

I looked across the testing center and couldn’t help but notice that the hall was primarily filled with white males. This was a complete contrast to the surroundings I was exposed to as a child. I wondered, did each of them come from a privileged home? Did they face adversities as children? Did they have helicopter parents guiding their way to success?

I didn’t have helicopter parents or the option of being protected from what’s hard in life, but I learned an important lesson from my dysfunctional upbringing. I learned to find my own means of success because my childhood was far from the Leave It to Beaver depictions of the American family.

“Fire!” My maternal grandmother yelled. We were in the house as the fire grew rapidly and within minutes our place went up in flames. We all made it out alive except for one.

I was an infant and have no memory of this event, but I was told by family members that my mom’s brother was in debt to a drug dealer. My uncle’s refusal to pay off his debt cost his younger brother’s life; he was the only one who didn’t make it out of the fire. I was told that a match was thrown on the couch, and immediately our place set fire. I was hospitalized for a couple of weeks because my mother jumped out of the window with me in her arms, and I suffered from smoke inhalation and mild head injuries.

My family was left with nothing, and we were forced to move into a motel. We moved from the same Double Rock projects where my paternal grandmother resided. Ironically, my grandmothers were next door neighbors, which is how my mother and father met. I went from one deplorable living condition to another. The motel was dirty, the beds were infested, the bathroom tile was covered in mold and I was often awakened by rats crawling out of the heater vent. Our stay at the rundown motel was not a temporary placement; I lived there until the age of 7.

“Please stop and put your pencils down.”

I realized in that moment I had failed the first section. I had only completed five questions and guessed on the rest. However, I still stood a chance at passing because I had four sections remaining.

“Please open your test booklet to section 2.”

I took a deep breath and opened my book to Reading and Comprehension. In the Kaplan Review course I scored high in this area. However, I was faced with the same issue that presented itself in section one: time. After answering five questions, I had to guess on the 30 remaining questions.

Ironically, I needed more time in this moment of taking the test but as a child, time couldn’t move fast enough.

Back at the motel, I had anxiously waited for my mother to return because she would disappear for days. Unaware of her whereabouts, my impressionable young mind made up stories that she was on vacation or trapped on an island, unable to make her way home.

“Your mom is on fucking crack! She’s a crack head; she’s not coming back so stop waiting!”

I will never forget my uncle shouting these words to me as I stared at the door. My world as I knew it came crashing down. When my uncle revealed the truth about my mother, I was traumatized and I knew I could no longer hold on to the reassuring stories I told myself. Instead, I was faced with the harsh reality that my mother chose crack over her responsibilities to motherhood.

“We will now break for 15 minutes. Please close your books and place your pencils down.”

I was halfway through the test and I remember thinking if I continued to guess on 90% of the exam, I would not pass. Failure was not an option because I faced unimaginable obstacles to reach this point in my life. For me, the LSAT was more than a test; it was my ticket to success.

By the time I reached the last section, Logical Reasoning, it was a continued pattern of answering five questions to the best of my ability, then guessing on the 30 remaining ones. I left the test center feeling beat. I walked with my head down and made my way to the nearest transit station. The tears started to stream down my face but I quickly wiped them away, as I didn’t want to draw attention. I thought I threw my childhood dream away by guessing on 90% of the test. I was disappointed in myself, and thought I should have worked harder.

In December 2007, I received my first test score: 146. I was 10 points short; however, I did not let this failure defeat me. My goal was to retake the LSAT until I passed.

I took the second test in the same location in downtown Berkeley, California. My anxiety was high because I feared my experience from the first test would repeat itself. This fear became my reality. Time became my worst enemy. No matter how hard I tried, I was only able to answer five to six questions effectively and then guess on the remaining ones. When I received my score of 143 in March 2008, I knew I had to make significant changes because it seemed impossible to pass the test without extended time.

I carried a burden of shame from not passing my LSAT. I considered myself a failure at life, and it didn’t take long to drown in self-hate.

“You will never be anything in life, you are worthless.” I started to believe the cruel words my paternal grandmother spoke to me as a child. I not only internalized the story that I was worthless but I also kept secret that I had failed my LSAT twice.

