When I was a little girl, I loved cats. In fact, I loved all animals. So, when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be a veterinarian. I could see myself surrounded by loving animals and grateful owners as I made all the sick animals feel better. However, everything changed when I read a book from my school library titled “So You Want to Be a Veterinarian?” My teacher gave the class an assignment to read a book about our chosen profession and write a book report, which we would share with the class.
When I read about the things I would have to do to become a vet, I was shocked! Cut up animals and look at their insides? Give them drugs to put them to sleep permanently? Work on large scary horses and bulls? NO WAY! I quickly decided this job was not for me, but soon became obsessed with another.
Fast forward to my 6th grade year. We were a military family and I attended 5th and 6th grade in Okinawa. I loved school. I loved the smell of freshly sharpened pencils, new crayons and, my favorite, colored pencils. That year, I thought my teacher was the most interesting person I had ever met. She was a Department of Defense teacher and, after teaching all over the world at military bases, her classroom was full of pictures and souvenirs from her travels. She told us amazing stories and I wanted to be just like her. My love of school never ended and to this day my favorite aisle in Wal-Mart is the school supply aisle, especially when all the new school supplies are put on the shelves.
During middle school (now in Minot, North Dakota), I still wanted to be a teacher. The only lawyers I knew were the men I saw on TV. It seemed most of the soap operas my mother watched had lots of men lawyers – all looking very stern in their dark suits – who left their houses in the morning and came home in the evening, but we never saw them actually lawyering. Later on, I thought lawyers only stood up in courtrooms and questioned people, who would eventually crack under the pressure and blurt out a confession. Think Perry Mason or Matlock and you get the idea. Women were just the secretaries running around doing everything Perry or Matlock didn’t want to do.
So, still determined to be a teacher, I went to community college and then to Florida State and got my degree in Elementary Education. I was thrilled the first time I walked into a classroom and realized that now I got to be the one telling the stories and thinking up interesting lesson plans. After my first year I was hit with the reality that teaching was hard work! I was never, ever caught up with all the things I had to do because most of my time was spent herding around 30+ eight-year-olds. But I still loved it. My students were fun, and sweet (most of the time) and I was genuinely happy with my choice.
My third year of teaching, I was honored by being named “Teacher of the Year” at my school. I was teaching at Challenger 7 Elementary near the space center. The school was renamed after the Challenger tragedy. We watched shuttles take off from our playground and the classrooms would shake at liftoff. It was an amazing experience to teach these children whose parents worked in all the various aspects of the space program. I still have a piece of shuttle tile that one of my parents gave me, and my “Teacher of the Year” plaque hangs proudly in my law office.
I later taught in Georgia, where some of my students didn’t have indoor plumbing, and one year only three of my students had parents who had graduated high school. It was still hard work, but I felt my impact on my students even greater during those years.
All in all, I taught for 15 years in Florida and Georgia. But, one day, I made up my mind to leave teaching and follow another dream. I decided to go to law school. The day I told my class that I would be leaving, three weeks before the year ended, they cried, and I hugged each one of them as they left that day. I was sad to leave them, but I had my acceptance letter to law school and I was going, one way or another. I didn’t know where I would get the money, where I would live, or where my son would go to school, but in my mind those were just details to work out.
Why did I decide to leave teaching? Well, several things happened that led me to the decision.
First of all, I felt compelled to do something more, but I didn’t know what. I felt a longing that I couldn’t explain. This started at about my tenth year of teaching. I considered becoming a nationally certified teacher, able to teach in any state in the US, but hesitated. I was already a mentor teacher, guiding new teachers into the profession and supervising their work. I was heavily involved in school committees and my principal sent me to training sessions at Kennedy Space Center to learn about computers and I helped set up the first computer lab in our county. I trained other teachers to use the computers to enhance learning. I was busy, busy and more busy, but still felt a longing for something.
Then, out of the blue, I found out my sister was going to law school. During her first year she told me about her classes and her experiences, and I suddenly felt that longing even stronger. At one point she said, “You should think about law school; you would love it” and after that I was once again obsessed with the idea of a new profession. I remember the day she graduated law school and how I envied her accomplishment. I wanted to be there one day. I started preparing myself, studying for the LSAT, considering schools, and just wrapping my mind around something I now wanted so badly I could taste it.
Eventually, I made it. I was accepted at Stetson College of Law in Gulfport, Florida. The oldest law school in Florida, Stetson has a small campus, small classes and a friendly and welcoming atmosphere. My first day of orientation, I was in awe of the younger (I was 41 then), obviously smarter classmates that I would get to know over the next three years. I loved every minute of it.
I became heavily involved on campus. I was a member of the advocacy team and competed at competitions; I was a teaching assistant, taught other students in the writing lab, worked all over campus to make extra money, and was president of Equal Justice Works, an organization that raises funds to support pro bono services to the community. I had a blast!
During my second year, I talked to one of my professors about the type of work I wanted to do. Stetson has several concentration programs and she suggested I speak to the chair of the elder law program, thinking this might be a good fit for me. I was by that time convinced that I needed to do even more to distinguish myself from those younger, smarter classmates or I would never get a job.
Once I met Becky Morgan, law professor and elder law guru, I was hooked. I spent my last year in the concentration program and was one of two students who graduated with a concentration in elder law that year. It was a tough curriculum and required a 3.0 or better in every class. That honor also hangs proudly in my law office.
Prior to graduation, Professor Morgan introduced me to the small elder law firm of Boyer and Jackson in Sarasota. Edwin Boyer and Mary Alice Jackson offered me an internship my last semester of law school, and after graduation offered me a job. I credit both with teaching me to be the lawyer I am today. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t remember something they told me or showed me that impacts my practice. I run my law practice much the way they ran theirs and I will never forget the ten years I practiced alongside them. Happily, I can now mentor someone else and pass along the wisdom they gave to me.
Joining the firm of McLin Burnsed, of counsel, provides that opportunity, letting me share my knowledge and experience and create an elder law team that can offer the clients of The Villages the very best in elder law services. The team I work with at The Villages office makes me proud and I love seeing the practice grow. Stay tuned – we are just getting started!