My First Semester in Law School: Not What You Thought.

As my first semester of law school comes to a close, I can’t help but step back from my typical public policy commentary and reflect upon what has been the most action-packed four months of my life.  As someone once said, “You can’t step into the same stream twice,” and there is a part of me that has remained static while everything around me changes.  Yet in seeing those changes, I too am changed.  Some may wonder if I will ever just leave prison behind me and forget.  However, the place that gives me perspective, from which I draw so many lessons and so much strength, could never be far from my mind whether I want it to be or not.

I came to New Orleans knowing but a few criminal justice activists, legal professionals, and some friends of friends.  It was good to have folks who knew I had spent twelve years locked in prison.  And to those who knew me, they never needed “the story” for how I ended up there.  It isn’t difficult to recognize that such a stretch of time generally means you did something pretty bad, especially if you did it as a teenager.  Most adults relate to each other for who they are and how they act as grown ups, and don’t gauge each other by what type of teenager they were.  As I got to know some of my new classmates, our backgrounds began to come out.  Having lived the life I have, including as a very public criminal justice activist my past incarceration will always start to surface… and it did.

In hindsight, I am relatively certain who made it a personal campaign to try sullying my name and have me run out of law school one way or another.  The motivations were so trivial it was easy to miss at the time.  The small (but loud) bandwagon of negativity issued a message that formerly incarcerated people should not be allowed to pursue an education.  A very small group of people stood up (anonymously) to proclaim “forgiveness” is a bad thing, and those who have served our punishments should never be allowed back into society.  The media, loving anything salacious, stoked the fire a little bit, and yet most of them recognized that this is not the only message that needs to be heard.  I did a local newspaper and TV story attempting to be accountable in my new community.  As the story bounced, I was hit with a request from practically every media outlet I could imagine.  And I denied them all.  They were missing the story.

The story of my first semester is not about me, and my journey from a cage to a classroom.  The irony of such a story is that my cage was already a classroom, where I learned a great deal (including law) while living as a monk, and I began putting that knowledge into practice.  Law school, by itself, is actually far less stressful than providing legal help in a prison block, where documents are subject to confiscation, lives of friends are in a balance, and I had been targeted for punishment as a troublemaker.  But like I said, the story isn’t about me; it is about the amazing people around me.  In particular, it is about the Tulane University Law School Class of 2014.

Imagine over 200 students suddenly finding out their classmate was in prison.  If it were for stealing a Ferrari off a dealer lot, this would likely just be considered “cool.”  Yet it was not.  My past was explicitly dragged out, and not entirely accurately, but the fact of the matter is that I did kill a man and I did spend as much time in a cell as the rest of them spent in elementary, middle, and high schools.  It was not, nor will ever be, “cool.”  My classmates were facing the gossip, the blogs, the commentary, and that overriding message that I should never be forgiven, my punishment should never end, and I should not be allowed to be in school.  How would they react?

Many classmates surely called their best friend from home, called their parents, and spent some time thinking on the matter.  How could they not if I am sitting directly behind them in class?  Meanwhile, I had many people from the Northeast, New Orleans, and around the country asking me how the students are treating me.  The media gave an impression that I was under siege with a scarlet letter, and soon to be burned at the stake on the quad.  What I found was the direct opposite.  What I found reaches deep into my heart like every movie that ever made me teary-eyed.

In the midst of the hoopla, about fifteen classmates came to my house for an inaugural meeting to start a National Lawyers’ Guild chapter at Tulane.  The social justice folk were like all the social justice folk who recognize that life doesn’t go down the same the world over, and realize that a privileged American life is a poor comparison for the challenges and choices faced by most of the world.  The typical graduate student’s life is a poor comparison for most of America.  There are many factors that create ten million people under government supervision, and only the ignorant would try to judge us all.  And only the twisted could advocate for rehabilitating prisoners while condemning those who actually are back on their feet.  Such people don’t make excuses for me; they simply accept me for who I am.

