Tuesday, October 31, 2000

Taking the bar, making a future

Stacey DeGraffenreid is a 31-year-old single mother who has fought through law school, debt and dead-end jobs to realize her dream

(First of three parts)

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Stacy DeGraffenreid's daughter Tatiana clings to her as she leaves home for law school.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        The blue Pontiac lurches forward and dies. Stacey DeGraffenreid glances at her dashboard. The console is a blur of red and yellow lights.

        She taps the gas. Nothing.

        She turns the key. Nothing.

        Stacey doesn't have time for this. It's April 15 and her taxes are due. Her bank account is nearly empty. Her 5-year-old daughter is hungry. And her future depends on how soon she can get home to open a box of law books.

        Stacey's books are study guides for the Ohio Bar Exam, the grueling three-day test she must pass to become a lawyer.

        She has three months to prepare, to find the time and confidence she needs to be ready for the biggest test of her life. Everything is at stake.

Stack of study material in her kitchen.
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        Becoming a lawyer means paying off her bills, quitting her dead-end job and becoming the role model she's always wanted to be for her daughter.

        But only six in 10 students pass the bar exam, and Stacey isn't sure she can succeed where so many fail.

        Confidence was not always a problem. She was a good student and star athlete at Princeton High School. She was fearless on the basketball court, driven in the classroom.

        But life after high school shook her. A knee injury. Single motherhood. A job filing papers and answering phones. Somewhere along the way she lost the feeling she could handle any challenge if she just worked hard enough.

        Confidence turned to indecision. She stumbled like the players she used to blow past on the basketball court. She second-guessed every choice, agonized over every challenge.

        Mustering the courage to go to law school was a first step back. And now everything rides on the bar exam.

        To be really ready for the test of her life, she must find a way to study, hang on to her job and raise her daughter. She needs a game plan, and the old confidence to work the plan.

        She's not asking for a guarantee. She just wants her shot.

        A horn blares from behind the Pontiac.

        “What's wrong, Mommy?” Stacey's daughter, Tatiana, squirms in her seat, twisting the purple and white beads in her hair. “What's wrong?” Stacey tugs nervously on her pony-tail and turns the key again.

        She hears nothing but the traffic lining up behind her.
        Stacey slumps at the kitchen table, opening bills. The words of her neighbor, Manny the mechanic, run through her head.

        Manny took a look at her Pontiac that afternoon.

        “This is bad,” Manny said from under the car. “Blown engine.”

        He can fix it for $4,000 but doubts the car is worth half that. Better to just get a new one.

        Stacey flips through the bills, doodling on the envelopes. She can't afford a new car.

        She graduates in a month from the University of Cincinnati's law school. She owes almost $40,000 in student loans and another $10,000 on the credit cards that cover living expenses when the checking account runs dry.

        Groceries. Tatiana's allergy medicine. The mortgage on the small two-bedroom house in Springdale. The $1,300 bill for bar exam classes and the unopened study guides that still sit in her living room.

        More money is going out than coming in.

        “Oh, God,” she mutters, adding it up.

        She tells herself she's lucky, no different than anyone else with bills to pay. She comes from a middle-class family. She is not poor. She will not starve. She's a 31-year-old single mother who went into debt trying to change a life that was big on frustration, small on promise.

        She scraped together the down payment for a small house so her daughter could grow up in a nice neighborhood.

        She went to law school to help others with the child support and custody problems that she struggled with after she and Tatiana's father went their separate ways.

        Her decisions make sense when she describes them this way to friends and family. But that's little comfort tonight, when each bill seems like one more bad decision.

        Stacey gets up and starts down the hall to her bedroom. The box of law books in the living room catches her eye. She stops. Scattered around the box are Crayola markers, plastic Easter eggs and a cowgirl doll that says “Howdy partner!” when you squeeze its hand.

        If she can find room in her crowded life for those books, Stacey is certain she can be ready for the exam.

        She lingers another moment in the hall, then turns off the light and goes to bed.
        The gym is filled with children bouncing and vaulting across padded floors.

        Stacey watches Tatiana from the bleachers. She is the only parent at gymnastics class with a pile of notebooks on her lap. She's trying to finish her final paper at UC.

