Saturday, August 31, 2013

Back to School

In As You Like It, the melancholy Jaques describes one of the seven stages of human existence as follows:

And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.

When it comes to the back-to-school season, I never feel like a “whining school-boy” who creeps unwilling back to the books.  I feel about fall the way those who live in northern climes must feel about spring—and this is not just because I live in Texas where September means that, even though the temperature gauge outside still routinely registers triple digits, the end of the misery is neigh.  For me, fall is a season of renewal, optimism, infinite opportunity—mostly because it is the back-to-school season. 

It isn’t that I always loved school itself.  Oh no.  I have plenty of public school horror stories about snaggle-toothed teachers who obsessed about my lousy penmanship while ignoring my heroic literary efforts or who thought assigning infinite numbers of boring worksheets passed for pedagogy. But I have always loved what school is supposed to be about. Which is one reason why I love to teach.  When you teach, you never have to give up the surge of excitement that comes with heading back to school—an action where going “back” promises leaps forward.

Although I have taught, in fits and starts, since the mid ‘80s, I’ve only spent a few of those years where my primary occupation was that of “teacher.”  One of those years included one of the best jobs I ever had.  Quite by chance, when I was merely an adrift drama major, I lucked into a job teaching English to pre-literate Cambodian refugees in a housing project in North Houston; I labored four nights a week in an un-air-conditioned room where barefoot youngsters, pups, and chickens made frequent appearances as I gesticulated like a madwoman and scribbled on a makeshift chalkboard.  What I learned from those first students of mine, survivors of the Khmer Rouge killing fields, I will never forget.   

But, generally speaking, teaching holds such allure because it always entails being a student.  And being a student means you remain in one of those early “stages of man,” forestalling the ones that involve “round bellies with good capon lined,”  or worse, those involving “spectacles on nose and pouch on side, … [a] shrunk shank; and [a] voice, turning again toward childish treble, pipes and whistles in [its sound.”  Or worst of all, that stage of “second childishness and mere oblivion.”

Schooling, or at least learning, keeps a person youthful.

Of the various occupations I have sampled during the past thirty years of laboring full-time, I’d say none requires a perpetual commitment to schooling quite like lawyering does.  (It is called “practicing law” for a reason.)  As a lawyer, you never arrive at some stable plateau where you can rest on what you already know; every new matter demands learning new stuff.  Clients’ factual situations and the variety of legal issues that may apply are so varied that the possible permutations are infinite.  Besides, the law itself is forever in flux.  Of course, experience teaches a person to spot patterns.  But because human begins are involved, the dynamics are often more complex than a game of three-dimensional chess. 

Perhaps this is why unhappy lawyers tend to fit into two categories.  First, there are those who crept unwilling to school all along, and so they find the perpetual learning curve associated with law practice exhausting.  Second, there are those who have taken “law” jobs that may involve a nice paycheck but do not afford much opportunity to practice law; instead, folks with hungry minds find themselves mired in endless hours of document review or preparing boilerplate form documents or gathering materials that others use to do the interesting work of helping people solve complicated problems.

Lawyers who remember the fall back-to-school rush fondly and who see the profession as affording perpetual chances to head back to school can, in a sense cheat time by extending the most exhilarating stages of “this strange, eventful history” known as human existence.

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