Courage Under Fire

–From Name withheld on request, University of Washington School of Law, Date of event: circa 1991

First semester of law school was pretty scary. We had a few profs who taught in the “you’ll be lawyers soon, so I’ll pick on you in front of everybody and force you to advocate for yourself” mentality, and it was having the desired effect of scaring the hell out of many in my class. My Torts professor was actually the dean of our school. Dorsey Ellis is his name, although he has retired as dean. His style was as follows: if he called on you, you had to stand to answer him; if you didn’t stand, he would often say “I can’t hear you.”

Once he decided which student would answer, the student would “own” the case, meaning the student would orally brief the case for everybody and answer all questions about it. The dean would call on you throughout the semester if anything related to “your case” came up in discussion. The dean was a tough, brusque guy on the outside to some, but you could tell that he was genuinely trying to train us. Truth is, he was a nice guy with an old-school style and by the end of the semester we all liked him very much. But during that first month everybody was pretty terrified of him.

The dean unknowingly aided me in this story. Three weeks into the semester, at the end of a class, I actually raised my hand and commented that something one of my classmates said related well to our next case, which was one of those classic old cases dealing with assault with a gun and whether the assailant had intent. I enjoyed the case and made the mistake of referring to it with five minutes left in class. The dean promptly said he was pleased I had volunteered to “own” the case next class, much to everyone’s amusement except mine.

The night before the next class, my section had a potluck dinner where everyone voiced their nervousness regarding school and the professors, and commented how it would be nice to turn the tables on the profs. And then the awful idea came to me to do just that—the dean had given me the opportunity by letting me know that I was “up” next class.

So I called three of my best friends in the class and told them I was planning something a little unusual for the next class. I told them I would be asking them some questions and told them what to say in response. Then I went to Walgreen’s and bought a green plastic ping-pong gun for $2.95 and plotted my insane plan.

On cue the next day, Dean Ellis began to drill me. I was scared as hell and my heart was beating hard knowing the lunacy I had planned. I sat in the back row of the large classroom. He called on me for some answer and I said something like “Dean Ellis, I’m glad you asked that question,” and started walking down the stairs toward the front.

Unbeknownst to me, on my way down the stairs the dean mumbled loudly enough for the people in the front rows to hear, “This better be good.” It was deadly silent as I ambled down front. I became more scared as it was now apparent that I had now numbed everyone in my class because they probably envisioned my murder in front of them at the hands of the dean. Thank God I hadn’t heard the dean’s comment.

But I persevered and briefed the case about one person bringing out his gun on another. At that juncture I whipped out my tacky ping-pong gun. Not looking at me, the dean said “Don’t you shoot that!” in that voice fathers use on sons when the next screw-up means big trouble. I never shot the ping-pong gun, but did manage to have some fun after that.

One of my best friends sat in the second row. I called on him, as we had scripted the night before, and asked a question. When he didn’t stand up, I said “I can’t hear you.” He promptly stood up as if the dean had said it. He was terrified that I had brought him in on my plan and looked like he had just peed in his pants.

Luckily he retained the presence of mind to answer the next question (again, as scripted) and my other two friends answered the questions I posed them. This continued for 15 minutes, during which the dean mellowed as I led the class discussion without him. Then I bounded back up the classroom stairs and it was over, although my heart kept racing until the end of the class.

I had tried my best to alleviate the terror that is “first year.” Although not everyone appreciated my “skit” at the time, by the third year it was a story that everyone liked to tell and retell. As for the dean, we bonded from that class and I always felt close to him after that. Although he seemed perturbed at the time, apparently he liked the whole thing and at graduation told me so.

I still own the ping-pong gun.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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