Finding Balance after 1L Fall Finals

The Prelude

The Prelude

1L exams over and done with, I’ve had time to take a breath and return to some of the activities that I had to put aside in order to focus on my classwork throughout the semester. One of those pastimes is rereading The Prelude, a poem I studied as a grad student and have also used in the classroom as an English teacher. It’s a long one: over 250 pages, split up into thirteen parts, autobiographically covering the childhood, education, and adult life of the poet William Wordsworth. It’s not something you can get through in one sitting, but I find that every time I finish with it, I feel like starting it over again. It takes long enough to read that, by the time I’ve retraced the poet’s own lifetime, I myself have grown older. I end up finding new meaning in it every time. The more I personally learn and experience, the better I understand the poem.

Picking up where I had left off this summer, I found myself reading about the poet’s twenty-something travels through the Continent with a friend (some version of the Grand Tour English lads used to make as a rite-of-passage). Wandering through the French Alps, the poet relies on directions from other travelers but ends up missing the main path in his trek towards Italy. Hopelessly lost, he runs into a peasant who informs him that he has already, without knowing it, passed by the most challenging section of the mountains, and that all his remaining paths run downhill:

“Hard of belief, we questioned him again, / And all our inquiries — in their sense and substance, / Translated by the feelings which we had — / Ended in this, that we had crossed the Alps.” 1805 Prelude 6.520-25, emphasis mine.

A picture of the French Alps I took near Chamounix, 2017

A picture of the French Alps I took near Chamonix, 2017

I’d read this passage before and always appreciated its irony. But this time it reminded me of how I felt after coming home after my last final exam. Law school encourages immersion in course content. There is always more you can do. By the end of the semester I was splitting my working hours between reading for class, outlining and doing practice questions for finals, and applying for summer judicial internships. It was nice once classes ended and I could focus just on studying, but the task of reviewing and absorbing all of the content of a doctrinal course in order to apply it on a 2-4 hour exam was also engrossing. When I came home after my last exam, I had become so task-oriented and clock-watching that I honestly didn’t know what to do.

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but my first instinct was to read some introductory material related to my spring doctrinal courses.  Could I find out what textbooks my professors were using? Should I clean out my notebooks and put in new subject dividers?

I actually downloaded an e-book on constitutional law and read the preface. I’m so ashamed.

Luckily, The Prelude was there for me.  Amidst his worry that he had lost his way, Wordsworth learned that he had actually already passed through the worst part of his journey. He had crossed the Alps! So had I. Fall of 1L was indeed a mountain climb, and just when I was preparing for the rest of the journey, I realized that it was in fact time to relax. I don’t necessarily think that taking Con Law, Property, and Crim will feel like a downhill trot, but now that I’ve taken a breather have some critical takeaways from the fall semester that will make the next leg of the journey manageable.

For one, it became apparent to me that every topic we cover in class will have a particular purpose on the final exam. This might sound obvious, but as an English major it was not expected that everything you discussed in your seminar needed to show up in your final exam paper. If that were true, the paper would be a hodge-podge of every close-reading and tangent we explored in class. Quite to the contrary, in law school I’ve found that every lecture is the key to a distinct concept that is integral to a full understanding of the course. In isolation the concept might not seem incredibly important, but by the time you have every other piece, you start seeing forest instead of trees. Basically each topic we covered in class had an explicit function on the final exam. Next term I’m going to be alert to this. It will help organize my note taking and help me be patient when a series of classes feels amorphous. In the end, it’ll fit together.

The point is not to get so caught up in the moment-to-moment that you get “lost in the Alps.” Now that exams are over, I’m ready to leave my schoolwork for the start of the semester and get back to some of the other things I love: cooking with my fiancee, writing letters to my friends, rereading great poetry, visiting family, finally doing that puzzle, and enjoying some hard-earned zone-out time playing video games.

Enjoy the holidays, however you’re spending them!

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