“Lanette, take some time to regroup and take the test again,” said my counselor at USF, where I attended school. I decided to take that advice. I needed to gain focus so that I could approach the test with a clear head, free from the shameful messages my paternal grandmother had planted in me as a child.

By August 2008, I started interning for the Judicial Branch of California. I kept secret that I had failed my LSAT and been denied admittance into USF School of Law. I was fearful if anyone knew that I had failed to get into law school, I would relive the experience of my 8-year-old self, that invisible child who was constantly ignored. If I had spoken the truth, I believed ultimately no one would accept me for me.

By this time, I had accomplished a lot in other areas of my life. I was a leading advocate in the foster care community and had received numerous awards and recognition for my advocacy work. I had expanded culturally through my study abroad programs to South Africa and Spain. And I had received my bachelor’s degree. But behind these accomplishments lived insecurities. Although I was an eloquent speaker and writer who possessed a great sense of humor, my internal being was rooted in misery. To the outside world I was tenacious and strong-willed, but internally I was dying.

I was still that 8-year-old child who internalized difficult situations. I learned to shield my emotions and never speak my truth. For many years I lived with this internal conflict. Eventually I was diagnosed with chronic depression, and that was an uphill battle I fought long and hard to overcome.

The start of my internship at the Judicial Branch was colored by a lie. I told everyone that I had been accepted into USF School of Law but I had deferred admission to work for a year. This lie began to spiral out of control and spread like wildfire. I was scared and lacked the courage to tell the truth; and now that I was working with attorneys, I wanted more than ever to be one myself.

One year later, my internship was coming to an end, which meant it was time to regain focus and study for the LSAT. I was able to study with a private tutor who was part of San Francisco Public Library’s Project Read program – a free adult literacy program, which I joined in 2004. At that time, I wanted to improve my literacy skills, and I needed help outside of what my college could provide. Although I was diagnosed with a learning disability, I knew that it was a direct result of missing out on my early education. My tutor would repeatedly tell me that I did not have a learning disability; however, I had educational gaps that needed to be filled in.

When I took the LSAT for the third time, I was able to complete six or seven questions within 30 minutes. Knowing this would be a challenge going in, it was not shocking when I learned I failed the test yet again with a score of 138. I had failed miserably. I was devastated that my score had dropped significantly.

I continued with the lie that I had been admitted into USF School of Law and felt ashamed every day of all the ways I’d failed. I left my internship in August 2009 with a huge sense of unknowing what my future held.

Although this was a dark moment in my life, I was fortunate to have the support of my high school sweetheart, Ernest.

“Hello! Lanette, you coming or not?” I could hear the urgency in Ernest’s voice.

“I don’t know, let me think about it.”

“Well, there’s no time to think. I need to know now! I need to buy the plane tickets for you and my mom. My great-grandmother’s funeral is in two days.”

“Yes, I will come! Get the tickets!” In that moment, I made the choice to fly to Texas and reunite with my old flame.

Ernest and I met when I was 16 years old. We were raised in the same neighborhood. As a black male, Ernest’s goals were to live past the age of 24 and to escape the negative outcomes of black males: death or incarceration. So by the time he reached 24, he moved to Texas to create a better life after he eventually grew tired of my unwillingness to commit to our relationship. For me, commitment was a disease I did not want to catch. I ran from it because all I knew was instability, and the thought of maintaining a stable relationship was terrifying.

When I arrived in Texas, Ernest supported my goal to pass the LSAT. I immediately registered to retake the test but I failed, this time with a score of 143. In college I had been given extended time to complete my exams and assignments because of the learning disability diagnosis. So without hesitation, I sent my documents to the Law School Admission Counsel showing that I was diagnosed with a learning disability. However, I was denied after three attempts, and eventually I gave up.

In 2010, I planned to retake the LSAT for the fifth time. Ernest grew concerned with my intense focus and suggested that I do something else to get my mind off the test. But his suggestions went ignored; my life was consumed by my quest to pass the LSAT. I spiraled downhill quickly, and reached a rock-bottom depression. I did what I knew best which was to isolate myself.

