Monday, August 20, 2012

Work Refraction

We just tucked Annabel in her crib, snuggled next to "Coo-Coo" (her Cookie Monster from her Uncle Seamus) and Teddy is playing quietly with his brand new little figurine "Soccer Guys" (today's addition to the toy chest, rounding out the collection of Hockey Guys, Football Guys, and Baseball Guys).  The peace won't last long, but I'll get in a bit of writing before dinner.  

My first day of vacation with the family brought both great relaxation and much-appreciated fun where many times, I almost forgot that I had cancer for company.  Unfortunately, vacation also brought some of my most difficult, hard-to-catch-my-breath moments.  It's incredible how the overwhelming feeling of love can instantaneously turn to the overwhelming feeling of fear and pain, and I staggered along that line all day, fighting to stay on the former side but all too often falling helplessly onto the latter.  For my own sanity, I thought this entry should be a bit of a reflection and a distraction -- a "refraction" if you will.

I got to thinking, what might you be curious about at this stage?  I realized that if I were you, I'd be wondering, "What's the deal with your job through all this?"  It's a great question, and it got me to thinking about my work.  And so I refract...

For five years after I graduated from college in 2002, I taught in the Social Studies Department at Canton High School.  I think back to this time in my life very fondly, and very often.  It makes my day every time I bump into former students, especially when I hear that they have chosen a path in life that brings them happiness (and even more especially when I hear that they are studying to be a teacher!).  I chuckle when my former students call me, "Ms. Talbot," but I understand, because I'd never be able to call Mr. Badoian, Mr. Carta, Mr. Healy, or Mr. Sweeney anything but that.

When I see them, my students still remind me of some of my less-conventional lessons, like during our World History unit on India when I told them we had a guest speaker that was waiting in the teacher's lounge.  I went outside of the classroom to "retrieve the guest," then quickly transformed myself into Gandhi, and returned (ace bandage wrapped around my head to achieve baldness).  I let my students interview "me," and with my hunched back and walking stick (a ski pole) I answered their questions as if I were this most impressive of historical figures.  (I never mastered the Indian accent.  Any time I tried, I defaulted to the British accent I knew from growing up with English nannies.)  As you can imagine, my high school kids had a blast trying to stump me with questions (in a good-hearted way, I think), but I had read two books and watched several videos on the Mahatma, so I was well-equipped to answer even the most random of their questions.  I still play along that Gandhi really visited that day.  Needless to say, they probably think that I'm nuts.  

After two years of teaching, I was itching to become a student again myself.  I never intended on switching careers, but I wanted to study something fresh, and be able to do it at night.  When I was accepted into Suffolk Law School's evening program, I was elated.  I could keep the job I loved, and study topics like Constitutional Law that I knew I'd eat up.  

I began the four-year program in 2004, commuting into Boston three nights a week for classes that typically ran from 6-10PM.  My family jokes that I have a revisionist memory, because now I think back to law school with some amount of nostalgia.  I admit, however, that it was a grind.  I remember being on lunch duty at CHS studying for finals, reviewing Contracts flash cards while scolding senior boys for piling up their dirty lunch trays under their table (my revisionist memory also forgets which boys those were, so you're off the hook if it was you!).  But that "best of the best" group I keep mentioning includes so many people that I met in law school, so in the end, those four years were a true gift.  

After two years of law school, I had done pretty well, and someone asked me if I would be interviewing with "the big firms" when they came on campus in August.  I hadn't heard of these interviews so I had no such plans.  Plus, I never thought I would leave teaching any time soon.  Eventually I decided to toss my hat in for an interview, and when I actually got one, I assumed everyone had.  I did some background reading before my first interview and it was then that I learned the starting salaries of first-year associates at big Boston law firms.  I remember showing Brian the number one night at our condo in Stoughton.  He laughed in disbelief, and we wondered for a second if it was a misprint.  At the time, I supplemented my teaching salary by tutoring at least 12 hours per week, and the thought of having just one job that could pay exponentially more than I brought home with two was tempting.  

The first interview I had scheduled was with Ropes & Gray, a firm I had heard of, but only barely.  Our paths really had no reason to cross until now.  Somehow, I got an offer for an in-office call-back interview, but it was scheduled for the third day of the school year, which I hated.  Reluctant to leave my new classes so early, I nonetheless trekked into Boston wearing the same suit I wore the week prior (I only owned one at the time).  As I waited outside a partner's office for an interview, I asked the recruiter who was with me if everyone on the floor was on vacation.  It was so darn quiet there.  She looked at me like I was an idiot.  Looking back, I realize that the only workplace I knew, a high school, was never quiet, so the law firm halls felt almost silent.  Even now, I miss the hustle and bustle of a school.  The next day, I got an offer to join Ropes as a "summer associate," which I learned was the position that most often lead into a first-year associate position.  I was flattered by the opportunity, but joining as a summer associate would mean that I would have to end my teaching year early, and then maybe permanently, so I was hesitant to say the least.  

