Saturday, September 10, 2005

Keeping Dreams from Coming True

On August 24, I posted a referral to lawyer/author Julie Hilden's article featuring advice to first-year law students. That post included:

Julie Hilden, a Yale Law grad, having also earned an MA in creative writing from Cornell, lives in New York city.  After practicing law for several years, Ms. Hilden now writes (creatively) full time ... in 2003 she published 3 a novel which (according to one reviewer on Amazon.com) "...is both beautiful, and disturbing ... definitely not for the faint of heart ... extremely graphic [with] gut-wrenching scenes...." 

Never having thought of myself as "faint of heart," I bought "3."  As of this morning, I have not finished reading the book, and my gut is already wrenched.  Nevertheless, I had enough energy this morning to blog. 

Ms. Hilden's article (referenced above) described her wunnelle experience.  This week, I visited with many wunnelles at different law schools, and was treated to their description of the experience (contemporaneous rather than recollected).  This morning, when I read from pages 57 and 58 of Ms. Hilden's "3," I was struck with the similarity between those contemporaneous descriptions and the prenuptial dream of Ms. Hilden's featured character (a woman of about the same age as many of our wunnelles ... early twenties).

The night before we marry, I have a dream.  I am underwater, just beneath the surface of a running river that would carry me away were it not for the crooked black tree branch I hold.  The branch extends toward me through the water, like a hand reaching down.

The surge of the blue-green water is strong and unrelenting, and my hold on the branch is uncertain, slippery.  I should be moving along it hand over hand, like a child twisting in the air, legs trailing, across the span of a jungle gym.  I should be closing in on the shore, moving into the shallower water, so that I can break the water's surface and take a breath.

But I am not, I cannot move forward at all.  My hand cannot even fully get purchase on the branch's mossy skin.  So rather than getting closer to the riverbank, I only slide farther out along the branch's length, deeper into the water.

Underwater, I do not even hear the crack of the breaking branch.  All at once I lose my grip, and I only hear the water rushing.  I only feel it move my body wherever I am destined to go. The water engulfs me, and as I drown, I feel at peace.  I do not bolt awake, the prospect of my own death does not jolt me into the waking world.  The truth is that I am comfortable, drowning.

The preceding paragraphs weave very nicely into the fabric of the novel.  The similarity between the night-before-the-wedding dream and a standard reaction to law school is __________ (fill in the blank … “frightening” occurred to me).

I’m drowning,” is a frequent complaint among first-semester law students. “All I want to do is keep my head above water—I feel completely overwhelmed.” These aquatic metaphors ("to whelm" is to submerge) are apt. Often, law students find themselves awash in a flood of uncategorized information—facts and theories disconnected from, alien to, often at odds with their intuition, their preconceived ideas, their personal experiences.

As the flood continues, the vortex begins to drag them down.

Just as hopeless drowning swimmers—and Ms. Hilden's fictional dreamer—succumb to the raging surf and surrender control to this powerful force of nature, too many wunnelles capitulate to the perceived inevitability of their loss of control. This is the passive reaction. This is the reaction that keeps law students from achieving their “personal bests” during their first semester. They’ve heard it’s hard, they encounter the proof of the difficulty of law school during the first three weeks—they feel "overwhelmed."

What they don’t realize is this: they are (nearly) all great swimmers ... it's just the unfamiliarity with this environment that throws them off.

The "dream" concept is also apropos. "A series of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations occurring involuntarily in the mind during certain stages of sleep" ... this is a "dream."  Substitute the phrase "the first three weeks of law school" for the word "sleep" and you will be reminded of conversations you have had with students these past few days.

At an Academic Support conference a few years ago, when I asked someone, "What is it, exactly, that we do?" I received this response: "We help make people's dreams come true."  True enough, when the "dream" is an aspiration.  There are some dreams—ideas and sensations that occur involuntarily in the mind—that we want to help not come true.  (djt)

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/academic_support/2005/09/keeping_dreams_.html

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