Volume 27, Number 1

A Smart Dog Isn’t Afraid To Learn New Tricks

Fred Schepartz

At age 54, 27 years at the same job, 30 years after graduating with a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I went back to school.

I had been thinking about this new path for the last couple years, so now here I am, in the paralegal program at Madison Area Technical College, learning side-by-side with people less than half my age, though I am pretty certain I am not the only 50-something-year-old in my classes.

I do laugh at myself every time I sling my backpack over my shoulder and try to blend in with all the kids humping their way from the parking lot to the main campus building.

Not taking this course of action would have been easy. I work at a worker-owned-and-operated cooperative cab company. I get paid reasonably well. I get good health coverage. But maybe it’s time for a change; maybe I want to do something more.

During the summer and fall of 2013, I watched the role that lawyers played during the crackdown of the Solidarity Sing-Along, at the Wisconsin Capitol. More than 100 people were arrested for doing nothing more than singing protest songs. Singers were dragged away in handcuffs. Singers were assaulted and roughed up. Journalists and labor leaders were among the arrested.

The legal community stepped up. Lawyers worked pro bono. The ACLU stepped in. The community held fundraisers.

In the end, there was a compromise, which frankly pissed off a lot of people. Myself, I’m not crazy about it. I think we could’ve won in court, but at least the arrests and the violence stopped.

In the end, all the tickets were dismissed.

We won.

And the way things have been in Wisconsin these last five years, that’s no small thing.

Watching the role that lawyers played inspired me to take this step, to become a paralegal. My cautious, job-interview statement on my motivation to go back to school is to say that I have an interest in advocacy and activism.

Or in other words, I want a bigger and better stick with which to fight the man.

I see myself working in civil rights. Or labor law. Or environment law. I want to learn about contracts and intellectual property so I can help artists and musicians, and what the hell, excellent homebrewers who want to open craft breweries. I especially see being a paralegal as a way to help the worker’s cooperative movement.

And there’s elective courses in the curriculum that cover all of these things.

Our job does not have to be our life. We do not have to find our identity in our jobs.

But a job can be more than a job; it can be a calling. It can be one’s personal-is-the-political way to try to make the world at least a little bit of a better place. It does not have to be just a punching of the time clock.

Education is the key.

When I started looking into the MATC paralegal program, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there was the usual two-year associate degree program, but also there was a one-year, post-baccalaureate degree that consisted of only law courses.

That seemed workable.

My previous education pays yet another dividend and a rather tangible one at that.

So far, I have to say I’m pretty impressed with the education at our local tech school. The classes are small. The teachers possess great practical knowledge. And they really care. In general, the place is geared toward getting their students jobs.

To be honest, when I walked into the main campus building the first time, my first thought was, well, this is nice and all brand new, but it ain’t exactly Bascom Hall.

No, it is not, but MATC serves a crucial purpose and is a great resource for the whole community.

I have a co-worker who is struggling to make ends meet. She finds it increasingly difficult to cope with the physical demands of the job. She is intelligent but has never been to college and holds a GED.

MATC could be very helpful to her. They offer free career counseling as well as numerous scholarships that could help her. She probably would be eligible for a good amount of federal and state financial aid. She could find a new path, and it probably wouldn’t cost her much.

It’s all about taking the step. Taking that first step.

The journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step.

There are always possibilities. It would be easy for me to just keep doing the same thing, but I took the plunge.

Change is difficult, and it can be pretty scary, but with a little bit of courage, we can do amazing things. All it takes is desire and hard work.

And all it takes is a vision for a better world as seen through a window and a mirror.