First, you dig a trench.

Spanning childhood generations, my maternal grandparents employed a housekeeper, Ms. Orelia—both my mother and I remember her in our respective childhoods. Apparently that prototypical New Orleans arrangement made it all the way to Gentilly.

Ms. Orelia had more sense in her smallest digit than the rest of the family in their degrees. She was the one who taught me about trenches.

Standing outside one afternoon—with the temperatures dipping, the wind accelerating, and the sky taking on that hold-your-breath shade of blue—Ms. Orelia and I discussed the circling storm. It was powerful enough that the touching down of tornadoes jumped to mind.

“You want to get into your bathtub and pull a mattress on top,” Ms. Orelia counseled my ten-year-old self. At that point, I struggled to change my sheets, but I’d be able to drag a mattress across the house? I let that question pass for a more important one.

“But, Ms. Orelia,” I wondered, as I looked at the swaying trees, “what if you’re outside?”

The answer was immediate: “You dig a trench and lie down in it.”

Somehow fitting a mattress through a bathroom door now made sense. Digging a trench? That was too much.

“But what if you don’t have a shovel!?” Never the Boy Scout, I knew I would live life unprepared.

“Don’t worry about that,” she assured. “You’ll find a way to dig. With your hands. With whatever you got. You’ll dig that trench.”

Trenches – be they for ad hoc tornado protection or World War I military strategy – always come to mind in mid-December and early May. Trenches are my image for law school exams.

In the Great War, trenches were employed because technology in weaponry had surpassed that in defense and mobility. Teams of trench diggers could uncover football fields of eight-foot-deep protection overnight. The futility of trench warfare was clearest in the Great Race to the Sea, as the Germans and Franco-Anglo troops dug to outflank each other or until they reached the North Sea. One hundred years ago wars were waged like a game of Atari Snake.

And one hundred years later law school exams are waged the same? Not exactly, but the race against the clock can have that trench digging feeling.

The number of credit hours sets the hours of an exam. Three course credits give you three hours to spend the semester’s material. Although objective questions normally have their place, the open-ended essays are where the fun begins—or where the bullets fly, I suppose.

Basically, you just start digging, handling law and facts as applied to the prompt, before digging into the next one. And the next one. And, yes, the next one.

And suddenly you’re on prompt O, wondering if you’ll ever make it out of France and into Flanders. Dear Lord, there’s a prompt P?!

But you keep digging. With your hands. With whatever you got.

And to Ms. Orelia’s prophetic, practical instructions, I add one pinch of emotion: you laugh. Not doubling over or even offering anything audible. Just a little giggle to myself.

Oh, the humanities!

Last semester, as I was once again turning my keyboard into pickaxe and shovel, my professor strode into the 70-person auditorium to pause our keyboard rata-tat-tats and deliver an important news bulletin from the front: He had clicked the wrong button when creating our test, accidentally turning our essays from 600 words to 600 characters.

Constitutional Criminal Procedure—I can do that in four tweets, I chuckled to myself.

I’ve done pretty well in law school, but I’ve only gotten the highest class grade once. In Constitutional Criminal Procedure.

We’ll call it trench warfare with modern adaptations.

Here’s to finding another way to dig out again. With my hands. With my keyboard. With whatever I’ve got.

Ms. Orelia would’ve been a model law school student.

-30-

As you may have gathered, it’s been a tough week for priests in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. On the heels of the news of Otis Young and Ruth Prats’ apparent murders—actually as I was walking into Paul Desrosiers’ funeral—the shock of Fr. Jimmy Jeanfreau’s sudden passing circulated. In the small world of ordained clergy, everyone knows everyone. I didn’t know Fr. Jimmy well, but was always impressed by his calm spirit and his many years spent in South America. His funeral was yet another heavy but fitting send-off. Enjoy the homily of his friend Baton Rouge priest Fr. Greg Daigle.