«I. INTRODUCTION Next to fatherhood and my faith, teaching is what matters most to me, and yet it has been filled with failures as well as undeniable ...»
PERILS AND PONTIFICATIONS: REFLECTIONS
ON THE FAILURES AND JOYS OF A LAW
John W. Teeter, Jr.*
Next to fatherhood and my faith, teaching is what matters most to me,
and yet it has been filled with failures as well as undeniable fulfillment and
joy.1 The purpose of this article is, on a selfish level, to self-explicate the bimodal nature of my professional path, but I also hope it will serve as both an inspiration and a warning to new professors and those contemplating life in academics. “When it’s good, it’s good,” would be an apt summary of my career, but by delineating my errors and omissions I hope to enrich the lives of teachers who will replace me behind the podium.2 As Epictetus might put it, “they call knowledge good, and error evil; so that even in regard to what is false there arises a good, that is, the knowledge that the false is false.”3 So let us begin.
II. WHY LAW SCHOOL?
College really did change my life, and it changed it for the better. I had failed in nearly every endeavor, from being a busboy in a Greek restaurant on Chicago’s South Side to chopping weeds in the cotton fields of southern New Mexico. When I entered college, feeling like a desperate graybeard at the pruney age of nineteen, I finally found my nerdy nirvana in Professor, St. Mary’s University School of Law. A.B. 1982, University of Illinois at Chicago * Circle; J.D. 1985, Harvard Law School. For Derek Teeter, Helen Johnson, and Mamie Overton.
I’d like to express my gratitude to Vanessa Erps, Juliana Fong, Matt Forsberg, Harvey Mandel, Michael Martinez, Ellen Ruck, Maria Vega, Grace Wang, and my students.
1. Fatherhood, faith, and teaching are of course not a hermetically sealed trichotomy. In fact, the deepest seeds of pedagogical insight are discovered within the dual prisms of our essence as parents and spiritual beings. On the complex, dialectical interconnections between fatherhood and our roles in the realms of pedagogy, production, and politics, see ISAAC D. BALBUS, EMOTIONAL RESCUE: THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF A FEMINIST FATHER (1998).
2. I would love to die teaching, quite literally, just to feel that final kaboom in my heart or mind and keel forward with loving thoughts of Helen Palsgraf. The downside, of course, is that I would die hearing the anguished keening of students quite satisfied with my demise, but panicked over how, and by whom, their damnable grades would be determined.
3. EPICTETUS II, THE DISCOURSES AS REPORTED BY ARRIAN, THE MANUAL, AND FRAGMENTS 117-19 (W.A. Oldfather trans., 1985).
53 54 Southern Illinois University Law Journal [Vol. 37 university life. It was an “intellectual feast,” as Bork would say,4 and I wish every young person could experience that same sense of discovering your element, your career, and your calling. It was intoxicating, a veritable labor of love, and by the end of my freshman year I knew I would peddle my sainted grandmother to cannibals for the opportunity to teach.
The problem, however, was the market. Left to my inclinations I would have pursued a Ph.D. in English, and I dreamed of teaching creative writing seminars and classes on post-War American fiction. Yet dreaming was likely all it would be, for university jobs teaching fun stuff—literature, political science, and history—were extremely difficult to find. And so I balanced the ideal with the practical and decided on law school. Jobs teaching law seemed more accessible than professorships in the liberal arts and humanities and, even if my teaching dreams were crushed, I stood a better chance of putting food on the table as a practicing attorney than as a cab driver ruminating over an unpublished dissertation comparing Styron’s explorations of his Jewish characters5 with Mailer’s use of the Irish.6 My path was therefore set—excel in college, ace the LSAT, and get into the snootiest, snottiest law school that would have me.7
III. LAW SCHOOL: THREE YEARS SHOT TO FECES
Not all of it was manure, obliterated or otherwise, but I remain ashamed of how I managed to waste so much of the opportunity I had worked so furiously to obtain. On a planet bedeviled by war, starvation, and plagues, it seems unspeakable that I squandered three years among the analytical titans and intellectual riches of Harvard Law School. In a sense I might be sermonizing to the choir (any self-screened readership is unlikely to share my lack of maturity as a student), but I really do hope that the ensuing paragraphs might tweak the perspectives of at least a few potential professors.
