ART [op-eds] the kids are alright_Tochi onyebuchiIllustrated by Minji Reem

I’d received the news by phone. I was in Atlanta at the time, away from my family, when Mom called to let me know I’d received some massive blue box in the mail. It wasn’t a slim envelope, so we both immediately knew the thing’s import. I’d barely hung up the phone when I’d started getting questions from friends, acquaintances, family of friends, friends of family, family of acquaintances, acquaintances of acquaintances, varied in wording, but all carrying the same DNA: “Do you think I should go to law school?”

Some of these people have already started studying for the LSATs by the time they ask, which implies they already bear one of the principal predilections of a law student: that propensity for asking questions one suspects they already know the answer to. Many of them haven’t; they have to go about the business of getting into college first. Some are working full-time. Many are looking full-time for work.

What, they ask, do they look for in a strong application, these gate-keepers? What do you think worked for you? Do you think I’ve got a chance? Do you think I should go?

Many of the people who ask—the vast majority, in fact—have been of color.

Success for many of these kids is inevitable. No matter where they go, whether because of inborn ability or how they were raised or simply because there is no other option (shout out to my Nigerians), they will achieve great things. And this allowed me to be flippant and haughty in the advice I gave them. I didn’t mind helping, took great joy in it, as a matter of fact. But only recently have I been forced to consider “want” and its sibling “necessity.” What do they want? What do these kids need? What needs them?

The day before my Civ Pro final, I had one of those “what-am-I-doing-here-I-can’t-do-this” moments of crisis, the kind everyone here expects but is not supposed to admit, the foundation-shaking kind. The gig was up, and this exam period would serve to expose me. Everyone else had entered law school through the front entrance, welcomed for the stellar student and human being they were, while I had snuck in through the back, ever the fugitive. I did eventually get to sleep, and I woke up the next afternoon in a daze. It wasn’t lethargy. It was that instant in a war movie after a grenade goes off too close to the protagonist and all you hear is the whine, and everything is slowed down to dream-time while you become hyper-aware of all of the carnage around you. That fog swirled around my head as I walked from my apartment on Riverside Drive to JG. My phone buzzed frantically with text messages and calls, but I seemed strangely nonplussed. I realized, as I got closer, that I was going to be late for this exam.

I opened the door to the room just as the exam was scheduled to start, and everyone began clapping. Stunned and near-to-blushing, I rushed down to the front of the room to turn in my ID and pick up my materials, then took my seat and we set to work.

I didn’t discover this until afterwards, but the proctor had been determined to begin the exam on time. Someone raised an objection because I had not yet arrived, and they were worried about me. Apparently, a few others joined their voices to the chorus. The proctor asked if anyone would be averse to giving me a grace period of a few more minutes. Not a single hand went up. That’s why they were clapping when they saw me come through that door.

When a prospective student of color asks me should they go to law school, of course, I think about the unique brand of psychological turmoil that comes with being graded on a curve with others who’ve known nothing but success. And I think about the fact that the law they learn will have little to no resemblance to its lived reality; I think about the racism, subtle and overt, that they will encounter; and if they’re contemplating Columbia specifically, I think about the sociopathy endemic to New York City. But I also think about that afternoon in that exam room and how a group of people I’d only known for three months had put aside their worst parts and gone out of their way for me. I think about how they considered me necessary.

So my answer to that prospective student has changed. I tell them that horrible things may happen to them, because law school, but also because law school and race. I tell them that it’s going to hurt. It will likely not be the worst thing that’s ever happened to them, not by a long shot, but it will hurt. And then I tell them that they are needed. That they are needed more than they could ever imagine.

It goes almost without saying that a place like Columbia Law exists within its own bubble. Sometimes, it moves at the same pace as the times; sometimes, it speeds on ahead; and sometimes, it lags.

In 1890, a man named Madison Grant graduated from Columbia Law. Known initially as a brilliant New York lawyer who fought valiantly to help dismantle the Tammany Hall political machine then in power, he soon became one of the strongest and most influential proponents of conservationalism. And eugenics law. He sought to expand eugenics law to “an ever widening circle of social discards, beginning always with the criminal, the diseased, and the insane and extending gradually to types which may be called weaklings rather than defectives and perhaps ultimately to worthless race types.” He was advocating in the early-1900s, in his magnum opus, “The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History,” for banning mass immigration into the United States. A copy of the book eventually made its way into Hitler’s hands. Adolf Hitler wrote to Grant, proclaiming, “The book is my Bible.”

Born just two years before Grant graduated from Columbia and passed the New York Bar was Paul Robeson, who also matriculated at Columbia Law and went on to become a renowned singer, actor, and social activist. While studying at Columbia, he also played professional football for the Milwaukee Badgers. Months after ending his football career, he graduated.

The end of last year cleaved the Columbia Law School community. The bubble was popped, the blanket wrapped around the school and its students rent asunder. Sure, this was the acting of outside forces on an insular community, but those shockwaves had crashed against the tuning forks within the souls of the students of color to demolish the walls of JG. Alliances were made and broken among students, between students and teachers, between students and administrators. People came together, and didn’t. And throughout it all, acts of courage would burst forward, acts of compassion, things given freely, support offered without question, and sometimes from unlikely places.

I’m reminded of the afternoon of my Civ Pro final.

Li Lu, who in 1989 led the Tiananmen Square protests; Mark Barnes, who co-founded the first AIDS law clinic; Barbara Black, the first woman to head an Ivy League law school; Percy Sutton, Bella Abzug, Eric Holder, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Harrison A. Williams, who was convicted in 1981 for taking bribes in the Abscam sting operation (see “American Hustle;” no, really, see it); Constance Baker, civil rights activist, judge, state senator, Borough President of Manhattan; Scooter Libby, the highest White House official to be convicted in a government scandal since the Iran-Contra Affair; Matt Murdock, who, at night, dresses up in red spandex and beats the tar out of bad guys up and down Hell’s Kitchen.

The list goes on, and perusing it brings me back to want and need.

Those classmates, that afternoon, thought me necessary. Among them may be some future analog of Madison Grant. Among them may be some future analog of Percy Sutton. Will we ever get another Paul Robeson? Another Scooter Libby seems more likely.

We only notice the heroes once they’ve grown into their costumes. Once the cape fits comfortably on their shoulders. But there are heroes among us now. Sitting in that audience, garbed in blue and black, having just come out the other end of a three-year crucible are heroes. Maybe not the Li Lu kind (yet) and maybe not the Ginsburg kind (yet) and maybe not the Constance Baker kind (yet), but the kind to worry about a friend and postpone the beginning of an exam to make sure he is okay.

The prospective law student asks me, should I go to law school. I think of all the things that may happen to them, all the ways the horrors of the world, of this unjust country, will intrude upon their bubble and attempt to delegitimize their education. I think of the hurt they’re likely to endure, and the suffering and the questioning. Then I think of heroes, and all the different places they can come from. I think of the heroes that went to Columbia Law. I think of the heroes I will be sitting next to during graduation.

The prospective law student asks me, should I go to law school. And I say yes.