Adult education

I began teaching law in the mid-1990s.  My first course was a death penalty clinic at Duke Law School, which I co-taught with my former professors Jim Coleman and Bob Mosteller.  I had been something of a professional student, accumulating a number of degrees – BA, M.Div, MA, JD.  But I had never, ever imagined that I would be at the front of the classroom.

As a student, I was quiet but attentive; I rarely raised my hand, and when I did, I spoke quickly to get it over with.   Initially, my teaching was pretty much the same thing.  Hurry up and say something useful, but above all just get it over with.  It took me years to feel comfortable in front of the classroom, with all those eyes peering at me, judging my every move.  I was conscious of every word, and the more conscious I was, the more nervous I became.

Thankfully, I received sufficient affirmation along the way to keep teaching.  Also along the way, somewhere, somehow, I began to transcend my overly conscious self in the classroom.  I became less aware of the peering eyes and more aware of the peering minds.  I began to experience my students not as judges to fear, but as individuals with strengths and weaknesses who needed a teacher to help them achieve their goals, their dreams.

Yes, my students needed me, even those who didn’t seem to particularly like me.  My reality had shifted.  Teaching became a privilege and a joy, a journey with students to a new level of understanding of the law, the world and themselves.  The journey was not always easy or even completely successful.  But my students were like clients to serve.  Some became friends.

I recently left law teaching — for the second time.  I left Duke Law in May 2004 and, now, Charlotte Law in December 2015.  I don’t know if I will pick up law teaching again, but I want my former students to know that I am a better person for having taught them.  I not only morphed into a “professor,” which is pretty amazing, but I came to appreciate the role that adult education plays in the lives of so many of us just trying to make it in this crazy world.

 

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On the Prisoner Track

In my last year of law school, I secured a post-graduate judicial clerkship with Magistrate Judge Alexander B. Denson, Eastern District of the United States District Court.   In addition to being a great opportunity, it meant I had an additional year to look for a “permanent” job.

I graduated Duke Law still committed to serving the poor and marginalized but was not wedded to any particular type of law practice.  Over the term of my clerkship, I looked at jobs involving civil legal services and involving criminal defense representation.  There were very few to no openings in either area.   I was geographically bound because my husband was now pursuing his social work degree at East Carolina University.

When a position came open at a local non-profit that provided legal services to poor people, I jumped at the opportunity.   “Surely my credentials would help me secure the position,” I optimistically thought to myself. I was in Wilmington North Carolina where my judge was holding court when I got the call.  “I am sorry, Cindy, but we are offering the position to someone else,” said the voice on the other end.  I walked outside to the dock and wept.  I was crushed.  I would never get a job doing what I felt called to do.  Who knew it would be so hard to get a poorly paying legal job that served people few wanted to serve?  It would have been much easier to take the well-traveled path to the big firm where, in 1992, starting salaries were in the $60K range.

Much of Judge Denson’s caseload involved prisoner’s cases.  In most of these, the prisoner was seeking a new trial based on an alleged constitutional error.  I learned a lot about habeas corpus law and procedure in handling these cases.  I also got to know many of the lawyers who represented the inmates.  When a position opened at North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services in Raleigh, NC, I jumped at the opportunity to apply.   This time, I was offered the position.  I was elated and relieved.

My only contact with prisoners had been in handling their letters with the Prisoner Rights pro bono group in law school.  All we were allowed to do was to send them the desired case law they requested.  We did not handle cases.  I had also visited the local jail once to interview an inmate but that was pretrial.

During my judicial clerkship, I visited a prison for the first time.   The clerks were offered a chance to tour North Carolina’s maximum security prison, which was located in Raleigh.  I only remember a couple of things about that tour:  1) looking at some of the inmates and feeling ashamed of doing so, wanting them to know that I did not consider them animals in a cage to be gawked at and 2) entering the viewing room of the death chamber where the State of North Carolina executed inmates.

I felt a pall over the witness room.  I examined the large plate glass window that separated the audience from the inmate.   It was double-paned, and there was some type of measuring device in between the panes.  “What is this device for?” I asked solemnly.   “It is to alert the staff to any leakage of the deadly gas used during executions,” replied our guide.  “Can we sit in the chair?” chimed in one of the other law clerks in an excited tone.   “Really” I thought to myself, “you want to sit in the chair where people are killed?”   Guess he didn’t feel the pall.

I found out later that only three people had been executed in North Carolina’s death chamber since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1977 and that all three had been put to death by lethal injection, not gas.   Inmates killed by lethal injection are strapped to a gurney.    Thus, no one had sat in that chair for execution in decades.  Little did I know that in less than three years, that chair would be put to use and I would know the man to sit in it.