In law school I studied like a fiend, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It takes dogged determination to excel at any craft and I feel some thimbleful of pride that I pushed myself hard and pursued the wimpy lad’s
4. See Nomination of Robert H. Bork to be Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States: Hearings Before the Comm. on the Judiciary, 100th Cong. 854 (1987) (statement of Robert H. Bork, Judge, D.C. Cir.).
5. See, e.g., WILLIAM STYRON, LIE DOWN IN DARKNESS (1951); WILLIAM STYRON, SOPHIE’S CHOICE (1979).
6. See, e.g., NORMAN MAILER, BARBARY SHORE (1951); NORMAN MAILER, THE DEER PARK (1955); NORMAN MAILER, AN AMERICAN DREAM (1965).
7. I ended up at Harvard but, unfortunately, not while Derrick Bell was there. I suspect the late Professor Bell would have been such a provocative delight as a teacher, and I have always appreciated his skepticism regarding law school hiring criteria with their emphasis on pristine academic pedigrees and relative indifference to skills honed in the vineyards of practicing law.
See, e.g., DERRICK BELL, CONFRONTING AUTHORITY 76-80 (1994).
2012] Perils and Pontifications 55 version of the Oakland Raiders’ vaunted “commitment to excellence.”8 Furthermore, I would take a somewhat larger dollop of satisfaction in being a friendly fiend, at least in the sense that I was willing to share my class notes (with their obscene remarks and doodles) as well as the outlines that I spent dozens (or perhaps hundreds) of hours preparing. Yet even this apparent generosity may have masked a deeper conceit, for on at least some occasions I would smirk within my fetid little soul with the juvenile certainty that I could openly share the fruit of my (intense) labors and still stomp the crap out of most of my supposed beneficiaries.
This weird ambivalence toward my fellow students proved to be a self-imposed ghetto where I permitted my resentments and insecurities to curtail my ability to learn from and with some genuinely brilliant and compassionate young minds. Part of this, in all fairness, was due to the environment itself.9 Harvard Law School, at least a generation ago, had an odor both wicked and peculiar, a stench of supposed victimhood pluming from every orifice of some of the most over-privileged adolescents ever to scourge the planet. Not all grievances were imagined; in fact, to Harvard’s credit, there were many students who had scaled economic, cultural, and even physical obstacles I could scarcely comprehend, and who had insights and empathy that would have helped me both as a person and potential pedagogue. In all candor, however, there was too much bleating by trust fund babies10 and assorted miscreants who had little to bleat about.11 And I, of course, was a prime offender. I was pathetically uncertain of my intellectual aptitude. My college acquaintances had been shocked that I had catapulted from Circle Campus to the Ivies, there were doubts whether
8. See, e.g., Lyle Fitzsimmons, Oakland Raiders 2011 Season Preview, THE SPORTS NETWORK, http://www.sportsnetwork.com/merge/tsnform.aspx?c=earthlink&page=nfl/news/news.aspx?id=4 431181 (last visited March 24, 2012).
Harvard really was a cold place, even for deities such as Archibald Cox. As Bell recounted, “[i]n 9.
all his years there, Cox confessed, he never felt anyone at Harvard gave a damn about him.” BELL, supra note 7, at 88.
10. The wealth of many students was all too obvious and there were times I succumbed to a sense of
feeling vulgar and marginalized. As astute scholars have observed:
For those students who are not in the inner circle of inclusion, and who do not feel comfortable within this system, psychological engagement becomes difficult to maintain, potentially resulting in disengagement from the institution. For example, law students who feel alienated from classmates and the institution because of socioeconomic differences often report greater personal stress and anxiety, and feel a greater sense of academic inadequacy.
Bonita London, Vanessa Anderson & Geraldine Downey, Studying Institutional Engagement:
Utilizing Social Psychology Research Methodologies to Study Law Student Engagement, 30 HARV. J.L. & GENDER 389, 394 (2007) (footnote omitted).
11. For a sampling of such whine and rosacea, see RICHARD D. KAHLENBERG, BROKEN CONTRACT:
A MEMOIR OF HARVARD LAW SCHOOL (1999). To borrow an apt phrase from the late Styron, there was far too much “unearned unhappiness” for such a young and hyper-privileged coterie.
