I spent most of grade school attending the remedial classes for the learning disabled because I was, well, learning disabled. For whatever reason, the gods had not bestowed upon me an ease with letters and words. I simply could not read. A lot of very patient teachers tried all sorts of things to teach me, but none of them seemed to work. Phonetics was totally lost on me. Finally, a woman whose name I only remember as Sally came up with a simple strategy for teaching me to read: brute memorization. She had a set of flash cards on which were printed the 600 or so most commonly used words in the English language. Day in and day out she drilled me on these words. In the end, I learned to read words as pictographs. The results of this can still be seen in my spelling. I can’t really think that well about how letters interact with one another to form words. I simply look at the word in completed form and try to figure out if it more or less looks right. I am still a very slow reader. (The up side is that I think that I remember more of what I read than most.)
Despite my adventures in the learning disabled class, I lived in a hyper-literate home that was bursting at the seams with books. (Most of which seemed to be on Mormonism, art history, tribal art, or late Victorian literature.) Each night my father would religiously read to me. Despite my own illiteracy, we went through the entirety of the Chronicles of Narnia, the Hobbit, and the Lord of the Rings. (As well as — this was my father after all — books on the history of architecture.) Sometime about age 11 or 12, the pictographs on the pages of the books began to form themselves into sentences and paragraphs, and I could read. I wanted to return to the world of fantasy that my father had read to me earlier. So I read Narnia and Middle Earth on my own. From there I went on to Susan Cooper and a host of forgettable juvenile fantasy authors.
At some point in time, my interest in fantasy worlds of knights and swords morphed into an interest in the real world of knights and swords. I started reading historical fiction, but I soon found that actual history was frequently more interesting than the fictitious version. I started with biography, which can be the most novel like of history. I have very vivid memories of reading Catherine Drinker Bowen’s John Adams and the American Revolution in middle school, and deciding that I wanted to be John Adams when I grew up. (Although not quite as short and fat.) I went through phases, picking particular periods and then reading a series of books on them. I did the Romans (mainly the late Republic and the rise of the Empire), the Plantegenets (especially Henry II and Eleanor of Acquitaine, but also Crecy and Agincourt), the Age of Discovery (mainly stuff by Samuel Elliot Morrison), the American Revolution (Barbara Tuchman’s The First Salute and others), and the Civil War (Shelby Foote and Carl Sandburg).
From history I moved into politics. During my final years of high school I became a Watergate buff, developing this odd simultaneous attraction and repulsion to Richard Nixon. I discovered and began reading The Economist (aka the best news source in the English language) as well as opinion glossies like the The National Review. By my freshmen year at BYU, I was the only person (that I know of) in Helaman Halls with a subscription to The New Republic. I arrived at college wanting to study political philosophy. Due to historical accident, however, the classes that I wanted to take were divided between two departments — political science and philosophy. I enrolled as a double major and set to work. The political science major forced me to study a bunch of social science, which was not something I was particularly interested in. I did find, however, that I liked economics.
I hoped to become a philosophy professor, but three experiences led in a different direction. First, shortly after my mission I had a conversation with the chair of the philosophy department (Cody Carter) who told me in the bluntest possible terms that it would be a very bad idea for me to try to get a Ph.D. in philosophy. Second, I came to realize that I probably did not have what it takes to be a good philosopher. I was too easily side tracked into intellectual interests in history, politics, or economics. Furthermore, in the heavily continental-dominated world of BYU philosophy, I imagined graduate work in philosophy as prolonged confinement with Being and Time, a prospect that sent shivers up and down my spine.
The third and most important event, however, was that I discovered the polygamy cases. As part of my political science degree, I took an undergraduate class on constitutional law taught by Paul Edwards. Originally, Edwards had planned to spent a day or two on the religion clauses of the first amendment and then move on. However, at the last minute he decided to focus in on the series of 19th century decisions dealing with polygamy — Reynolds, In re Snow, Late Corporation, etc. Earlier, on my mission I had read where B.H. Roberts described the antipolygamy crusade in his Comprehensive History of the Church. Seeing those battles played out in the pages of the U.S. Reports, I was hooked.
I spent most of my undergraduate career surrounded by large numbers of people who described themselves as “pre-law.” I had academic ambitions, however, and I always felt a sense of vague intellectual superiority to those who were bound for the grubby world of professional school. The polygamy cases, however, opened my eyes to the possibilities of studying law. I was interested. I managed to work as a research assistant for two law professors as an undergraduate to “test the waters.” The summer before my senior year, I was offered a chance to work as a researcher in the Warren Burger Archives at the College of William and Mary, going through internal Supreme Court documents on some of the key religion cases from the 1970s and 1980s. I took a semester off from BYU and moved to Williamsburg. During those four months in the Tidewater, I made two decisions. First, I decided to marry a graduate student in Washington, DC. Second, I decided to go to law school. I studied for the LSAT in Williamsburg and actually took the test on the campus of William and Mary.
I had finally found a discipline that perfectly matched my own intellectual dilettantism. The rest is history. Indeed, life, in a bit of improbable enplotment, has brought me full circle, and I now teach law at the school where I made the turn to jurisprudence.