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I remember my mother’s reaction when I got accepted to the greatest law school in the world. She dropped the stack of mail in her hand, said, “Baby,” and started crying. My dad’s reaction was harder to place. He just said, “Oh.” Not an indifferent, uninterested Oh, and not a surprised Oh either. This Oh was quiet, a little puzzled, and maybe even a little sad—a recognition that, in less than a second, the possibilities of my life had just radically shifted from those of his own.
We live in a small town in Texas called Lamar. My father is a schoolteacher, loved by his students and popular in the community, yet the years of hard work have worn him down, and by the time I reached high school, he’d settled into the strange conviction that he was meaningless in the universe. This terrified me. Death didn’t scare me. Risk didn’t scare me. But my father’s dissatisfaction—in the face of a good life, a loving family, a meaningful job—that left me lost.
The greatest law school in the world. That doesn’t really describe it at all. It’s more of a black box with an almost comically small sign, a stone building that turns out presidents, diplomats, CEOs, senators, you name it. The class size is tiny; more people apply per spot than for any other position in the world. There are no tours, no interviews, no brochures. It’s not even clear if they actually teach any law. It’s a well-known joke that graduates don’t know anything, yet somehow they become the most accomplished and powerful people in the world.
I come from a small town in Texas. I don’t know anyone famous. I went to a college you’ve never heard of and live in my parents’ basement. But I worked like crazy, graduated first in my class, got a perfect score on the LSAT, and published in a law journal before I was twenty. Was I thrilled to get in? Absolutely. Was I surprised? Maybe I was. Did I deserve it? You bet your ass.
The greatest law school in the world.
That sounded like a pretty good deal to me.
The first time I saw my home for the next three years, it was a crisp morning and there were deep pools of fog between the hills spotted with stone towers and yellow trees, cemeteries and playgrounds. It seemed like you could roll down those hills into a dream and never come out. I was lost in this sudden rush of New Englandness, until the sun came out and burned up all the fog, and then it was a bright September day.
On the way to my first class, I stopped to watch a group of tourists gathered around a statue. Some were Japanese; one couple was speaking Italian. Most were American families on college tours. The high school kids were only a few years younger than I was, but somehow they looked innocent, naive to me.
“As you can see from the plaque, this is a statue of our university’s founder,” said the tour guide, a bubbly, red-cheeked student who came off like a game show host in training. “We like to say that this statue tells three lies. First, our founder was unfortunately not this handsome. He hired a young philosophy student to pose in his place.” People in the crowd turned to smile and chuckle at their loved ones. “The second lie is the date. Here, it says 1647. But our university was actually founded in 1641. No one knows why the wrong date was engraved here . . .”
I looked at my watch. Class in five minutes. I had to run before I could hear the third lie.
My first class was called Justice. It was taught by perhaps the most famous professor at the school, a man named Ernesto Bernini. Professor Bernini wrote the book on the philosophy of law. He was also the former attorney general of the United States.
The classroom itself was a work of art. The lower walls were paneled in dark cherrywood, while the high walls and ceilings were light cream, covered by portraits of past deans and a full wall of stained glass windows, each one coming to life as the sun moved behind it. I sat up near the top; the rows of chairs sloped down in a half-circle to a single lectern at the heart of the room.
I took a seat and watched the room fill with students. There was an electric buzz of excitement, a hundred rapid conversations I couldn’t make out. Some students looked like they came from New England prep schools, with ruffled hair and blazers, crisp blouses and smart pants; I saw hipsters with spiky hair and iPods, straight from NYU or Columbia; still others came from Big Ten schools in the Midwest, wearing khakis and button-down plaid shirts, sweats and baseball caps. Everyone seemed better looking than average, with an easy charm that filled the room. And it occurred to me that I knew nothing about these people: the hipster might be from Kansas; the blazered, spectacled prep-schooler might actually be a public-school kid from Oklahoma. This was a place of reinvention. At this school, at this moment, whatever we decided to be was possible.
A young black man in a coat and tie sat down next to me. “Nigel,” he said, offering me his hand. I was surprised to hear a British accent. He was crisp and curt, but he had a wry, mischievous smile.
“Jeremy,” I said. He grinned, then turned to open his laptop.
I didn’t see Professor Bernini walk to the podium. I just heard his quiet throat-clearing, and the room fell silent.
His sprightly eyes moved over the crowd.
“Each year,” he said, in a soft, singsong voice, “I come here to greet the new students.” He was a small man, but he radiated power—from his eyes, from his hands, the casual way they draped over the lectern. “Each year, I get older, and you remain young, vital, and curious.” He had a twinkle in his eyes that reminded me of an elf, something from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“The study of law is a life’s pursuit. This is not physics or math, where you are over-the-hill at thirty. Law is reason, but it is also experience and wisdom, and so law is time.” He paused to lay a creased, spotted hand across his brow. “Good news for little old men.” The class laughed as he gently shook his head.
I realized then how frail he looked, how his spine bent forward and his skin was paper-thin. But his eyes were alive and shining. He consulted his seating chart, tapped his finger on it, then walked to the front row and looked down at a blond student.
“Suppose, Mr. Anderson, you are kidnapped from your room this evening, drugged, and abducted. When you awaken, you find yourself in a mine cart that is hurtling down a track at tremendous speed. Ahead of you, you see five children playing on the rails. You call out, but they can’t hear you over the roar of the cart. They are too close for you to stop in time.” Bernini shook his head, feeling the weight of the situation. “There is no question they will die.”
