When I arrived at Columbia Law School in New York, I was almost lecture-proof. I had been a student too long.
At law school, I sought to penetrate the dark thickets of the law. But real property, evidence, and other courses seemed very dry after the cornucopia of intellectual riches I'd been exposed to as an undergrad.
Years after graduating from law school, I came across this by writer Carlos Fuentes about his time at the law school of the National University of Mexico in Mexico City:
"When I would bitterly complain about the dryness and boredom of learning the penal or mercantile codes by heart, he [the law-school dean] would counter, 'Forget the codes. Read Dostoevsky, read Balzac. That's all you have to know about criminal or commercial law.' He also made me see that Stendhal was right that the best model for a well-structured novel is the Napoleonic Code of Civil Law."
Dostoevsky, BaIzac, and Stendhal enabled Fuentes to get through law school. Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall did the same for me.
In my second year, I approached my constitutional law professor, Gerald Gunther, and asked if I could do a paper on Jefferson and Marshall.
These two men - one the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and president of the United States, the other a chief justice of the Supreme Court - differed on the appropriate role for the federal government. Marshall favored a strong central government, and Jefferson one far more limited.
I was granted my request.
I abandoned my basement desk in the law-school library, where I was working like a dog to no effect, and moved to the American history room at Columbia's Butler Library.
At Butler, I was, if I may borrow a phrase from Berlioz (written while composing his opera "Les Troyens"), contented and immersed, "like La Fontaine's rat in his cheese."
The most important lessons I learned from my readings were: That two men of the highest intelligence and patriotism could arrive at vastly different conclusions on an issue of supreme importance. That sometimes there is more than one right answer. That life is more complex than I had imagined.
I found joy in my research and writing, but deadlines loom and semesters end. I completed the paper and handed it in.
In his office a few days later, Professor Gunther returned it to me. I fled to my basement retreat. There, in utmost privacy, I turned to the last page to learn the grade. An A.
I raced back upstairs to his office and barged in without knocking. He was meeting with a colleague. He looked up in surprise.
"Professor Gunther," I blurted. "I have never received an A before!" I then withdrew, lest he reconsider the grade.
Without this project, I might not have finished law school. It energized me for the final lap. I started my third year with confidence and a sense of achievement.
Perhaps, after all, going to law school had been the right decision.