Wednesday, May 13, 2015

1L: lessons learned

My first year of law school, wow, it's over. It's amazing to me how swiftly this time flew by, especially compared to last year, but it's disheartening when I remember I still have two years to go before I can get in the trenches with clients. I love school, school is great, but it's intriguing to feel a new pull on my heart, a desire to do something other than sit in a classroom.

As with any academic endeavor, the whole point is learn stuff. And I've learned a lot about the law and our judicial system and how exactly the USA has gotten to where it is today, but I've also learned some personal things. I have made note of them here, in hopes that my own lessons may serve as perspective for you in learning yours.

  • I learned that I don't adjust to new things as well as I thought I did. Adjustment takes time. Maybe more time for me than the average person. But it is what it is. Being depressed that I require time to settle into things does not make time tick by faster. 
  • You have to be okay with sounding like an idiot when you talk in class. And so what if everyone thinks you're an idiot? I am constantly being surprised by classmates I thought had empty heads but are actual leagues smarter than me. So either I am actually an idiot, or sooner or later people will figure out I'm not the airhead I seem to be. 
  • And to dovetail with that, there is nothing wrong with being an idiot! So you're not smart, fine. Being smart does not make you a better person. Being uneducated or even being ignorant doesn't mean you have committed a moral wrong that you deserve to be punished for. There is an aura of intellectual elitism that pervades Boston, because to be fair, education is a huge industry here! But there's an unspoken assumption that education makes people better people. I have a coworker or two who openly mock rednecks and think that the southern accent is uneducated. To be honest, I used to be that person. I'm trying not to be anymore. 
  • I usually think of my year in Kazakhstan as ruining me; when I came back to the USA I was a basket case and this year being back has been THE HARDEST year of my life so far. But I don't give KZ enough credit for preparing me for life in Boston. In KZ I learned how to cook, go food shopping, take care of a leaking sink, teach English, live with another person, survive the cold and snow. All those things have benefited me enormously this past year. 
  • ATFQ. Or if you don't know the answer, don't say anything. Word vomiting all the information you know is not what gets you a good grade. Answering the question does. Because that's what lawyers do. And even though the answer is usually "it depends", that's what keeps you in bread and butter. This has become my new life philosophy. 
  • There are a lot of political philosophies out there, all of which spitball about the best way to structure a government. And I used to be a big proponent of limited government, balancing federal power with state power and limiting judicial review (or, I think we called it, judicial activism.) I joke that I'm a liberal now, but what it really mean is, I'm less worried about our nation going to crap. It's not the structure of our government that keeps us from turning into whatever country is spinning a global cautionary tale, it's the daily actions of the people who govern us. That's why voting's important, y'all. (I'm glad there are people who care about politics. I want them to keep caring. I want liberals and conservatives to keep fighting, because between the two extremes reality eventually falls in the middle.)
  • If you're sick, rest. It was Wednesday and I felt like a raisin stuck to the bottom of a boot that kept slapping the pavement. It was bleh. Thursday I climbed into bed and when I crawled out Monday morning I was healed. It was like magic. I never tried the whole resting thing cos I just didn't think it worked. Why rest when Theraflu and Dayquil exist? Rest because it works!
  • It's okay to need people. I am possibly allergic to asking people to do things for me. I can't cope with the feeling that I am inconveniencing someone by asking them to do me a favor. I feel icky that I'm somehow "using" others for my own personal gain. And yet, life is easier when you have people's help. The heart of the difference here is humility. I don't need people as pawns to reach my life's endgame. I need people because I flounder on my own, and sometimes those people are my endgame. I can't say I'm comfortable with this entirely, but I realize I need to get comfortable with it, which is a sizeable step for me.
  • Build community where you can. Without this it's really hard to flourish; the loneliness of this phase of life is robust. Still, I am realizing that despite my myriad character flaws, insecurities, and lack of social graces, I can still make community by being open to the people around me and initiating. Don't underestimate yourself. You can't force a life-giving community to flourish, but you can help construct little safe havens along the way.

I made a lot of mistakes this past year:

I didn't get plugged in with a spiritual community.
I didn't get involved with any school activities.
I didn't befriend any of my classmates.
I didn't handle my first ever relationship right.
I didn't go to my professor's office hours. (This still shocks me, because that was my hallowed MO in undergrad.)
I didn't send thank you notes after any interviews.
I ate too many peanut butter M&Ms!