The blond student met his eyes.
“John Anderson,” Nigel whispered into my ear. “Rhodes scholar. Former president of the Harvard debate team.”
The professor continued. “Now suppose there is a lever you could pull that will change the direction of your cart, placing you on another track. This track has only one child playing on it.” His eyes twinkled. “What do you do?”
John Anderson met his gaze confidently.
“I would pull the lever,” he said.
“Because five deaths is worse than one death.”
“I see. But I wonder, Mr. Anderson, if your logic holds. Suppose you were in a hospital, and you had the chance to kill one patient to provide organs for five others? Would you do it?”
“Of course not.”
The professor smiled politely. “The trade-off hasn’t changed. One life for five, yes? And yet your answer is now opposite?”
“But a hospital—you’re supposed to protect people . . .”
“The child on the track doesn’t deserve protection?”
Anderson stared at the professor. His mouth worked to form a response. Finally, he said something so quiet it was lost to everyone but him.
The professor walked a couple of seats down.
“Ms. Goodwin, please help Mr. Anderson out. Would you pull the lever?”
“Daphne Goodwin,” Nigel said under his breath. “Former editor in chief of the Yale Daily News. Triple crown winner: Rhodes, Marshall, and Truman scholarships.” And, he failed to mention, one of the most uncomfortably attractive people I’d ever seen. Her hair was midnight black, pulled into a luxurious ponytail. Her lips were painted red against lightly tanned skin. She had blue eyes that sparkled from across the room. Her face was set in a permanently skeptical expression, eyebrows raised, lips somewhere between a frown and a smirk: it was aggressive and erotic.
“I would do nothing,” she said, folding her thin hands in front of her.
“Nothing, Ms. Goodwin?”
“If I pull the lever, I am causing the death of a child.”
“And if you don’t pull the lever, five children will die.”
“But I didn’t cause that. I didn’t create the situation. But I won’t pull the lever and, by my action, kill a child.”
“I see. Are you sure?”
She paused, looking for the trap. Then she said, “Yes.”
“So, Ms. Goodwin, by your logic, if there were five children on your track, and no child on the other track, we couldn’t blame you for not pulling the lever, because you didn’t cause their death?”
She froze. “I didn’t say that . . . I mean, that’s not what I meant.”
“Mr. Davis, can you help us?”
I was still looking at Daphne Goodwin’s bright blue eyes when it dawned on me that Ernesto Bernini had called my name. Two hundred faces were now following his gaze and turning to look at me. Silence filled the room. I felt my heart stop like a needle skidding off a record. Four hundred of the most brilliant eyes in the world were now burning holes in me.
“Yes?” I answered weakly.
“What would you do?”
I felt panic in every nerve of my body. My future was sitting all around me, watching.
I paused and chose my words carefully.
“I can’t say what I’d do, sir. It’s a terrible situation. Either I cause the death of a child by my action, or I allow five children to die by my inaction. Any way I choose, I lose something. If I had to decide, I would. But as long as it’s just an academic exercise, I respectfully decline to answer.”
Those flickering elfish eyes were boring right through me. I was pretty sure I was about to get sent home to Texas, possibly with idiot tattooed on my forehead.
Finally, he spoke.
“Fair enough, Mr. Davis. In here, it is just an exercise. But someday, you may have to choose. Should you send soldiers to war? Should you sign a law that will help some and harm others? And I wonder, Mr. Davis. Will you be ready?”
“Amazing,” Nigel said to me as we packed up our books. “He actually called on you. You must hang the stars! But who are you? I mean, no offense, but I know everybody, and I’ve never heard of Jeremy Davis.”
“I’m no one. Really. No Rhodes scholarship, no editor in chief of anything. And I botched that question anyway. Refusing to answer! What was I thinking?”
“Hey, I thought it was cool. Buck the system and all that. The point is, he knew your name. On the first day! That man makes presidents. All I can say is, you’re generating quite a buzz for yourself. She doesn’t cast her glance casually.”
Nigel nodded across the room. I looked just in time to catch the blue eyes of Daphne Goodwin, before she tossed her hair and turned away.
“Anyway, you remind me of a young Bill Clinton,” Nigel said, rising and ruffling my hair on his way out. “And I’m going to ride your coattails the whole damn way.”
I spent the afternoon running errands. The campus bookstore was a two-story building nestled between an old-timey tailor and a hamburger place called Easy’s. I needed to buy books for the rest of my first semester classes: Contracts (taught by Professor Gruber, a round man with short arms and thick square glasses that made his eyes look a hundred yards away), Property (with Professor Ramirez, a severe woman with a long pinched nose and watery eyes), Constitutional Law (Professor Müeling, accent of undetermined origin), and of course, Torts. It would take me almost a week to figure out what a tort even was, but basically, if I punch you in the face, or if you slip on some ice while crossing my yard, that’s a tort.
I searched for a book called Trial Skills and grabbed it. I planned on trying out for the Thomas Bennett Mock Trial, one of the law school’s oldest traditions. Whoever won that was basically guaranteed a Supreme Court clerkship, as long as they didn’t find some other way to flame out.
I carried the heavy stack of books, and it seemed like I had the whole universe of human behavior in my hands: what we promise each other and how we harm each other; what we can take and what can’t be taken away.
I bought three boxes of highlighters and a package of those colored sticky tabs.
When I checked my mailbox that evening in the student lounge, it was empty, except for a handwritten note:
Come to my office, it said.
© 2010 Danny Tobey