Tuesday, May 06, 2008

a shared purpose

Finals can be the best time of the year. Winter finals have always been gratifying, giving the sense of having earned the holidays. Spring finals are more poignant. You say goodbye to a year, and often to a span of years spent somewhere that changed you. There is the ceremony of leaving, and the centuries-old regalia, a graceful nod to the ideals of academic community. It was the magic of finals and the end of the academic year that made me want to be an academic in the first place--the sense of shared purpose, the seriousness of the endeavor, the feeling late past midnight of looking out my window over a campus with so many lights burning still. The shedding of anti-intellectualism for a week of frenzied thought. The groan of real striving out there in the darkness.

The distance between my dreams and fantasies of academic life and its realities became fittingly embodied in the distance between my undergraduate experience of the hushed labor of finals at an elite college and the realities of teaching overburdened students at urban commuter schools. I only just now realized that all my jobs were at urban commuter schools, with students working full-time jobs, raising families, and struggling to pay tuition. I always assigned final papers, which usually weren't very good. Penultimate papers were usually the best work in all my classes, not the last-minute, one-draft wonders shoved under my office door at 4:49 the afternoon they were due. Poor students! They didn't have the economic luxury of finals week. Like many economic luxuries--and I know this identifies me as a Modernist or an Aesthete or probably, an Obamanian Elitist--this one is worth having and savoring, and I give thanks that I get to be reminded of this forgotten pleasure of youth (at great cost to my student loan bill). People who leave school and never come back forget this feeling, though there is something in their voices that remembers when they search for words to describe the satisfaction of their experience there. They think they are remembering being young, but I think what they are remembering is becoming.

Law school is hard. Law school at 45 is harder. I can't look forward to a summer of free time for reading and research after finals, though I will have an interesting job working in LGBT public interest law. I don't know whether to be happy the semester is ending or sad that my time for thinking and writing is flying by. But I do cherish this chance to savor the monastic pleasure of finals, the intense satisfaction of an aching back spent in a chair for twelve hours straight, the last sentence of a paper or final exam that you feel you've done a good job writing.

I write this on the night before the night before my last exam. Tomorrow night will be too taken up with last-minute rehearsing and the honest attempt to sleep. Then an 8:30 a.m. income tax final, then back here to pack for the drive home. Then up late finishing 2/3 left on another take-home due at 4:30 on friday, then the weekend spent on a paper due Monday. Both these last can be emailed. And so I say goodbye to my second year of law school.

It was much better than I thought it would be. Working on a journal was a social experience as well as good training in research and citation. Most of the students around me forget that I am old enough to be their mother. Maybe because I don't look anything like their mothers? I feel as if I know a lot of people. I have more than 90 Facebook friends. I am on Facebook, for crying out loud.

I learned how to write a law note. I took some unusual classes. I got my first piece of legal writing accepted to a journal. I won a 2K prize for the best paper on an LGBT topic. 2K--enough to pay for the second-parent adoption of my soon-to-be-daughter. I got my name announced twice in the law bulletin last week, once for the writing prize and once for a public interest summer scholarship I won.

We got pregnant.

It would be easy to discount my victories. After all, isn't it shooting goldfish in a bowl for a published academic to compete for prizes with grad students? Many of my friends have tenure, or are getting it. Others have more adult milestones, like kids in college, and second homes, and third books. I don't even have a first home. But I think it is good for the soul to accept one's victories as genuine, and take them as seriously as, say, the first semester law school grades that put me at the bottom of the class. Because it's the endeavor, the shared sense of purpose, the striving, the hard work where you know you actually brought creativity and all-night doggedness together and did what you had to do, that is so satisfying. You did something you had to do, but you made it your thing. And you tried to do work that was important, that would have some usefulness in the world.

So goodbye, 2L year. The stars of 1L have faded. The gunners, the CALI winners (top of the class in each course), the top GPAers with lucrative Summer Associateships and several years of corporate slavery mapped out before them, all have dropped away, and you are left in your room, in the dimness, with madrigals playing on your computer and work left to do, and the cold smell of a spring night coming in the window, in the glorious last days of finals week. And you, you are old, but you don't feel it now, because the summer stretches out before you, and your new life stretches out before you, scary, unknown, but becoming clearer to you with each sentence you write, and the hum of the world is out there, and you are part of it, typing, typing away towards the dawn you know now is certain to come. Because it is.