Tuesday, October 6, 2009

To All the Legal Historians I've Ever Loved, Especially Betsy Clark

I have loved all of my teachers who were legal historians. Then-graduate student (now Professor) Richard Ross led the small group discussion to which I was assigned as an undergraduate student in Gaddis Smith’s American History course in 1987. From Richard, I learned the building blocks of critical thinking and writing about scholarly work. He encouraged his undergraduate students to think about how a particular author interpreted historical events, what the author didn’t say (along with what the author said), and how an author’s arguments could be strengthened.

In law school, Bruce Mann was my first-year Property professor. He brought his “A game” to every class. As a teacher, Bruce has incredibly high standards for himself and his students. He maintains a fundamental optimism about law’s promise tempered with a healthy dash of cynicism that makes his work relevant, clear, challenging.

It was meeting Sarah Barringer Gordon at Penn in 1994 that first inspired me to imagine joining a life of the mind with a life in the law. She was and is one of the smartest people I know. She understands how difficult it is to mentor and be mentored, to give to one’s students without giving away one’s sense of self, to let an idea out without letting go of integrity. Sally gets it.

Sally Gordon introduced me to Betsy Clark.

I first met Betsy when she gave a paper at Penn in the Fall of 2004. In retrospect, it must have been an early version of her article, “’The Sacred Rights of the Weak’: Pain, Sympathy, and the Culture of Individual Rights in Antebellum America,” Journal of American History 82 (1995): 463-493. Betsy was already a member of the faculty at Boston University School of Law at that point (with prior stints at Cardozo, Harvard and an appointment at Penn). I was immediately struck by how she carried herself, how she presented her argument, how smart she was. And when I had a chance to talk with her afterwards, I kept thinking to myself, “How can someone this smart and who writes so well be so nice?” Not syrupy-sweet nice. Nice – as in – she connected right then, right there. She wanted to listen; she was willing to talk. She was engaged with the world.

Family reasons took me to Boston for my third year of law school in 1995-1996. That was also the year I spent at BU studying with Betsy. She encouraged me in my research on 19th century woman suffrage strategies. Betsy made me feel like ideas mattered – like my ideas mattered. I kept pestering her for reading lists – not for my project, but for my general education. What should I read next? And then what? I once asked Betsy what she judged to be the best piece of legal history she had read. She didn’t hesitate in naming Leon Litwak’s Been in the Storm So Long. When she asked me what I thought was the best piece of legal history I had read, I was too embarrassed to say it was hers.

Betsy’s seminar on “The Social History of Rights” exposed me to hard questions about how rights arise. To whom do rights accrue? How are rights articulated? When are rights unprotected? She had a conversational way of running the seminar that made us all feel like colleagues. Betsy was “The Professor,” for sure, but she also was just Betsy. That’s how students thought of her. Betsy. That enormous orange watch she wore. The way she could slip out a joke without your even knowing it was coming. A brilliant, brilliant mind. Quick to connect with people and ideas.

Betsy died on December 26, 1997. I miss her terribly. I have so often wanted to tell her what she meant to me.

Now that I am a law professor myself, I know that with each passing semester, students’ faces might tend to blur or blend. If I see a former student out of context, I might be able to remember where that person sat, but not his or her name. On any given day at the podium, I don’t feel especially important. But I know what an influence Betsy had on me -- I think of her often. So I must pause to acknowledge the special magic that the right teacher can bring to the right student at the right time. Betsy was that magic for me.