But it all worked out because God is good. And that's it. I'm not good. But God is good. And grace means He gives me things I don't deserve, even when I muck it all up. That's hard for me to swallow. That doesn't seem fair, in fact, it isn't fair. But it's not about me, it's about a God whose goodness needs to be known and recognized by all. So all I can do is testify. I survived 1L. My God is good.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Addressing sexism in the classroom

I so read "Lamb to the Slaughter" with one of my classes. It's a story about a woman who kills her husband when he tells her he's divorcing her. There's a short film by Alfred Hitchcock that opines he's divorcing her because he's having an affair. I asked my class, "Is it ever justified to kill your spouse for cheating on you?" (If you think this is a ridiculous question, consider Mosaic law. Since we have a mix of nationalities represented, I'm always interested to see the lack of consensus on certain points of morality.)

My Brazilian student (it's worth noting for these purposes that he's male) stated firmly, "For a man, yes, but for a woman, no." Stunned, I asked him, "Why?" And looking incredibly puzzled by my question he answered with brows knit, "It's my culture." Later I told him it was also a common practice in my culture also, but he challenged me pointing out that most Americans would call it a double standard. I whipped out the term cognitive dissonance, attempting to explain that just because a society says one thing doesn't mean they always act that way, and that just because a culture is a certain way doesn't mean it's right. We didn't discuss it again. 

Later that week, another student called me over to the corner where he was working with this Brazilian student. Laughing he told me how the Brazilian was a bad guy because he was looking for a new girlfriend while he was still with his current girlfriend. And the Brazilian told me how he was stressed out because his girlfriend didn't trust him and he wasn't sure he could take it anymore. (I met this girl briefly in the subway station late at night. I passed my student on the stairs, cheerily waved and shot him a "Hi!" He shouted in response, "Teacher! I love you!" and his girlfriend snapped, "What? Who is she?!" They were drunk, but you can imagine the dynamic here.) I told him I hoped that wasn't true, because he was a nice guy. But he shook his head. "Maybe I am a bad guy," he said. 

For the record, this is a hill I have decided not to die on. By virtue of actual and pronounced physiological differences, there may be some legitimate justifications for treating men and women differently in certain ways or in certain contexts. And it can be a tall order sorting out what's a legitimate and justified difference in treatment and what isn't. I am prepared to bear the hardship of what I consider to be mistreatment because of my gender. It's a naive statement for me to make, but there it is. Women's rights are necessarily important to me, but they're not as high on my priority list as other things. 

But these encounters have me wondering what the correct and appropriate way to handle these statements is. On the one hand, I don't want to judge my students. I don't want them to feel like something they perceive is cultural is something I perceive as immoral. And for those who wonder, who cares if it's against their culture if they're wrong?, I would point out that they don't think they're wrong and that saying "you're wrong" doesn't productively advance the discussion. 

My word is gold on questions of grammar. If I say a verb is transitive, it is. But on social issues I am an expert only on my own perspective of my own culture. I have no credibility to tell them what is wrong with their culture, even if there is indeed something wrong with their culture. And perhaps my reasoning here is obvious (of course a collaborative and judgment-free zone should be preserved within the classroom) (and that has to be the way it rolls when a large number of students are Saudi and come from a culture that affords men four wives and bars women from driving), but I recognize this idea is difficult for some people when pitted against the other value at play here: the truth.

Because on the other hand I don't think sexism is wrong because my culture tells me so (even though my culture does tell me so.) Sexism is wrong because the highest authority acknowledged by history, by the world (God) says so. It is not okay to be looking for a new person to date while you're exclusive with someone else. It is not okay for women to be punished for adultery when men are not. And while we're at it, it is not okay for one guy to have four wives. It's just not. To my students that may seem like an opinion, but that's truth I am convicted of, knowing my own worth as a human, knowing the principles of righteousness my God has revealed, knowing what is a social good in a western and humanistic society. And if I care about the truth, I should speak it, right?

I love how as a teacher I am uniquely poised to introduce my students to compelling ideas and facilitate an increase of empathy, perspective-sharing, and diversity, all of which I think are inherently valuable things. But those things are not more important than what is right. There seems to be a very delicate line to walk when speaking the truth in love. And I wonder if it's possible to draw a line in the sand regarding right and wrong without leaving some students on the wrong side of the line unequipped with a path of egress. I sense there is a way to have it both ways, but in my allegiance to both values I'm hard-pressed to imagine what that would look like.

Have you ever been in a situation like this? Is it possible to speak truth while maintaining a judgment-free zone in the classroom? How would you leverage this kind of conversion?