She entered my office tentatively, which told me immediately that she was not in a good place emotionally. She was one of my first-year students, and I had sensed all semester that she may not have been adapting to the rigors of law school all that well.
I bade her to have a seat across from me and asked her how things were going.
“Fine,” she said, and almost before she finished the word, she was crying. “I failed my Torts mid-term,” she said through her tears, “and I don’t have any idea what I should be doing on the memo you expect us to write.”
She was one of the students I worry about the most: a 2014 graduate from a third-tier undergraduate school who had probably never had to work very hard at her academic assignments to get by with adequate grades. Now she was in over her head, with carloads of work being thrown at her every day from me and my faculty colleagues. It’s part of the method at my law school, intended to impose a form of self-discipline that we believe is essential in the practice of law.
But she hadn’t expected it to be as hard, as demanding, as it had turned out to be, and now she was facing the cold reality that she hadn’t, to this point at least, been up to it.
“I just feel like I’ve thrown away thousands of dollars,” she continued as her tears flowed.
I felt for her, understood her pain and disappointment. And I was midway through a kind of “buck-up, you can do it if you try” kind of speech when I realized that she wasn’t even listening to me. I stopped talking and just let her cry. If she had been my daughter, I would have hugged her and then told her to get to work, but she wasn’t and I really couldn’t do either.
And so we just sat for a few minutes, she crying and I hoping she would at least ask me to help her or to give her advice or otherwise commiserate with her.
And then, suddenly, a second student appeared in my doorway. She was in my other first-year class, and was the exact opposite of the first student: an older woman (mid-30s) who was always prepared and seemed very focused on the requisites of being a good law student and, someday, a good lawyer.
“Professor,” she said, “I’m sorry to interrupt your conference, but I just need to tell you that I probably won’t be able to attend your class tomorrow night.”
And then, before I could even inquire why, she also started to cry. She had, she said, just been tentatively diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, and she would be undergoing further tests all day tomorrow in preparation for intense chemotherapy to start next week.
I sat in semi-shock for a moment. I knew I should say or do something, but I felt immobilized. Finally, I mumbled something that was far too trite and insensitive for the moment, something like “attitude is critical,” which was the best I could do under the circumstances. I should have given her a hug, but she’s a student and a woman, and unconsented touching can be misconstrued, or so we are told by the HR folks.
In any event, I did, essentially, nothing, all the while pondering how imponderable the entire scene was, what with two students crying for entirely different reasons, each having come to me for comfort or understanding or whatever humans reach out to others for in times of pain and crisis.
Finally, after what seemed like about an hour but was probably only a minute or so, the second student recovered and left. “I have to get to class,” she said.
I turned my attention back to the first. She had stopped crying.
“I guess everything is relative,” I said, again pointlessly. And sure enough, she started crying again.
Ultimately, she did allow me to give her some assistance on the memo I had assigned. Most of my advice required harder work, much harder work, than she had been putting into my course to that point, but it was the only advice that would turn her prognosis around in my class. I thought, as she left, that she had half understood and half rejected my advice, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances.
Everything is relative: one person’s pain and heartache can pale in comparison to what might be considered another’s worst nightmare. Or, as I tell my students: Life is hard; law school is optional.
The first student came back to see me last week. She had done all the extra work I had assigned her and had done it fairly well. I was pleased and told her so.
“Yes,” she said, “I feel better now about my chances.”
The second student dropped by to see me before class a few days later. She had her head shaved but looked surprisingly cheerful.
“I’m starting the chemo tomorrow,” she said. “I’ve had all the tests and been fully prepped, and now I just have to endure six months of hell, and then, if the cancer regresses, they’ll do the double mastectomy and I can get this thing behind me.”
I started to say something about how strong she was being.
“Attitude,” she said. “It’s just what you told me. Attitude is everything.”
She gave me a big smile as she left. Later, in class, she was as involved as ever, helping other students with their recitations and generally acting like the A student I had fully expected her to be, the A student that she was still committed to being.
Reflecting on her reaction to the sudden trauma that had inflicted itself upon her life, I recalled my own battle with cancer, now almost nine years ago. I only had Stage 3, which was scary enough, but I determined to get through it (or to die trying), and I guess that’s the secret, if there is one.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.