"I Fell Twice Before, My Bounce Back Was Special"

Lina Houston, Director of Campus & Community Programs

Sia’s song “The Greatest” is dope, but I didn’t realize just how dope until I really listened to the lyrics, especially Kendrick Lamar’s verse, and started crying.  And the line “I fell twice before, my bounce back was special” really spoke to my soul. No, I don’t usually cry while listening to the radio, so let me explain.

I have failed the California bar exam twice. That’s a slightly scary admission to make publicly since the legal profession is pretty invested in prestige (and, quite frankly, a narrow concept of success). But as someone who works with law students, I believe it is my responsibility to be honest about my experiences with the bar. As I told our current chapter leaders in an email, I’m not trying to scare them; instead, I want to normalize the exam (lots of SUPER smart and successful people don’t pass right away!) and to encourage them to never fucking give up.

Not passing the bar sucked. IT SUCKED. It really surfaced some of my core insecurities, all of which happen to be rooted in racist, white supremacist ideology: that I’m not smart enough, that I’m not good enough, that I am not – and never will be – enough. Somewhere in that insecurity I realized that it wasn’t an accident that I didn’t pass. I also realized that it is neither an accident nor a coincidence that most of the people I know that didn’t pass their respective bar exams were also people of color. Nothing about the legal system –not law school, not the legal profession, not the bar exam, not the laws themselves – was made for us. And for many people of color, especially those who are low-income and/or from immigrant families, the disparity starts even earlier. Many folks are taught, both implicitly and explicitly, that success and professionalism are for white people, and that dreaming big dreams is pointless. And even if folks do have big dreams, the systemic barriers placed in their way are often overwhelming at best and insurmountable at worst.  With those realizations came intense and staggering rage.

My rage ebbed and flowed over the years, but after attempt number two, retaking the bar was never more than a fleeting thought. Then the election came and went and the inevitability of the disastrous new administration was upon us. With the rage and fear came an unexpected resolve. In this new administration, we must resist and be bold and stand in our individual and collective power. For me, that includes sitting for the bar yet again.

It’s no secret that the California bar exam passage rate is abysmal, and California’s attorney population doesn’t exactly reflect the state’s population. People are questioning the system and trying to figure out who is really to blame. What’s missing is an analysis of the consequences that this inequality has in real lives and of the fact that intelligent, skilled, hardworking, deserving people are precluded from joining the profession.

The part of my psyche that slyly whispers negative affirmations says that this post is a terrible idea. “Shouldn’t you only talk about the struggle once you pass?” it gently whispers. “What if you fail again?” it whispers more forcefully. But here’s the thing. My resistance and resilience is not in passing; it is in having the strength and courage to face a foe that has defeated me twice. My resistance is in picking myself back up and deciding to do it another time. My resistance is in trying, once again, to tackle an exam that was not made by people like me and was not meant for people like me. Of course I want to pass, but no matter what, I have already won. I am in the bounce back that Kendrick talked about, and I don’t mean to brag, but that bounce back is pretty damn special.

A dear friend sent a text that brings me strength and inspiration in this process, even on the days when I want to give up:

“Every moment that you spend learning, even if it is their fucked up notion of the universe, is radical, is revolutionary, is a challenge to the hegemony, the oppressors, the status quo. You are fucking amazing and brave and brilliant and magical. Already.”

And that’s what I want to leave you with. No matter where you are or where you want to go, whether you pass or whether you fail whatever test is coming up, you, too, are amazing and brave and brilliant and magical. Right at this very moment. Already.

UPDATE: Lina took the February 2017 California Bar Exam and passed! If/When/How celebrates Lina’s courage, resilience, resistance, and grace.