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.


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.