Getting Into Law School

Pursuing a law degree begins with taking the LSAT, a standardized test that is supposed to measure “acquired reading and verbal reasoning skills.”  Thankfully, I had always done well on standardized tests.  I would have been more concerned had it measured depth of knowledge on a broad range of subjects.   Yes, I had a B.A. and a M.Div., but I had not grown up in an environment conducive to being well-read.

When I opened the envelope containing my test results, I knew my life had just changed.  My scores were high.  In that moment, my options for law school expanded exponentially.  I would not be limited to local public law schools — not that there was anything wrong with those schools.  But staying in Kentucky to go to law school would mean I would probably stay in Kentucky after law school.  Kentucky was not where I imagined settling down.  In fact, I was not ready to settle down.  I had dreams of an education that would expand my horizons.

I sent applications off to some “safe” schools, to a couple of mid-range national schools, and a couple of “stretch” schools.  Much to my surprise, I was accepted by one of my stretch schools – Duke University School of Law.  I could not believe it.

I applied to Duke because 1) it was in North Carolina and I loved North Carolina, having spent two summers in the mountains, 2) it offered a dual degree program, giving me a chance to earn a Masters in Public Policy at the same time as I earned a law degree, and 3) it was a well-respected national school that would most certianly expand my horizons.

There was one huge looming obstacle – the price-tag.  I could attend any of the state schools very cheaply, and I was offered a full-scholarship to one of the mid-range national schools.  Duke, on the other hand, offered me very little scholarship money and was a private school.

My husband, Paul, and I visited the financial aid office on campus.  When shown the estimated cost, Paul almost fell out of his chair.   I would need to get a high paying job at graduation in order to make the loan payments, but the only reason I was going to law school was to better help the poor and marginalized.

I should have known.  Being accepted into Duke was just the Devil’s way of tempting me.   “Take the prestige.  It will be ok.  You have earned it.”  I could hear the imaginary, evil laugh of the little guy with horns and a pitchfork sitting on my shoulder.  “Then you will be indebted to me forever.  Mwahahaha. . . .”

But then I was told of one possibility that could make it work:  the faculty had just approved a loan forgiveness program for graduates who worked in the public interest.  No one could say how much money would be involved, or what the program parameters would be.  Surely, the details would be worked out by the time I graduated, right?   I grasped at the straw and ran.

I entered Duke Law School in the summer of 1988 singing my new theme song:  Got My Mind Set On You by George Harrison.

My First Brush With The Law

I obviously got beyond my reticence about being a lawyer.  My biggest hurdle in the end was my concern about the corrupting effect of power and money.  Lawyers are professionals and are (almost always) members of the middle to upper classes.  They move in circles of which I had never been a part.   Within those circles come temptations that I had never faced.

I was committed not only to serving the poor but to living simply.  Even with these priorities going into law school, I was well aware of the many intervening events that could change me and change my priorities by the time I came out on the other end. Did the risks outweigh the potential benefits?

Two things helped me make the decision.  First, I read as many stories as I could about the lawyers behind significant social change in the United States, such as the civil rights laws of the 1960s and the abortion rights cases of the 1970s. These lawyers were worthy of admiration. I could only dream of being able to follow in their footsteps.

Second, I received in the mail a notice of jury duty.  I would be able to see, for the first time, the justice system at work.

It was the summer of 1987.  At that time in Louisville, Ky.,  potential jurors were required to be at the courthouse for one week, or until chosen for a jury.  Each day, I reported to the courthouse and sat in a large windowless room with an odd mixture of randomly selected people.  There were no laptop computers, cell phones or PDAs.  The only entertainment available was from a T.V. high on the wall, and it was tuned to the Iran-Contra Hearings.  Watching Oliver North testify was now part of my civic duty.

Every few hours, a clerk would come in the room and call out names.  For three days, I waited for my name to be called.  Dozens of others were called and disappeared never to be seen again.  I stuck it out with Ollie.

Finally, on day four, the clerk called out “Cindy Adcock.”  I was thrilled.  Finally, I would see some action.  The next step was voir dire, the process through which the attorneys for both sides select jurors.  I was selected to hear a receipt of stolen goods case.  The defendant had been selling stolen tennis shoes out of the back of his truck on the city sidewalk.  The case came down to whether the defendant knew the shoes were stolen.

At the time, I had not seen the movie Twelve Angry Men, but I can now report that our jury deliberations were very similar.  Most jurors thought the case was a slam dunk: he had to know they were stolen.  But I wasn’t so sure:  isn’t it just a stereotype to say that a black man selling goods on the street must have known the goods were stolen?  I had reasonable doubt.  A few joined my position.  The twelve of us went back and forth.  It was clear we could not agree.  We summoned the bailiff and sent word to the judge.

