Leaving law school & my guilt behind

Writing is a luxury—one my parents never had

Ashanthi describes her decision to pursue writing, despite leaving generational dreams of law school behind.
Credit: 
Supplied by Ashanthi Francis

I was thirteen years old when I performed my first magic trick. All I had to do was say the words “law school” to my parents, and they’d transform into different people. The perpendicular worry-lines which marked my mother’s forehead softened. My father smiled.

Very early on, I learned law school was the ticket to all kinds of social capital in my home.

The idea of a lawyer in the family—the first ever lawyer—was a symbol of hope. Lawyer children are an undoubtable mark of success in the West, like permanent-residence status or an indistinguishable accent. As a child, my mother spent three weeks in a refugee camp. Her family didn’t have enough money to send her to university, where she hoped to become a doctor. My father immigrated to Canada and started work as a fry-cook at KFC.

My brother and I were the next generation—the germinated seeds that could overcome ancestral histories of hardship and disappointment. They worked hard so we could become the noble protectors of our lineage: doctors, engineers, and lawyers.

I was the youngest child, hungry for attention and approval wherever I could get it.

I was also a big reader, meaning I developed the vocabulary to talk circles around my parents shortly after I entered a classroom. These two things in tandem led me to set my sights on law school 10 years before I would ever apply. I didn’t understand the commitment I was making at the time, but the look on my parents’ faces reassured me I didn’t need to.

Now, almost a decade removed from that moment, I did it.

I achieved a marginally above-average GPA and lost an entire summer to the LSAT. I loaded my plate with extra-curriculars and wrote tear-jerking essays about my passion for legal study as a first-gen Canadian.

I applied to law schools, and I got in—but I’m not going. Instead, I’m going to write. 

Reading those words over brings forth a multitude of emotions. I’m at once relieved and devastated, ecstatic and angry, excited and terrified. If you told a younger version of myself I would be pursuing a master’s degree in creative writing, I would’ve burst into cartwheels of joy. I also probably wouldn’t have believed you.

But when I received the phone call letting me know I had gotten in, I felt dread. 

I had applied on a whim, hoping to flex my creative muscles one last time before packing my pen away for law school. My parents were immediately suspicious of this decision. I assured them the odds of my acceptance into this program were almost impossible. The admission pool was unbelievably small, and I was miles away from calling myself a serious author.

Writing was one of my first loves, but it had never managed to assert itself as more than a casual hobby in my life. Besides, law school was always the plan.

Until I got in, and I was forced to face the thing I had tried to hide from my entire life: my guilt. 

I spent most of my life assuming law would grow into a passion of mine. I’d already failed to convince myself that a career didn’t have to be what you loved, so I resorted to achieving the opposite.

I romanticized law school and had dreams of legal practice that relied on theatrics and spectacle. I’d framed my life around a golden ideal—a vision of myself as a lawyer that was based almost entirely in fantasy. 

After a while, there was only one tangible thing keeping me tethered to the law: my parents.

It’s obvious now much of my decision to pursue law was encouraged by a desire to do what my parents never could. It wasn’t parental pressure, but something much deeper. I was driven by an inarticulable impulse tied to sacrifice and debt.

In a family of immigrants, writing isn’t a career. It’s a luxury, something those better off can do precisely because they don’t have to work. Law, on the other hand, is security.

To be professionally skilled meant ensuring my family’s protection. I held the potential to create a life for myself that was far removed from cycles of uncertainty and compromise. Pursuing writing seriously meant throwing that away. 

There’s a Sylvia Plath quote about a fig tree, where the figs are the different possibilities of her future, and she must decide which fig she wants to pick. But she waits too long, and the figs begin to ripen and fall off, no longer viable options in her life.

As the deadline to decide on my future approached, I saw the possibility of myself as a good daughter, a noble one, drop to my feet and rot into the earth. 

Guilt is a powerful emotion, as powerful as any other in terms of making you do things. As I get older, I’ve learned that guilt is also an indispensable part of love. A feeling of indebtedness to someone else is natural when they’ve given you so much.

I work every single day to make my parents proud. However, I’m slowly starting to understand achievement is meaningless if it's not in some way meaningful to you. Writing is certainly a privilege, and it's not something I could ever do without the sacrifices of my parents. Writing is also my new reality—and I must remind myself of that daily. 

I still struggle to know exactly how I feel about pursuing writing seriously, at least for now. I am still interested in the law, and I won’t write it off forever, but my next two years are certain.

I feel shy telling people what I’m doing next year, searching their eyes for any signs of disappointment or outrage. I’ve heard all the jokes about the bleak prospects of a writing career, and sometimes I make them too. But I still feel a quiet confidence, the hum of something hopeful inside of me, that I never managed to find with law. 

As I write this article, I haven’t declined my offer from law school. I don’t think anything is going to change my mind before the Apr. 1 deadline, but a part of me wishes something would.

In a perfect world, I am going to law school and my parents are thrilled. In this world, I am not, and our excitement will grow together.

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