Nat Greco felt like an A cup in a double-D bra. She couldn't understand why her tiny class was held in such a huge lecture hall, unless it was a cruel joke of the registrar's. The sun burned through the windows like a failure spotlight, illuminating two hundred empty seats. This class filled only nine of them, and last week the flu and job interviews had left Nat with one very uncomfortable male student. The History of Justice wasn't only a bad course. It was a bad date.
"Justice and the law," she pressed on, "are themes that run through William Shakespeare's plays, because they were central to his life. When he was growing up, his father, John, held a number of legal positions, serving as a chamberlain, bailiff, and chief alderman."
As she spoke, the law students typed on their black laptops, but she suspected they were checking their email, instant-messaging their friends, or cruising the Internet. The classrooms at Penn Law were wireless, but not all technology was progress. Teachers didn't stand a chance against sex.com.
"When the playwright turned thirteen, his father fell on hard times. He sold his wife's property and began lending money. He was hauled into court twice for being usurious, or charging too much interest. Shakespeare poured his empathy for moneylenders into Shylock, in The Merchant of Venice. It's one of his most complex characters, and the play gives us a historical perspective on justice."
Nat stepped away from the lectern to draw the students' attention, but no luck. They were all in their third year, and 3Ls had one foot out the door. Still, as much as she loved teaching, she was beginning to think she wasn't very good at it. Could she really suck at her passion? Women's magazines never admitted this as a possibility.
"Let's turn to the scene in which Antonio asks Shylock to lend him money," she continued. "They agree that if Antonio can't pay it back, the penalty is a pound of his flesh. By the way, future lawyers, is that a valid contract under modern law?"
Only one student raised her hand, and, as usual, it was Melanie Anderson, whose suburban coif and high-waisted Mom jeans stood out in this clutch of scruffy twentysomethings. Anderson was a forty-year-old who had decided to become a lawyer after a career as a pediatric oncology nurse. She loved this class, but only because it was better than watching babies die.
"Yes, Ms. Anderson? Contract or no?" Nat smiled at her in gratitude. All teachers needed a pet, even lousy teachers. Especially lousy teachers.
"No, it's not a contract."
Good girl . . . er, woman. "Why not? There's offer and acceptance, and the money supports the bargain."
"The contract would be against public policy." Anderson spoke with quiet authority, and her French-manicured fingertips rested on an open copy of the play, its sentences striped like a highlighter rainbow. "Antonio essentially consents to being murdered, but murder is a crime. Contracts that are illegal are not enforceable."
Right. "Anybody agree or disagree with Ms. Anderson?"
Nobody stopped typing emoticons to answer, and Nat began second-guessing herself, wondering if the assignment had been too literary for these students. Their undergraduate majors were finance, accounting, and political science. Evidently, humans had lost interest in the humanities.
"Let's ask some different questions." She switched tacks. "Isn't the hate that drives Shylock the result of the discrimination he's suffered? Do you see the difference between law and justice in the play? Doesn't the law lead to injustice, first in permitting enforcement of the contract, then in bringing Shylock to his knees? Can there be true justice in a world without equality?" She paused for an answer that didn't come. "Okay, everyone, stop typing right now and look at me."
The students lifted their heads, their vision coming slowly into focus as their brains left cyberspace and reentered Earth's atmosphere. Their fingers remained poised over their keyboards like spiders about to pounce.
"Okay, I'll call on ¬people." Nat turned to Wendy Chu in the front row, who'd earned a Harvard degree with honors in Working Too Hard. Chu had a lovely face and glossy hair that covered her shoulders. "Ms. Chu, what do you think? Is Shylock a victim, a victimizer, or both?"
"I'm sorry, Professor Greco. I didn't read the play."
"You didn't?" Nat asked, stung. "But you always do the reading."
"I was working all night on law review." Chu swallowed visibly. "I had to cite-check an article by Professor Monterosso, and it went to press this morning."
Rats. "Well, you know the rules. If you don't do the reading, I have to take you down half a grade." Nat hated being a hardass, but she'd been too easy her first year of teaching, and it hadn't worked. She'd been too strict her second year, and that hadn't worked either. She couldn't get it just right. She was like Goldilocks and all the beds were futons.
"Sorry," Chu whispered. Nat skipped Melanie Anderson for the student sitting next to her, class hottie Josh Carling. Carling was a tall twenty-six-year-old out of UCLA, with unusual green eyes, a killer smile, and a brownish soul patch on his square chin. A Hollywood kid, he'd worked as an A.D. on the set of a TV sitcom and he always wore an Ashton Kutcher knit cap, though it never snowed indoors.
"Mr. Carling, did you do the reading?" Nat knew Josh's answer because he looked down sheepishly.
"I didn't have time. I had a massive finance exam to study for. Sorry, for reals."
Damn. "Then you're a half-grade down, too," she said, though her heart went out to him. Carling was in the joint-degree program, so he'd graduate with diplomas from the law school and the business school, which guaranteed him a lucrative job in entertainment law and a spastic colon.
Nat eyed the second row. "Mr. Bischoff? How about you?"