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You know who they are. They sit in the front of the class, arms raised so high their shoulders threaten to pop, fingers vibrating with manic energy, always ready with an answer. Unloved, unwanted and occasionally loathed. The gunners. Every class has one — or five. They compete for teacher’s attention and mark time by the bleating of their voices. Their classmates are both fascinated and repelled. In law school, we played a game called “gunner bingo” in which the object was to arrange gunners on a bingo card, then cross them off as each raised his hand. That was the easy part — the hard part was getting called on by the professor and using the word “bingo” when answering his question. Doing so not only won the admiration of your classmates, but also a substantial pot of money. While the gunners fired away, we sat in the rear and kept our heads down. Even if we had done the reading, we were silent because being called upon by teacher was not cool. It seemed a betrayal of our peers to flaunt what little knowledge we possessed. Ours was a conspiracy of silence, a confederacy of dunces. Gunner bingo made us feel better about ourselves. We celebrated our ignorance by mocking their knowledge. Now that I am on the other side of the law school lectern, however, I wonder why I ever found gunners distasteful. Is there something wrong with being prepared? Some tragic flaw associated with classroom participation? As I look over the sullen sleepyheads of most of my students, I am grateful for the flapping hand of the editor in chief of our law review, who has always done the reading and is always prepared to engage in debate over the issues it poses, or at least venture into the quicksand of the Socratic method. Some mornings, teaching is so painful that chewing thumbtacks seems preferable. I’ve tried threatening, begging, cajoling and pleading, yet still cannot get my students to speak, though I’ve not yet tried the ploy of my own contracts professor, who would sit in complete silence until someone raised his hand. I may be a martyr, but I’m not a glutton. No one loves the teacher’s pet, except the teacher. But polishing the apple may shine more than just the surface. It actually correlates with genuine accomplishment. While I’ve certainly had my share of quiet, brilliant types, I’ve rarely had the converse: talkative, but stupid. Yes, there is the occasional blabbermouth who just can’t get it right; but even he usually ends up learning from his mistakes by the close of the semester. Does this mean smarter students tend to talk more, or does talking more make them smart? Most professors would swear by the latter. After all, isn’t that the whole point of the Socratic method? If you make students articulate their thoughts, the rigor required to defend their position will lead them to question their assumptions and, eventually, will lead them to knowledge. Students who voluntarily engage in this activity are more likely to learn, and more likely to be open to learning, than those who sit quietly and let others do the work for them. The back-benching mentality, however, is born young, lives hard and dies in the practice of law. I remember my first law firm job, where the new associates seemed evenly divided between gunners and back-benchers. (That there were so many of the former should have been my first clue.) The gunners were the ones you saw lunching with the partners, dropping by their offices looking for work, getting chummy with their secretaries and dressing in matching suspenders or pearls. When a partner called, they came running, rather than blocking their phone calls with caller ID. We mocked their happy puppyitis, but there was a whiff of defensiveness in our denials, a sense that we no longer ruled, a doubt even that we were on the side of might, right and the British Empire. It all came crashing down for me the first time I drafted a response to a set of interrogatories with a gunner I’ll call Pierre. I had never seen an interrogatory before, let alone drafted a response. Pierre, however, had been through several rounds with a partner in another case to whom he had made himself indispensable. Not only was he familiar with the form, he knew the substance: He understood what the plaintiff was attempting to achieve and how it could best be thwarted. He walked me through the draft and actually took the time to explain the process and his strategy. Because he was a gunner, I could not publicly acknowledge my gratitude, lest I violate the back-bencher’s code. But 11 years later I can finally get it off my chest: Thank you, Pierre. I realized that whatever his motivation, Pierre had clearly learned more than I by working so closely with a partner. Though we were in the same class, his experience put him several years ahead of me. He knew how to practice law, while I was still in the playpen with the torts. More than that, I understood that Pierre’s affectation for bow ties and granny glasses was about more than just cozying up to his partnership chances (though it didn’t hurt). It was about participating in the process and incorporating his observations into his learning. Rather than refusing to join the club that would have him as a member, Pierre embraced the invitation and became smarter from it. By playing it cool, I had lost a valuable opportunity to gain knowledge I could have used to become a better lawyer. I didn’t discard my cartoon ties or clunky black shoes immediately, but I smiled at partners when I saw them in the lunchroom, and occasionally said hello. Sometimes I joined them at their table and even answered the phone when they called. I listened as they discussed their cases and threw in a well-timed question when I was prepared to. I attended practice group luncheons and made intelligent noises, and soon found myself working on interesting cases where I sometimes knew what I was doing. Before long, I saw the way younger associates looked at me — with a mixture of envy and disgust — and I knew I had become what I once loathed. Pierre moved on, and so did I. By the time I left, my surviving classmates were all gunners. The junior associates who didn’t — or wouldn’t — play the game just got shoved off the bench. In part, it was self-selection: You don’t survive at a law firm by being cynical, unhelpful, scarce. But many others, like me, came to see the wisdom in being an X on the bingo board, counted on to provide an answer without being called upon. For us, it was a chance to be the student we wished we had been: to do the reading and take legible notes, and not to sleep through our classes. It was never too late to start. These days, I’m proud to say, I kiss ass whenever I can. I also polish apples, lick boots and call on the gunners whenever I can. It’s the least I can do. They need our love and attention. Most of all, we need them. Cameron Stracher is a professor at New York Law School, where he also serves as publisher of the law review. He can be reached at [email protected] This article was originally published in The American Lawyer magazine, a Recorder affiliate based in New York City.

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