“Lanette, Grandmother is dead; she died in the hospital last night.”

I remember having the same reaction I did when I learned about my father’s death. I was numb because I was emotionally distanced from my paternal grandmother. The emotional abuse I endured as a child caused me to stay away as an adult.

“You hear me? Grandmother died!”

I still had no reaction when my sister shouted over the phone. The long years of mental abuse started to flood my memory. You bitch, you will never be anything in life, you’re worthless!

I know that my grandmother was mentally ill but these shaming messages replayed in my head. I wanted to be at peace and to forgive my grandmother for her hurtful words. But still a small piece of me was paralyzed, and on a sub-conscientious level I believed her.

After her death I was able to reach a place of peace. I was approaching my fifth attempt at the LSAT as a fresh start – my goal was to attend Thurgood Marshall School of Law, and I needed a score of 150. The bar was lowered for my test score, and I had been set free from the negative messages that had bombarded my sub-conscious.

However, there was one reality that I could not escape: time. No matter how hard I tried, I could not get to a point where I could answer a question within one minute.

Again I failed, receiving a score of 146.

“I just don’t understand why I can’t appeal the decision,” I said in a coy voice to the Dean of Admission at Thurgood Marshall School of Law.

“Those are the rules. I’m sorry.”

“I worked really hard for nothing.” The Dean handed me a tissue, as I let the tears flow rapidly down my cheeks, going into an uncontrollable ugly cry. Sitting in the chair, I held my head up and said, “Okay, I will retake the test.”

With a heavy heart, I decided it was time to take a break from the test. I knew I could not withstand another failure. The pain was unbearable. In a desperate attempt to escape, I grabbed three bottles of Tylenol PM and a liter of vodka. (Throughout the years, I grew an addiction to Tylenol PM, and on average I would consume a half a bottle a day. This was part of my journey in overcoming my chronic depression.)

I lay on the couch, staring at the ceiling for countless hours, waiting for the right moment to end it all because I believed I had nothing to live for. It wasn’t the first time I had felt this way.

“What is this?” Ernest pulled the covers off me to find the bottles of Tylenol PM and vodka. In shock, Ernest started to weep and fell to the floor.

“Lanette, I just don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to help you.”

The thought never crossed my mind that if I committed suicide it would affect Ernest and my friends and family. I felt life crushing down on me and I didn’t know how to pick up the pieces. I was going through a meltdown, something I feared because of the history of my family. My paternal grandmother had suffered several breakdowns and was placed in mental institutions; likewise so had my father.

I finally decided to take Ernest’s advice to refocus my attention. I got a job as a case manager for an all boys group home facility. The stories of the young boys were parallel to what I’d experienced as a child. They too suffered tragedies in their childhood that were out of their control. I was given the opportunity to share that I grew up in foster care and I could relate to what they were going through.

“Ms. Lanette, you don’t get it, you made it! We are still living it.”

When one of the boys spoke those words to me I reflected on how far I had come. I had overcome unimaginable circumstances, and I was in a position to mentor youth who faced similar challenges. But I could not see my triumph because I was obsessed with passing the LSAT.

I later realized that it was about more than passing the LSAT; rather, I was seeking a means to escape my childhood trauma. By this time, Ernest and I were married and motherhood awaited me.

But before I could truly embrace the fact that I had defied the statistics about foster youth who emancipate from the system, I had to face my childhood trauma. Many youth who emancipate enter society carrying the heavy burden of their childhood wounds and are left ill equipped to navigate the challenges of life.

I’m choosing to break my silence. I’m willing to uncover the childhood wounds that left me emotionally paralyzed. Today, I may not be an attorney, but in the nearly six years that have passed since I took the LSAT the last time, I can say I have reached a point where I no longer need the validation of being in the spotlight.


LanetteH

Lanette Hodge currently lives in Texas where she enjoys living a simple country life. She finds great pleasure at being a wife, mom and pet owner and finds comfort in taking a step back from the fast-paced city environment. She is now expecting her second child. Read part 1 of this story here.

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