Out of the
Take a Detour Down Memory Lane
When I first went into private practice as a criminal defense attorney, I was invited to a cocktail party thrown by the state bar association. Since childhood, I had known I wanted to be a lawyer and now I was finally stepping into this ancient and noble profession. The event was going to be held at a swanky five-star hotel in South Miami, and I was eager for the chance to hobnob with my colleagues. Here was my opportunity to rub shoulders with the best in the field.
All week long I considered multiple outfits and the things I would say and the people I would say them to. And as I finally settled on the perfect pair of pumps, I suddenly got slammed with a strong mental image of my car. As I thought about driving my dented and faded ten- year-old car up to the valet line of that hotel with all the sparkling BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, and Jaguars, I panicked. I decided right then and there that I could not go to the event.
Later as I lay in bed thinking about my decision, I wondered why I felt so ashamed. Was this really about my car? Or was it something deeper? I realized that the fear that gripped my heart had nothing to do with my car. It was the fear of being ridiculed. I was afraid that my poverty would show. In my mind the car put me in the category of the "have-nots."
It's funny how things that happened so long ago, things that you think are buried in the past, can affect your current outlook. But when I reflected on my childhood, I realized that there was one period of time in particular that was contributing to my dread of the cocktail party. You see, when I went to grade school, mothers dressed their daughters like baby dolls. The girls in my class would come to school in crinoline dresses with petticoats underneath and large silk bows in their hair. They dressed like Shirley Temple, right down to the candy curls. My parents had four other children and could not afford to dress me that way. They spent any extra money they had on buying books for me and my siblings. I stood out like a sore thumb among my classmates, who teased me for my shabby dresses and worn-out shoes. I felt like a Doberman in a room full of poodles. It got to the point where every morning before going to school I would throw a tantrum. I guess I always had a flair for drama! And now, twenty-five years later, here I was still crying and screaming and carrying that insecure "poor girl" around with me like a handbag into my adulthood.
It was a real dark night of emotions, and my soul felt so heavily burdened. As I relived the feelings of the past, I had a wake-up moment. I became mad at myself and began to shout out loud, "Didn't your parents make sure you had a good foundation so that you could have a career? Hadn't they sacrificed their own comfort so that you and your brothers and sisters could have a fair chance to rise above the circumstances of race and class? And didn't you fight and claw your way through college and law school, washing dishes in restaurants, borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, all to realize the dream of becoming a lawyer?" I realized the long journey to my dream entitled me to pull up to the front door of that hotel right along with the Bentleys. Shoot, I was entitled to get up to that door on camel back if I had to. I was embarrassed by my selfishness and shortsightedness. There are people in this world who don't even have a car, I thought. I pass some of them at bus stops every day in all kinds of weather. They would probably give anything to be driving my ten-year-old car. My problems were nothing compared to what others must do simply to survive from one day to the next. And here I was, a thirty-year-old lawyer with a private practice, wearing grown-up clothes, still carrying the weight of that sniveling six-year-old around with me.
When I was six it was understandable that I would have those feelings of not being good enough because I wasn't yet mentally and emotionally equipped to handle them and therefore didn't know any better. But as an adult who had overcome many obstacles and who had learned many lessons, with many more to come, I needed to make peace with the past in order to face the future. I made the decision that night to stop feeling inadequate and sorry for myself. I told myself, "No one who comes across your path has walked in your shoes. From now on, you are equal to anybody you meet for the duration of your lifetime." I had released six-year-old Karen.
Our life's journey is hard enough without the weight of all the baggage we carry with us from our past. As sure as my name is Judge Karen, life will test us and twist us in ways that are unimaginable. Just staying squarely on the road as we move toward our destination will at times be a challenge. We cannot move toward living our best life if our eyes are always looking in the rearview mirror.
It is amazing how we, as adults, are shaped and impacted by words, gestures, and actions that someone may have thrown our way when we were children, whether well-intentioned or not. Childhood hurt is real and can and will weigh us down if we never deal with it, like those taunts I received from my classmates. I urge you to get a shovel and dig up the past, shake it up, and kick it up, and when you're done, make peace with it and then let it go. You need to be looking ahead toward the dreams and goals I know you have. I invite you to think about the baggage that you are carrying and how it is affecting the quality of your journey. While I admit that it's not always easy to let go, I assure you that you'll get farther ahead with a carry-on bag than you will with a steamer trunk. There is always a time and a place for the past, but the destination for you and me is on the road ahead.
As you begin this new journey, take time to assess what is in your rearview mirror. It will take a lot of hard work and introspection, but I promise you it will be worth it in the end. A good starting place to look for stuff you need to unload will usually be your childhood. Some of you have been through a lot of heavy stuff, maybe more than any child should bear witness to. And if that is true for your particular situation, then I strongly urge you to seek professional help and guidance as you navigate your way through some potential land mines. There is absolutely nothing wrong with talking to a professional about what is eating away at you. Mental and emotional stress is just as dangerous as any physical injury you might experience. In today's society, there is no stigma in seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist.