The judge called us out into the courtroom.  “This is not a hard case, folks” he said, trying not to yell.  We were instructed to go back to the jury room and work it out.   We didn’t work it out, and the trial was officially hung.

My four days at the courthouse were instructive.  The hustle and bustle of the courthouse was interesting.  I found power in the jury system.  And I decided that I could do as good of a job as the lawyers I observed.  Neither resembled Perry Mason nor the lawyers on L.A. Law.

No, not me

The more I worked with the poor, the more I ran into the law.  I didn’t know how the legal system worked. I had never been in a courtroom or event met a lawyer. Thus, I didn’t know how to advise battered and abused women or the homeless people that attended my church how to get the help they needed when “the law” seemed to be an obstacle. And looking at the bigger picture, I wasn’t sure which law reforms to support in order to bring justice to those most in need.  My ignorance was frustrating.

“What about going to law school?” my husband suggested. No way!  First of all, law school is too hard; I could never pass a bar exam.  More fundamentally, being a lawyer was against my religion.  Seriously, lawyers are unscrupulous.  As zealous advocates, they have to lie and be willing to hurt others.  I had seen those movies in which a lawyer tears apart a rape victim on the stand, dragging up her past, making her the villain.  That was not me.  I was too gentle, too kind, too shy.

I was never one to speak up in class.  Standing in front of people made every part of my being tremble. My mouth would become as dry as a desert. A friend of mine invited me to “preach” at his church one Sunday morning.  He convinced me that his small congregation needed to hear a woman preach.  “Only by seeing a woman in the pulpit will they begin to realize that gender does not matter,” he argued.  They needed to know that God can speak through anyone, and I could help break through the prejudices standing in the way.

I agreed to do it.  After all, it would be good for me too.  One bible story gave me reassurance:  When Moses believed that God was calling him to be his mouthpiece to the Israelites, he replied, “But my Lord, never in my life have I been a man of eloquence, either before or since you have spoken to your servant. I am a slow speaker and not able to speak well” (Exodus 4:10).  But God’s call was relentless and, I told myself, “Look at the good that Moses did!”

God may be able to speak through anyone, but I am not sure her message got through the day I preached to a small congregation in rural Kentucky.  I didn’t keep a copy of the sermon, but I recollect that it had to do with something about the feminine side of God.  I still feel embarrassed for those people in the congregation, who were extremely gracious.  How they must have suffered through that sermon.  I certainly did.

So, no, I could never be a lawyer.

Changing the Fundamentals

I was only 17 years old when I left home for college. I was not well-traveled, well-read or well-coiffed, but I did have determination, strength of character, and an open heart and mind. Well, my mind was at least partially open. Having an open mind was not something encouraged by my family or my church.

I was a self-proclaimed fundamentalist. Prior to Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority, fundamentalists were suspicious of Southern Baptists.  Based on my experience, they had good reason to be suspicious, for my values and thinking were challenged head-on at Carson-Newman, a Southern Baptist College.

My professors, and at least some of my classmates, challenged my black and white worldview, pushing me to think more critically about how Christian values play out in the world.  I was introduced to men and women of incredible faith who had sacrificed everything to empower others.   I began to see the civil rights and the women’s movements in a new light, bringing into focus the cruel injustices that inspired a generation of activists, as well as the now unacceptable prejudices of my home community. I embraced feminism and, ironically to some, discovered the feminine face of God.

In addition, I discovered explanations for the inexplicable, most notably in the area of psychology.  I learned how the experiences in our childhood shape our personality and our worldview; how the brain is a mysterious machine that can tragically malfunction; and how social groups shape beliefs and actions.   And while such discoveries have led some to question the very existence of God, I found reassurance in the recognition of the equalizing effect of the frailty of the human condition.

By the time I left Carson-Newman, my sense of calling had been refined. I would not just serve others, but I would serve the poor, the dispossessed, the “least of these” — whoever they are.

Setting Off on My Own

Neither of my parents, who divorced when I was five, went to college.  I was a good student and was determined to go.  Rome had two colleges and a junior college, and there were many colleges and universities in the region.   Most of my classmates headed to those or to the big state universities.  I headed to a small private Baptist college in the mountains, Carson Newman College.

I worked three of my four summers in the Tennessee and North Carolina mountains, two dipping ice cream at a Baptist conference center and another working at a glass shop at the World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tn.  I never would have imagined that I would return to those mountains years later as a lawyer.