Saturday, August 11, 2007

Saturday at the Law School

I'm trying to think whether I ever came in on a Saturday last year, other than the one time I took a Saturday morning exam. I don't think I did. I'd come in on Sunday afternoons sometimes, after church, and spend a few hours reading in the quiet study room off of Scott Commons, and on my way in on those days I'd always notice how beautiful the landscaping is around the school, and how nice a building it is.

I'm here today because I had a bit of summer work that I actually physically needed to be in the library to do (a rare occurrence) and I put it off until the last possible moment (unfortunately not so rare). I've now gotten that bit of work done, and I've also noticed some things.

There are people here in the library on Saturdays for unknown reasons and doing unknown things. Okay, there's the guy with the Greenberry's travel mug who always inhabits the back corner table in the main reference room, but there are others. A teenage boy with a four- or five-year-old girl in tow: she runs up the stairs giggling and he chases her, making futile hushing sounds. A very tall, thin man in perfectly matched clothing: his pants, jacket and driving cap are all the same shade of khaki, and he pops in and out of the reference room, shuffling some papers around and walking very fast. What are these people doing here? I don't mind, of course—they're not bothering me, and the University's libraries are open to the public—I'm just curious. Why would you go to the law library on a Saturday afternoon if you didn't have work to do?

Although actually, it's quite nice. During the school year, I avoid the library. Too many people. On the other hand, I gravitate toward Scott Commons, where the population density is higher, so maybe that's not the issue; maybe it's too many people working. I thought of myself as a fairly diligent student last year. I did all my reading (except for one day's assignment in Contracts II that I missed because I was sick and then forgot about until I was cruelly reminded on exam day), I rarely missed a class, I read the recommended study aids and answered practice exam questions. But I did it all at breakneck speed and with only half my mind, since the other half was busy worrying about whether the work I was doing was good enough, and anything else it could think of that might provoke worry.

So the sight of other people being productive—say, opening a casebook, slowly turning pages, and then, maybe an hour later, closing the casebook and getting out another one—made me terribly nervous. Things weren't sinking in for me. I would read an assignment and then put the book away, whether or not I remembered what I had read. I was used to understanding things the first time, and I figured that if I didn't understand well enough, I would find that out from the class discussion. Oh, I was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I just wasn't reading the right way.

Strange, perhaps, that I've learned this over the summer, when I didn't have to read much of anything, but I started practicing reading the way I always intended to read, but never managed before. I reread one of my favorite novels, Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. Normally, I would read a book like this in a day; possibly in a sitting, if I didn't get hungry or otherwise interrupted. I remember reading Nick Hornby's About a Boy when I lived in Seattle: I started in late afternoon, and closed the book several hours later to find that I was sitting in near-complete darkness. I don't even know how I managed to make out the words toward the end.

Anyway, this time around with Prodigal Summer, I read the first chapter, and then I put the book down. Twenty-three pages, and I managed to take half an hour to read it. I was kind of proud. I thought back over what I had read, telling myself the story again in my head. When I couldn't remember how the story went, I went back and checked. The next day, I read another similarly sized chunk of the book. I couldn't quite keep up my slow pace, but I made the book last a week. I'm on my third week now of Sophie's Choice.

My point is that I should be reading like this for school, yes, but it's also about focus, deliberateness, concentration. I'm more of the breakneck-speed type. I'm reminded of a scheme that my seventh-grade English teacher had in which we would get a certain number of extra credit points for each page of creative writing we turned in. I asked whether a poem counted as a page, and she said yes. I handed in one hundred poems that quarter; I probably wrote them all in a couple of weeks. The extra credit policy changed after that.

I haven't been able to focus very well for a couple of years. Sometimes I wonder whether it has to do with the conversational style I developed with James, which is meandering and impulsive and which, when it veers off track, almost never finds its way back anytime soon. But really I think it has more to do with the constant what-if narrative I get going in my head. What if this reading takes me forever and I have to stay up late to finish it and I sleep through my alarm? (For reference, I have never once slept through a properly functioning alarm.) What if my memo is terrible and unconvincing and I hate my work so much I can hardly stand to turn it in? (Hmm. Welcome to 1L year.) And so forth. In essence, they all boil down to something like: what if I somehow humiliate myself?

So, turns out, humility is a good thing. Turns out I'm good at some things (editing) and bad at others (memorizing). I am not the greatest student ever in the history of Virginia Law. [cough] Not by a long shot.

Thus humbled, I'm ready to start another year of school. One in which I intend to do less and do it better. One in which I hope to focus on the things I do, and not the things I think I should be doing.

The view from the library is beautiful, by the way, which is what I set out to say a good half an hour ago. Out the window I see a row of locust trees, mottled with yellow leaves and the occasional burst of orange; a giant monarch butterfly circles nearby, repeatedly slamming into the window before moving on to less difficult environs. In the garden, the fountain bubbles, soon to be surrounded by crowds of new students lining up for barbecue and cole slaw. Sun reflects off of the roof of Caplin Pavilion. It is so bright I can't look at it directly.


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