I have reached a verdict. Our total well-being matters in every aspect of our lives, and it is this court's order that you take care of all of "you," inside and out. You need to be looking ahead toward your dreams and goals. You can never have a second chance at a happy childhood. But there is always a chance for a happy adulthood. So make peace with the past and let's go!
To live completely, wholly, every day as if it were a new loveliness, there must be dying to everything of yesterday, otherwise you live mechanically, and a mechanical mind can never know what love is or what freedom is.
Once during a court recess I rushed back upstairs to my chambers on a purely personal mission. I was searching online retailers, looking for a gown to wear to an upcoming judicial ball. For two or three days, I had spent my recesses and lunch hour feverishly scouring department store online outlets for the perfect dress to wear to the annual event. I had gained a reputation for always strutting into that judicial ball in a stunning gown. But this year, I looked at hundreds of dresses, unable to settle upon something worth talking about. And I was getting flustered that I could not find the perfect, drop-dead gorgeous dress to wear. My secretary said, "Judge, why can't you wear the dress you wore three years ago? Nobody will remember." I said, "Shush your mouth! How can I ruin my reputation by wearing the same dress twice to an event?" I actually was close to crying and getting depressed that I was down to the wire and might just have to repeat a gown I had worn before. But I had to put the search on hold until my next recess and hurriedly put on my robe to go back down to the courtroom. Seated back on the bench, I have to admit that I was a little distracted by my dress dilemma when the clerk called up my next case.
The woman who appeared at the podium had been before me several times, and she never forgot to bring her attitude with her. I was definitely not in the mood to deal with her that day. Her teenage daughter had been skipping school and getting into fights. When she went to discuss her daughter's case with the school officials, this short-tempered woman ended up grabbing a chair and throwing it through a window. She was arrested for destruction of school property and came before me on the charges. The first time she came to court, you could see how irritated she was. Arms crossed, sucking her teeth, exhaling heavily, and rolling her eyes! She looked like a bull seeing red. Because this was her first criminal offense, she was sent to an anger management program. The program cost $175, but she said she could not pay for it. Based on the financial form she filed with the clerk's office, I agreed to waive the fee for the program. The prosecution agreed to dismiss her charges once she successfully completed the program in five to eight weeks. Real simple.
She just couldn't do it! She never seemed to be able to complete the sessions and kept being sent back to court for not showing up. I kept re-enrolling her, and she kept ditching the sessions. Let me tell you, she was jumping up and down on my last nerve! I was beginning to lose my patience with her! By the third or fourth time she came back to court for noncompliance, I was at my wits end. I told her that she had been given more than enough opportunities to close the case, and now I was prepared to find her in contempt of court. I was prepared to throw her in jail right there on the spot. So I appointed an attorney to represent her. He took her into the jury room, and I could hear her screaming at the top of her lungs. "I don't care what she does to me!
I don't care about the program! I don't care about my children! I don't care if I go to jail! I-just-don't-care-anymore!" Then I heard loud wailing sounds coming from the jury room. When they came back into the courtroom half an hour later, the woman's eyes were bloodshot and her face swollen from tears. This big, tough woman who had nothing but attitude every time she came to court now looked so small and defeated.
Her lawyer spoke for her. She and her husband had moved to Miami from the West Coast after he lost his job in a bank. He convinced her to leave her job, her family, and her life to come to Miami with him and start over. Once they moved, the husband learned that there was a warrant out for his arrest stemming from something he had done while working at the bank. He promptly cleaned out what little money they had in their account and abandoned her, their son, and two daughters, leaving them to fend for themselves. They were evicted from their apartment and their belongings put out on the sidewalk. They had no money for a storage unit, so they lost most of what they had to thieves and the weather. She and the children slept inside of her car for weeks before the woman found a part-time job. She had no friends or family in the area and was doing her best to feed her children and keep them in school. She was hoping to save enough money to get them all back to the West Coast, but she lost the part-time job because she had to attend the anger management sessions and come to court. The woman and her children were living in a motel room that cost $150 a week, and she was being evicted. The lawyer held up the eviction notice. The eviction was for that very day! The woman held her head down and cried the entire time the lawyer was speaking, and I could see how ashamed she was to have everybody in that courtroom hear how life had dealt her such a heavy blow. I also was struck by the burden she carried.
Despite the meanness I see in the world, I know for a fact that people are basically good. That day, several of the lawyers standing around in the courtroom reached into their pockets and started up a collection to help this woman pay her rent. Some of the other defendants and onlookers chipped in money too that day. I believe that they raised more than $400, which they handed to her. And the prosecutor dismissed her case! The better angels of mankind reveal themselves at the darnedest of times, usually in moments when we need them the most. That woman needed heaven's mercy at that hour in a big way. Her salvation came right on time.
A little of my own salvation came that day too. Here I was obsessing and whining over not being able to find a new dress to wear to a $250- a-plate formal and thinking "poor, pitiful me." Actually (I have never told anyone this before) I ended up giving the woman money too. And I ended up choosing one of the many gowns in my closet to wear to the ball that year.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Stay in Your Lane by Judge Karen Mills-Francis. Copyright © 2010 by Karen Mills-Francis. Excerpted by permission of One World/Ballantine, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.