Q: Carla Cohen, who died recently, was as well-known in the D.C. area as a bookstore owner could be. But before she co-founded the renowned Politics & Prose decades ago, she lost her job, and it took her a couple of years to resolve to pursue something "that would bring nothing but pleasure to other people." Have you ever had a fallow period that eventually led to a breakthrough? How did you get out of it?
It's taken me years to admit this out loud: my first year of law school was a real bust. I hated every minute of those big classes with bellowing professors humiliating students with twisted questions. As a result, I tuned out.
Tuning out in Torts was not a formula for success. Somewhere between terror and boredom, I fell behind in reading the hundreds of pages of old legal opinions that were our nightly assignments for Contracts and Property and Civil Procedure.
I had gone to law school because I believed that becoming a lawyer would put me in a position to change the world. Many political science majors in the heady protest days of the late 1960s and early 1970s had similar idealistic dreams.
We ran smack into the reality of a learning process designed to beat the idealism out of us, replaced with the tortuous method of training to "think like a lawyer." Which meant, mostly, learning what other people thought (judicial opinions) and arguing about their logic.
Always a top student in my previous schools, I had never faced the prospect of academic failure, and for some reason, I didn't care that much. This academic ennui was an unfamiliar territory for me. Maybe it was the big lecture-hall classes -- I had never sat in a classroom with more than about 25 students, and suddenly, I was lost in the crowd of more than 100 students in banked seats far away from that demon on the lecture podium who was talking so fast I could not follow him. I was anonymous for the first time in my schooling, and that invisibility became a heavy cloak covering my increasing academic depression.
Maybe it was the fact that a handful of students seemed all too eager to play along with whatever game the professor was up to, while those of us in the back stared blankly. Maybe it was the mind-numbing pages of relatively dull legal text that seemed a far cry from the richly fascinating readings of undergraduate literature and history courses.
Maybe I had reached the end of my intellectual capacity? That thought vaguely tormented me, but I quickly set it aside. I knew I could do this work, I just felt adrift.
Back in those medieval days (I hear it's better now in first year), we had no academic advisers to check on our progress, and the faculty were not exactly approachable. We also did not have mid-term exams to assess our progress. I had no idea how I was doing until I opened my grade report in the summer between first and second year and saw grades I had never encountered previously. Let's just say that they were, for the most part, south of "B." Ugly. I passed every course, but barely.
Getting that terrible grade report was a wake-up call. I hitched up my boots and went to the school hoping to find someone to talk to about my miserable first-year performance.
But there were no bevies of friendly academic support personnel or caring assistant deans to talk to in those days. I wandered about and found an open door to the office of one faculty member who had completely intimidated me in class, but I took a deep breath and asked him if we could talk about my grade. He looked puzzled, not sure he knew me at all, and he said that I should pay more attention to the readings next time. I left his office feeling worse.
Wandering through the student lounge, I saw a sign that said, "Teach law to high school students." What a concept, I thought. I laughed. Here I was, barely surviving the first year of law school -- what did I know about the law that I could teach to anyone else? But the idea stuck, and so I sought out the "Street Law" office.
Street Law is a clinical program at Georgetown Law Center through which law students teach practical law courses in the D.C. Public Schools. I met the program director and he convinced me that this program could turn around my attitude toward law school.
He was right! In my second year of law school, I became a law teacher! Ironically -- and many other teachers have this same experience -- I became much better as a law student through becoming a teacher. I found that I could unpack the concepts in simple language, and explain them with more compelling examples than those hoary old cases in the casebooks.
More importantly, I loved teaching. I was assigned to Coolidge High School, my first encounter with the D.C. Public Schools.
In many ways, we Georgetown law students in Street Law were "Teach for America" long before that concept became fashionable. We were mostly the law students who didn't care about getting onto law review, but we really cared about doing something to change society. I found other lost souls who also hated first year but remained committed to the idea that learning the law was important to reach our idealistic goals.
I persisted in law school, taking other clinical programs to learn the applied side of law while still struggling with the sterile and anonymous lecture classes. On graduation day, while robing with the other students, I opened the program to be sure that my name was actually listed among the graduates. I was there! Never had a graduation meant so much to me.
After law school, I joined the Street Law program full-time and soon became the project director. I was now on the teaching staff of Georgetown! It was a long journey from that isolated first year student wandering the halls to the front of the classroom. But that hard experience made me appreciate the learning process more astutely. I became a successful teacher because I had developed clear appreciation for the struggle of learning.