STYRON, SOPHIE’S CHOICE, supra note 5, at 130.
56 Southern Illinois University Law Journal [Vol. 37 I could lay wood on a major league curve ball,12 and the fear of flunking out even stopped me from renting a mini-fridge for my dorm. (For some reason the thought of returning the appliance after I failed all of my first-semester exams was too apocalyptic to bear.) These fears were irrational but very deep and led me to choose the life of a loner who would have no friends to witness my forthcoming debacle.13 Such a crisis of confidence, however, was both short-lived (thanks to my actual grades) and far less cancerous than my envy. I felt resentment, just a smoking anger, toward all the students I viewed as spoiled.14 I felt a childish rage that so many students had loving parents who nurtured them with both emotional and financial support. Rather than gratitude for my own rising fortunes, I felt a barbed and senseless resentment toward peers who were untutored in the sickly mysteries and horrors of parental alcoholism, domestic violence, and having family members of both genders who touched in ways and places you shouldn’t be touched. To be blunt, I hated these other students for being normal, for being happy, and for having a place they called home.15 I needed a good therapist. Lord, did I ever!16 But it would take additional years of self-brutalization and alienation before I took that route,
12. On the subject of curve balls, see DAVID HALBERSTAM, OCTOBER 1964 (1995). Curt Flood, one of my personal heroes, once asked the mighty Stan “The Man” Musial how to hit a curve. As Halberstam relates, “Musial duly considered Flood’s request and then replied, ‘Well, you wait for a strike. Then you knock the shit out of it.’” Id. at 60. Such simple advice on patience, power, and not over thinking has served me well at times in the courts and the classrooms.
13. Much has been written in recent years on the subject of law student misery. See, e.g., Jennifer Jolly-Ryan, Promoting Mental Health Within Law School: What Law Schools Can Do for Law Students to Help Them Become Happy, Mentally Healthy Lawyers, 48 U. LOUISVILLE L. REV. 95, 97 (2009) (“Law students suffer more mental health and substance abuse problems than society in general.”); Todd David Peterson & Elizabeth Waters Peterson, Stemming the Tide of Law Student Depression: What Law Schools Need to Learn from the Science of Positive Psychology, 9 YALE J.
HEALTH POL’Y L. & ETHICS 357, 367 (2009) (“The problem of law student distress encompasses not only elevated levels of stress and depression but increased substance abuse as well.”);
Suzanne C. Segerstrom, Perceptions of Stress and Control in the First Semester of Law School, 32 WILLAMETTE L. REV. 593, 594 (1996) (“Students also report extreme self-punishing attitudes, obsessive self-doubt, apathy, withdrawal from normal activities, fear, apprehension, a sense of impending doom, and panic attacks.”) (footnotes omitted); Stephen M. Siptroth, Forming the Human Person: Can the Seminary Model Save the Legal Profession?, 2007 BYU EDUC. & L.J.
181, 181 (2007) (“The soul of the law student atrophies, withers, and disappears in a fog of dysfunction.”); Nancy J. Soonpaa, Stress in Law Students: A Comparative Study of First-Year, Second-Year, and Third-Year Students, 36 CONN. L. REV. 353, 372 (2004) (“Almost all law students exhibit a high level of stress....”).
14. Such envy at least partially explains why my years as a law student were such a philosophical and religious wasteland. As Coffey and Kessler attest, “Resentment is a potent obstacle to spiritual progress.” F. GREGORY COFFEY & MAUREN C. KESSLER, THE REFLECTIVE COUNSELOR: DAILY MEDITATIONS FOR LAWYERS 99 (2008).
And don’t even get me started on their perfect skin and teeth.
16. To this day I urge students to seek spiritual guidance, to take advantage of the free university counseling, or to locate a shrink on their own. For what it’s worth, and I think it’s worth a lot, I post my own talk therapist’s name and number on TWEN.
2012] Perils and Pontifications 57 and, as one of the (many) rancid consequences, I remained locked in the caverns of my studies and my dorm.
And it surely had an impact on my future, both socially and professionally. On a social level, I entered into a marriage brewed in Hades before graduation, and I cannot list a single member of the Class of '85 as a friend, or even an acquaintance. When you’re twisted and don’t get help, you find yourself, perhaps even decades later, alone on a crooked and desolate path.