Thursday, November 02, 2000

Hard work and one last panic attack

Stacey DeGraffenreid, 31, is a single mother who has fought her way through law school, student loans and dead-end jobs. Now, to realize her dream, she faces the three-day Ohio Bar Exam.

(Third of three parts)

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Stacey DeGraffenreid (left) and fellow law students walk to the first section of the bar exam.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        Stacey DeGraffenreid kneels next to the fish tank and peers into the murky water. The fish is named Teeter, as in teeter-totter, and is her 5-year-old daughter's only pet. Stacey taps the glass but Teeter doesn't move.

        “Uh, oh.”

        Stacey tries to remember the last time she fed Teeter. Last night? The night before? Last week? She's been so busy studying for the Ohio Bar Exam she isn't sure.

        It is late June and the exam is less than four weeks away. The test will decide if she can become a lawyer, and along the way the provider and role model she wants to be for her daughter.

        She must be prepared for the test, ready to do her best. But as she stares at Teeter listing in the tank, she is overwhelmed by her job, her studies, her life.

        She is scared and exhausted. Too tired to deal with yet another distraction from the bar exam.

        Stacey gently shakes the tank. Teeter floats to the surface, belly-up.

        She adds up the hours before Tatiana is home from grandma's. Plenty of time to buy a new Teeter at Petsmart. With any luck, Tatiana won't know the difference.

        But first, Stacey heads back to her books. She wants to squeeze in two more practice essays and some more reading on civil procedure.
        The door opens and Tatiana rushes in. Startled, Stacey quickly looks at her watch. She was so absorbed in studying she forgot to get a new fish.

        “Hi, Mommy!”

        Stacey has tried to juggle the roles of single mom and law student for three years. As she watches her unsuspecting daughter bound into the bedroom, she is certain she has failed as both.


        Stacey braces herself. Tatiana walks past the empty fish tank, oblivious. “Where's my monkey dolls?”

        The next day, when her daughter still hasn't noticed the empty tank, Stacey comes clean about Teeter. Tatiana sobs in her arms. “Are you sure?”

        “I'm sure,” Stacey says. “He's in heaven now.”
        Stacey bounces Tatiana on her lap and waits for her to quit squirming.

        She's been thinking about her daily schedule since Teeter died a week ago. Stacey is exhausted, running on a few hours sleep a night. She's trying to do too much in too little time.

        Stacey wants to make some changes in her schedule so she can arrive at the exam as prepared as she can be. She wants to explain the changes to Tatiana.

        The new schedule divides her day into two-hour blocks dedicated to one thing at a time: Study. Work. Daughter. Her life reduced to the bare essentials. The three things she must see through to exam day.

        “Do you know why mommy needs to study?” she asks. Tatiana shakes her head no. Stacey says the bar exam is very hard. “It's really important,” she says. “I'll be gone for three days when I take it.”

        “What if you don't go?”

        The question hangs in the air. Lately, in her weaker moments, Stacey has been asking herself the same thing.

        “Well,” Stacey says, “then I can't be a lawyer.”
        The next evening the phone rings. It's Tawanda Edwards, a friend who's also preparing for the bar exam.

        “What are you doing?”

        “You know what I'm doing,” Stacey groans. Her books and flash cards are spread out before her on the kitchen table.

        They've been exchanging these calls for weeks, quizzing each other on criminal law, civil procedure and dozens of other topics. Lately, they've been talking about how to handle sleep deprivation.

        The fear of being unprepared keeps them going.

        “I know this guy who's taken it five times and still hasn't passed,” Tawanda says. Stacey rubs her forehead, closes her eyes. “You're not helping,” she says. “Time is ticking down. We need to calm down and figure this out.”

        Tawanda suggests lighting some “tranquility” candles.

        “I've been burning candles,” Stacey says. “It hasn't helped.”
        Stacey sits on a picnic table in her blue softball uniform. A neon light flickers overhead.

        These once-a-week games are the “one fun thing” she's allowed herself this long, terrible summer. Even now, two weeks before the exam.

        It's almost gametime and her teammates, including her sister Allison, are stretching, getting ready. A former star basketball player at Princeton High School, Stacey knows this routine well.

        But tonight she sits alone with her flash cards, flipping from one study topic to another.

        “What are you doing?” a teammate asks.

        “Don't make fun,” Allison says. “She needs to study.”
        Her mother is waiting for her at Applebees. Stacey slides into the booth, picks up a menu.

        “How you doing?” her mom asks.

        “OK, I guess.”

        Stacey is haggard, tired. Her eyes are bloodshot. Her hair tied into a sloppy ponytail. The test is two weeks away and Stacey isn't sure she'll make it.

        She can tell her mom is worried. She's seen that look before. At her high school basketball games. After Stacey blew out her knee. On the day Stacey told her she was pregnant.

        Her mom never let her down. You're doing great. Everything's going to be fine.