Ultimately, and in all candor, I couldn't resist the enormous jump in salary, and my family's encouragement that this would be a good thing for me.  Still to this day, I'm not proud to say that money was such a factor in my decision, but it's the truth.  Despite that I was busting my butt to pay thousands of dollars to Suffolk per semester, I was still going to graduate with over $80,000 in loans.  I thought I'd never be able to pay that back on a teacher's salary.  My plan was to try out this gig and if it was a bust, I would beg for another teaching job (maybe even grovel at Canton High), having at least paid back some of my loans.  

I remember my last day at Canton High School as though it were yesterday.  I saw the best magic show of my life (thanks to Ian and Ben), I received a gorgeous leather work bag for my new job (thanks to Jane and Heather and all the other teachers who were far too good to me), and I cried my eyes out pretty much from start to finish.  CHS is a very special place to me and I wasn't ready to leave.  Now, in the context of my diagnosis, I recall another vivid memory of that day -- I remember walking away from school thinking to myself, If I died today, I would feel that my life was fulfilled.  I don't remember ever having that thought before, and I honestly remember that it surprised me.  In the five years since, I have been blessed with new chapters of my life, and now I understand the hole that my death would leave in the life of others.  In fact, I wish I could rewind time and take back that thought I had five years ago.  I wish I could scream to the hills, That's not true anymore!  Please give me more time!  And since Dr. Bunnell has recently informed me that my cancer has been in my body for years, I hope it wasn't listening that day.     

I started the summer program at Ropes & Gray a week late so I could stay with my students almost up to their final exams, and I came back a few weeks later to review with them and correct their tests.  My 10 weeks in the summer program at Ropes and Gray may have well been a trip to a different country -- everything was so foreign to me, from the 9AM start time (not 7:10AM) to the office in which I sat alone (where were the 28 teenagers with whom I used to share my "office"?).  Along with the army of over 100 other summer associates in Boston, all with the most impressive of credentials, I attended almost daily training seminars on corporate law topics, and through the top-notch schedule of social events, I got to know some awesome people with whom I would work if I returned as a full-time associate.  It was a fascinating experience and at the end of the summer, I accepted my offer to join the firm when I graduated from law school.  I knew then that I was totally out of my element at a big corporate law firm, but I thought it may be good to try a new life adventure.  

In my last year of law school, we had our son Teddy, and I took the bar when he was about 5 months old.  When I began at Ropes as a full-time associate, he was 7 months old.  That was when Brian learned to cook, and, well, do pretty much everything else around the house.    

I worked as a full-time associate at Ropes & Gray in their corporate health care group for almost three and a half years.  I worked hard, as did all of my colleagues, and I learned more about myself in those years than I ever had before.  Most of all, I learned that while it would be fun to have tons of money, I wasn't willing to make the sacrifices necessary to get there.  I wanted to come home every night to see my family, and I didn't want to stay up until two in the morning to make up for it.  I knew a long-term career at a big law firm would mean travel, and the thought of consistently missing my kids' events, even just a baseball game or a gymnastics practice, made me sick to my stomach.  I was so thankful to have learned this about myself, and even more thankful that those years brought me some of my most cherished friendships.  It's amazing how fast you can bond over shared sheer exhaustion.  

In January of this year, I accepted an incredible offer to join the health care group at a mid-size firm, Verrill Dana LLP.  Verrill Dana (sometimes painfully abbreviated to VD so we can all have a childish chuckle) is based in Portland, Maine, and it was expanding its Boston office.  I knew it was the right fit for me from the day of my first interviews.  I could tell immediately that these people were not only incredible lawyers, but fabulous people -- smart, kind, hard-working, family-focused, and fun.  My seven months with them have confirmed my first impression and more -- we really are talking best of the best.  I can't wait to get back to my office, open my shades that overlook Boston Harbor, and get back to work.  

I never thought I'd say this, but I miss my daily commute into Boston (even the short portion of it on the Orange Line).  Once I beat this thing, maybe I'll have a new appreciation for things I never even enjoyed before.  Or maybe, as a dear friend has told me from his own experience, I will just go back to the way I was before -- being annoyed with my commute and the craziness I often witness on the Orange Line.  Either way would be a gift.  

In the end, I know I will group my employer and my colleagues in the cavalry of people who helped saved my life.  From the day I told them I had cancer, they stood behind me both emotionally and financially, and they gave me both the space and support to get better.  I feel so blessed for this, because I know that a serious illness of a working parent can set a family into a downward financial spiral.  I am so thankful that my colleagues and my family wouldn't ever let that happen to me.  

In the meantime, where I used to sit at my desk researching and writing memos for some of the best health care providers in the country, now I will visit them for surgeries, infusions, and life saving treatment.  I guess it's good to see life from all different perspectives, huh?   


  1. Tara, it's all about perspective and you're certainly gaining a new one now. Your posts are fantastic. Keep 'em coming. Be well.

    (P.S.) Work wise, it'll all be there when you get back.

  2. You are amazing! (Just catching up on these posts after a week away...)