May 14, 2004

Graduating the Law School class that began with 9/11.

The law school class graduating today began just days before the 9/11 attacks. How strange it must have been to go to law school, motivated for reasons individual to one's own life, surrounded by other individuals who had arrived in the same place along various different paths, as yet unknown to you, and then, in the second week of law school, to have 9/11 change everything. How did that unexpected, shattering beginning change the law school experience? I sat on the stage through the graduation ceremony today, as the Dean welcomed the throng of students and their family and friends, followed by an introduction from a University regent, a keynote speaker (the state Secretary of Commerce), and three students speakers, and not one mentioned the unusual beginning that marked law school for this class. It was only the faculty speaker, Jane Schacter, who raised the subject. How very odd--especially that not one student spoke of it.

Someone passed a handwritten note to the Dean, asking that the ceremony include the Pledge of Allegiance (there was, indeed, a flag on the stage). The Dean showed the note to me and at least one other faculty member. It would have been hard to change the program to include something unplanned and hard for this group to say the Pledge--there were many foreign students among us, most notably. But I understand the sentiment. Prof. Schacter's speech concentrated on the important legal services given to the accused and to persons who might suffer abuse by the government. The role serving the public interest through government service is much less often mentioned. The Pledge might have given the ceremony a dimension that really was missing.

Am I criticizing the student speakers for never mentioning 9/11? (It is possible that there was a mention that I missed, and if so, please correct me.) Not really. We have all moved beyond the feelings we had in the fall of 2001, feelings it seemed--to me at least--would never lose their edge. Maybe the lack of any mention of 9/11 should be celebrated: the terrorists didn't "win." They didn't knock the students off the paths they had set out on when they came to law school. It's not for me to know what effect 9/11 had. I only know the student speakers didn't mention it. What did they talk about? Overwhelmingly, they talked about what they always talk about: how much they owe to their family, how much their family helped them, how important family is, how important love is. The most profound moment was when one student asked that we thank the members of our family who are in Heaven, like her grandfather, who had taught her so much. She called for a moment of silence to think about those who had helped them. And then, because she had made herself cry, she called for a second moment of silence. The Dean got her a glass of water.

There is a certain sort of student that my heart goes out to at times like these: the student who got no help from family. Repeatedly, speakers said, "None of us have gotten where we are without the help of someone else." But surely, there are at least a few persons who did have to go it alone, who have no family, who are estranged from their family, or who are actively discouraged by their family. Surely, there are some students who lost the love of their life along the way in law school and students whose family troubles had only a negative effect. Graduation adds feelings of envy and loneliness to the burdens these students bear, and no one ever offers them a world of solace. In fact, they try to deny them the sense of accomplishment they ought to have in knowing that they did it on their own. So a word of congratulations to those unrecognized students.

And good-bye to the class of '04, those with family and those without family, those profoundly changed by 9/11 and those who held fast to their pre-set dreams. Good luck to all the great people who passed through our wonderful school these past three years.

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