        An hour of work here will help clear the way to start on those bar exam guides in her living room. That's her plan today, anyway. That's what she tells folks who ask, “How's the studying?”

        “I'm going to get moving,” she told her mom that morning. “I've just got to make the time.”

        Her mom, Dorothy, is a fourth-grade teacher who built her life around her four children. She went to every game Stacey played in high school and kept a scrapbook with photos labeled “Stacey's first game” and “Stacey's first goal.”

        Dorothy was there for her daughter again last week when she co-signed the loan for Stacey's new Camry. Stacey will make the payments, but she needed her mom's signature to get the loan.

        As always, Dorothy was willing. She's the one who stepped in when Stacey first doubted her dream of becoming a lawyer, the one who convinced Stacey she could be both a mother and a student.

        “You can do this,” Dorothy said three years ago, after finding Stacey's half-completed law school enrollment form. “You're going to do this.”

        The gym echoes with thuds and clangs and giggling children. Stacey is at home here.

        She was never more sure of herself than when she stepped into a gym, a basketball in her hands. A star at Princeton High and the University of Louisville, she was the kind of athlete who wanted the ball when the clock was winding down.

        The gym is still a welcome distraction from the daily trials of her life.

        She smiles watching Tatiana do somersaults. Inspirational signs hang on the walls. Courage. Confidence. Faith.

        Stacey opens her notebook. She pops the cap on her yellow marker and begins highlighting, just as Tatiana comes bounding up the bleachers.

        “Come on Mommy! Come on Mommy!”

        It's a Mother's Day special, Tatiana explains. Moms are invited to tumble with their kids.

        Stacey looks at the instructor as if she is insane. She needs this time to study. Her plan, such that it is, already is falling apart.

        “Come on Mommy!”
        The first phone call comes in the morning. Then another. And another.

        It's May 12 and the students who took the bar exam in February got their results today. The bad news is spreading fast.

        “Have you heard?”

        “Can you believe this?”

        Only 60 percent of the students who took the exam passed. The test has been given every six months for decades, and this is the lowest pass rate ever.

        Panic creeps into the voices on the phone. Stacey and her friends talk for hours about the results. And their bad luck. Since they entered law school, the minimum passing score on the 600-point test has climbed from 375 to 405.

        Shaken, Stacey calls her mother.

        “What if I don't pass?”

        “Listen, Stacey,” her mother says. “All you can do is your best. Do that, and you'll be fine. No matter what.”

        Stacey hangs up. The box of study guides sits a few feet away, still unopened.

        She has had no time for them, overwhelmed with the final weeks of law school, research papers, her car and Tatiana's almost constant need for attention.

        Stacey is on edge, waiting for the phone to ring again. Waiting for another worried friend to stir up her own fears. She doesn't have time for any more calls. She's out of time.

        This is all she knows When the next exam results come out in November, she must be able to say she did her best.

        She grabs a pen and a sheet of notebook paper. She scratches out a schedule. She lays out every hour of her day, from dawn to midnight. All the time she does have.

        Study in the morning. Laundry and other chores around lunch. Work in the afternoon. Tatiana all evening. More studying at night.

        She stares at the schedule as if it might say something in response. Tell her things will be OK. But the room is silent. Still, something changes inside her. For the first time, she feels she can be ready for the exam. Really ready.

        She puts the schedule in the middle of her kitchen table so she will see it every morning.
        Bar exam classes begin in less than a week, and Stacey is working in the yard. Pulling weeds. Mowing grass.

        It is late May and school is over. Her final papers are done. The exam is two months away. The schedule has been on Stacey's kitchen table for over a week but she has still not opened the box of study guides.

        The phone rings. It's Janel Fitzhugh, a friend from law school who passed the bar exam last year. Janel casually asks if Stacey has started skimming the study guides.

        Stacey admits she hasn't.

        “Believe me,” Janel says, in earnest now. “You should be studying right now.”

        Stacey says goodbye and walks into the living room. She's scared now. Scared she will stay scared and never be ready for the exam.

        She has two months to prepare. Suddenly, it doesn't sound like such a long time.

        She kneels next to the box and pulls out a big blue book. She flips through the pages, turns it over in her hands.

        Feels the weight of it.

        WEDNESDAY: Buckling down to study.


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