        “Ready to order?” The waitress checks off two chef salads. Two diet Cokes.

        Stacey slides her flash cards out of her purse, takes off the rubber band. “Let me help,” her mom says, reaching for the cards.

        She begins reading aloud, but stumbles over the definitions. Con law. Secured transactions. Torts. A week left before the exam and Stacey is tired of hearing these terms. Tired of studying.

        Stacey cracks a smile and they both laugh.

        “You know,” her mom says. “You're going to be fine. Just fine.”
        Stacey wakes up in a panic. Cold sweat. Racing heart. The works.

        She sits up in bed, buries her head in her hands. Just a nightmare, she tells herself. Same nightmare she's been having for weeks.

        She didn't really oversleep and miss the exam. She didn't really blow everything by hitting the snooze button too many times. The exam is still five days off.

        In the morning, Stacey calls Tawanda. She makes her promise she won't leave without her on exam day.
        Stacey is on the phone with Tawanda and another friend, Celathia Jackson. With two days to go, they've been grilling each other with questions every night.

        But this time, while talking about personal property terms, something clicks.

        “Check this out,” Celathia says. She reads a question about personal property and then one about torts. She points out the connections, the similarities. Then she does it again with two other questions.

        Stacey and Tawanda join in. They see similar connections in other questions. “You see it?” Celathia asks, her voice rising. “That's the big picture! I can see the big picture!”

        For the first time, these complex, scattered areas of the law seem like they might belong together. They make sense.

        And for the first time, for at least this moment, the bar exam doesn't seem so big. Stacey catches herself feeling optimistic.

        “Yeah,” she says, “but what if this isn't the big picture we're supposed to see?”
        Stacey sets the timer on the microwave. Just one more practice question. One more run through the flash cards. The exam is tomorrow.

        The cards, the books, the tapes are all familiar to her now. As familiar as they will ever be.

        She studies for an hour and closes the book. Paces the kitchen. Does some laundry.

        The doorbell rings. A friend, Jennifer Eberle, is there with a care package filled with Chex mix and candy. She tells Stacey it's for the three days she'll be in Columbus for the exam.

        “I can't imagine taking a test for three days,” Jennifer says.

        Stacey nods and smiles. She's been trying to imagine it for the past four months.
        The Columbus hotel room is dark except for the red digits on the clock: 5:00 ... 5:01 ... 5:02. Four hours to exam time.

        Stacey watches the numbers tick off. She is not asleep but she can't move. Her chest is pounding. Thump, thump. Thump, thump. This, she thinks, is how heart attacks begin.

        As dawn breaks, she notices she can't make out the patterns on the curtains. She blinks and tries again. Her right eye feels scratchy.

        “Not today,” she says. “Please, God. Not today.”

        She sprints to the bathroom, looks in the mirror. Her eye is red and swollen. Stress. Exhaustion. Maybe allergies. Whatever the cause, Stacey doesn't have time for this.

        She pops an Advil for her headache and puts a warm compress on the eye. An hour later, the eye feels better. She grabs a bundle of pens, pencils and highlighters and heads to the hotel lobby.
        By 8 a.m. on exam day, the streets of downtown Columbus are packed with law students. More than 2,000 from across Ohio. All with the same weary look. All walking to Veterans Memorial for the exam.

        Stacey catches up with Tawanda and a half-dozen friends. “Any sleep?” Tawanda asks.

        Stacey smiles. “Just a panic attack.”

        They make their way across a bridge over the Scioto River. “Don't jump!” someone yells. Stacey laughs and slips her arm around a nervous friend.

        “You're going to be fine,” she tells her friend. “You're ready.”

        As she says these words, Stacey feels ready, too. As ready as she can be.

        She's worked hard to learn criminal law and civil procedure and personal property. And along the way, she's learned hard work is nothing without a little faith.

        Faith in her abilities and her decisions. Faith in herself.

        No matter what happens in the next three days, Stacey will leave Columbus knowing she took her best shot.

        And then she will go home. She will braid Tatiana's hair. Read her a book. Sleep with her child in her arms.

        Stacey picks up the pace as she nears the entrance to Veterans Memorial. She catches her stride. Relaxes.
        Inside the old exhibition hall, the crowd noise rolls across the concrete floor and metal ceiling. Hundreds of tables fill the warehouse-sized room.

        Stacey walks around, gets a feel for the place.

        An ID form and an ink pad are on every table. Each student must be fingerprinted before the test begins.

        “Please take your seats.”

        The woman's voice quiets the crowd. “Please, everyone, take your seats.”

        Stacey finds her table and sits down. She flips open the ink and rolls her thumb over the soft black pad.

        She is ready to make her mark.

        Stacey DeGraffenreid finds out Nov. 9 if she passed the Ohio Bar Exam. Look for an epilogue in the Enquirer Nov. 10.


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