Monday, May 12, 2014

Teaching the Taming of Tigers

While on the plane to Chicago for the AALS Clinical Section conference the last week of April, I began a book that has long topped my "to read" stack: Life of Pi by Yann Martel. On the hotel gym's elliptical and cycling machines during workouts squeezed in between conference sessions, I paged through it, which made the workouts more pleasant by far.  And in the taxi to the airport home I raced to the end, savoring the last pages at the United Airlines counter before stashing it in my about-to-be checked bag. 

Normally I give away books upon finishing them.  I took this book to the conference fully intending to pass it on to a colleague to be determined. Sharing is caring, after all.  But this book I could not share.  Because as I simultaneously experienced the conference and the book I realized I wanted to write about their connections.

The tiger is both character and theme  in Life of Pi, a parable-like novel depicting a teenager lost at sea in a lifeboat with a tiger in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  In an ironic twist that blindsides the reader like a gut-punch [spoiler alert], the novel's ending leaves the reader wondering if the boy was actually ever with a tiger at all.  Or perhaps he is using the story of the tiger to explain his own behavior at sea, which is bewildering at best.  I was struck, as I often am in my work teaching students how to practice family law, wondering what was the truth about this story. 

Upon reflection, of course, I reminded myself the story was just that--a story, fiction.  Several times I actually scrutinized the cover for the words "A Novel" and there they were, every time, just below the title.  Yet the Author's Note at the book's outset describes Yann Martel's journey in writing the book, including a visit with an elderly man in Pondicherry, India (where the book is set) who told the author "I have a story that will make you believe in God."  Martel finishes the Author's Note, which immediately precedes Chapter One, with descriptions of the old man's story that foreshadow the novel's events.  Is this a novel or not?!  my lawyer-brain screamed.  What is the truth here?!  

This naturally led me back to ponder my own teaching about truth, and story, in my law clinic. Storytelling as a lawyering tool and a component of client-centeredness are themes my students hear from orientation throughout their time in the clinic.  As for the concept of truth, I know it's mercurial--I even title one seminar lesson "What is the Utility of a Search for Truth?" 

What did any of this have to do with taming tigers?  Quite a lot.  Earlier I mentioned the tiger was both character and theme.  As a character, the tiger in Life of Pi represents tremendous challenges faced by the lost teen sailor Pi. Pi's objective is to survive.  The tiger stands between him and survival, literally and figuratively.  The boy cannot even get to the lifeboat's provisions at first because the tiger is positioned in the way.  Pi overcomes this first challenge, which paves the way for him to cope with each subsequent challenge.  Without those lifeboat provisions he would have perished in the first few days. 

To overcome the challenges at sea--in other words to Tame the Tiger--Pi uses many of the same methods we teach our students.   He plans out his goals for each task, the options available to pursue those goals, and the pros and cons of each option.  This analysis takes considerable time, but Pi exercises patience.  Pi never begins a task without careful planning.  To better understand The Tiger, Pi uses tactics that in client-centered lawyering we call "walking in the shoes" or "parallel universe" thinking [for more on that, check out the writing of Yale Law Professor Jean Koh Peters].  What is The Tiger experiencing? What is The Tiger's mental and physical nature?  How does that affect the Tiger's behavior?

Throughout this greuling experience, Pi grows and evolves just as our clinical law students grow and evolve.  In one passage after accomplishing something that gave him some space and time without The Tiger, Pi describes a "euphoria.  My skin healed.  My pains and aches left me.  Put simply, I returned to life."  It reminds me of certain journal entries I have received from students, discussing the profound professional growth they have experienced while serving their clinic clients.

Life of Pi is an almost mystical written work.  And although the practice of law is anything but mystical, I believe when we teach law students the resiliency and self-awareness to develop into client-centered lawyers, we are making a little bit of magic happen.  We are teaching the taming of tigers.

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