Another classmate approached me and said, “Your post said to ‘ask you,’ so I’m asking…”  We ended up having an in depth discussion about myself, what I did, where I came from and what motivates me now.  A few weeks later we spoke again, and he told me about his conservative background.  He mentioned how, without really thinking about it, he might have thought people like me don’t really deserve rights to anything.  Yet he had to think about it, as here we were.  He thought about what kind of Christian he aspired to be on a daily basis; he knew that this was a moment to face the teachings of Christ, and to live up to them.  The conversation blew me away.  Several other classmates have expressed similar sentiments, and how the way they were raised, with religious teachings or not, leads them to embrace me.

While it seemed the storm brewed around us, and various people wanted (if not demanded) to know who I was, some students looked to their class presidents for answers.  I had lunch with the 3L class president, and we soon found very friendly ground.  I had lunch with my own class president, and it was clear that this challenge was ours as a whole, the Class of 2014.  When someone suggested the opinions fly in our online group, the comments quickly came that this is not the right forum and not how we should handle it.  We needed to find a way to move through this, for people to feel comfortable, or we (if not me alone) would crumble.  There was talk of holding a large meeting to air concerns, but ultimately the work was done on a personal level.  The Facebook messages started to pile up, “I sit across the room from you and just want to let you know I fully support you being here.”  A guy comes up to me on the staircase and tells me he read my book, found it amazing, and is happy I made it.  A friend in the bar telling me he draws inspiration from me.  A young woman, who I had previously gotten to know just a bit during our Habitat For Humanity project, courageously marches over to me before class and apologized for the treatment towards me.  Again, I was blown away.

The semester was tough on me in many other respects.  I had many outstanding responsibilities as a key organizer/activist in several criminal justice endeavors, including holding down a part time job.  I travelled to Los Angeles, New York, D.C., and even went home to bring my daughter down to NOLA.  The typical law school adjustment warnings don’t include transitioning out of your work, transferring your probation (I did not know if I could attend school until a few days prior to Orientation), and staying connected to your toddler 1500 miles away.  I missed some classes, missed some readings, but it all came together around Thanksgiving with a solid grasp on all the material.  And the hoopla some refer to as “that bullshit” seems so long ago.  Fortunately it happened when it did, and we can all move on.

My class was put on the spot.  As one of my mentors Howard Zinn famously said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”  I don’t yet know all of my classmates, but most of them can pick me out of a crowd and know my name.  They do not seem neutral to me, they overwhelmingly seem to have taken a position of acceptance.  I feel like I have laughed with over 100 of them, shared a drink with over 50, watched sports with at least 20, and a sizeable bunch are already likely to be lifelong friends.  The stories I could tell about the love, humor, kindness is baffling.  Surely there are some who are not comfortable with having me in their class, but we all have a type of person we do not like to be near due to political beliefs, personality traits and the like.  Such is life, and I’m sure avoiding me is easy to do.  I don’t feel any negativity in any sense- and I am someone who has had to sense negativity out of self-preservation.

Maybe it’s a New Orleans thing, and there is something to the fact that we all chose to attend school in this city for one reason or another; to help it rebuild, to enjoy the culture, or just because its laid back- people are not as geared to the ruthless cynicism expected elsewhere.  Or perhaps it would be the same experience no matter what school I were in, but I like to think that isn’t so.  I’m of the belief that there is truly something special about the Class of 2014.  Three months ago, I had no idea how the story would play out and what role I would have in it.  But now, as we approach the last of our exams, I see this class has a place for me.  And I am nothing short of proud to know the people that I do; people who realize first hand that people change, and we are not the sum of our worst day, and none of us has walked a mile in anyone else’s shoes.  I am excited for the Break, the spring, and the opportunity to get to know many more of these beautiful people.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

About Bruce Reilly

Bruce Reilly is the Deputy Director of Voice of the Ex-Offender in New Orleans, LA. He is a graduate of Tulane Law School and author of NewJack's Guide to the Big House. Much of his writing can be found on
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