For some two weeks now, I’ve been suspended in the last surreal phase of the emotional lockdown that characterizes final law-school exam season. That means I shove my feet into faded-blue terrycloth slippers and pull on what is now known as my finals sweater, a bright purple rectangle of chenille fabric constructed for utilitarian purposes with no nod to aesthetics at all. I can’t remember how it came into my possession, but it’s the kind of sweater people pad around in when they’re sick, a comforting, affirmative statement that whatever self-consciousness you might once have had is long dissipated, and it perfectly suited for the study of law.
The prolonged wearing of the purple sweater is proof that I have entered the final throes of final exams. I know, because I’ve been here twice before, and the progression goes like this: three or four weeks prior to the first exam, the internal momentum that’s been building all semester reaches critical mass and the stress manifests itself in some physical way, typically a toothache or a twitch at the corner of the eye. What follows is an intensified, vaguely agitated phase in which I alternately pace the kitchen floor and hover in the glow of my laptop over 12 weeks of cryptic class notes. It is shortly after this that I notify my non-lawyerly friends that I will be incommunicado until further notice and that I will make it all up to them in December (or May, as the case may be). This is the phase where I begin to dream terrible dreams of what should become of my grades in the event my toothache should devolve into abscess or I am befallen by some other misfortune or, for example, lose my sense of direction and become incapable of locating the law school again.
This, too, is when I begin to find the notes. We second-year students have endured two exam seasons already, and we’ve learned to recognize certain communal symptoms, principally the unshaven, myopic focus interrupted on occasion by the detached exchange and the uninhabited gaze. Aside from that, though, each of us bears his own peculiar indicia of pressure paired with unique coping mechanisms, and the writing of notes to myself is evidence of mine. I find myself writing them with increasing frequency since I started law school. Leather-bound planners, smart-phone calendars and beeping digital to-do lists are all for show. The real story of my wildly fluctuating emotional temperature is told in a scattered collection of sticky notes with lint where the adhesive used to be. I pull on a coat I haven’t worn since last winter, shove my hand into the pocket and draw out an expired coupon or the torn corner of an oil-change receipt bearing words that must have meant something at the time I reduced them to writing. Positive energy, one might say. Find out what this is, demands another, with a bold arrow pointing to a faded pencil sketch of what could be anything from a formula for calculating punitive damages to a drawing of some insect I spied on the front step. Perhaps I fear all the new information going in will cause some of the old to slip out, that the firmly rooted hearsay exception now firmly rooted in my brain will dislodge some less-consequential fact, like, say, the password to my iTunes account. Perhaps I fear that crumbling in the gray matter that will put me on the receiving end of the disconnected look I’ve given to certain members of my family, on the side where the strain of undiagnosed mental illness tends to run. I can’t be sure. Self-analysis is a luxury a law student can ill afford.
Finals season can work on you and work on you like that if you let it, until you finally give in and resort to living in the unlaundered purple sweater with the toothpaste smear on the shoulder and console yourself with the knowledge that there are many, many ways of making it in this world that do not involve the practice of law.
I’ve yet to take a law-school exam in which I didn’t pause about 100 minutes in and flirt with the idea of crushing the thing under the toe of my shoe, packing up my belongings and strolling into the sunlight, leaving the law to wend its own way out of whatever hypothetical gridlock our professor has invented. Invariably, I dismiss the thought and soldier on. We all do. For all their emotional brutality, exams roll around infrequently enough for the pain to subside and for you to think, after another season on the ropes, you might just have another one in you.
I am now down to one – Evidence – or, as I will be calling it until 9 p.m. Monday, The Beast. This weekend, I will gin up the stamina to pull on the purple sweater once more, for I am on the ropes, but I believe I have another one in me. Hand me a paper napkin, so I can make a note of it. Then call a cab, hand the note to the driver and tell him to drop me off in mid-December.