September 10th, 2015
Students are generally passive when talking about the law, but Ellie, a sophomore at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, leapt into the discussion of the constitutionality of capital punishment in my death-penalty course. When she eviscerated the Supreme Court ruling upholding Texas’ death penalty law, I knew I had met a special student. On the midterm, she earned the highest grade anyone had ever gotten on the exam. Later, I learned that she had scored 1,480 on her SAT. Ellie wanted to be an attorney; it seemed inevitable that she would end up at an Ivy League law school. She had a prodigious, nimble intellect and, as I saw it, a limitless future.
Ellie also had an 8-year-old son, whom she was raising on her own; an alcoholic, depressive father; and a mountain of debt. She had the strangest college transcript I had ever seen: straight A’s and straight F’s, with the exception of a single B-plus in English, which would have been an A but for the professor’s strict attendance policy that penalized anyone who missed more than three classes. In fact, all of her failing grades came from violations of draconian absence and lateness rules. When her son had a health crisis, she began to miss class more frequently, and she received five F’s.