It’s Possible! Reflections from a Garfinkel Essay Scholarship Mentor

This article was written by Charles Scruggs, a professor of history at Genesee Community College who has mentored many Garfinkel Essay Scholarship participants. He is a 2015 recipient of a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.

We have announced the topic for the 2018 Garfinkel Essay Scholarship, please click here to learn more.

Photo: Anna Lewis, accepting her 2nd SUNY Prize at the NY Court of Appeals Law Day Ceremony. Prof. Scruggs mentored all three SUNY winners. Image courtesy of Lisa Bohannon at NY Court of Appeals.

Sixty years ago, Twelve Angry Men appeared for the first time on the silver screen. Despite riveting performances by such titans as Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb, its commercial performance fell flat. Perhaps the dialogue-driven film was regarded as too quaint by a movie-going public with a taste for swamp creatures and rebels without a cause. Today, however, the film is rightfully accorded a place in the pantheon of American cinema. It has even been cited by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor as a source of inspiration as she contemplated potential career paths.

For ninety minutes, we are transfixed by the interactions of twelve jurors whose predilections and prejudices are ingeniously revealed. At the end of the story, something else is made known to us: the names of Juror 8 and Juror 9 — Davis and McCardle. We never learn the names of the other ten jurors. The name of the young defendant accused of stabbing his father to death is likewise shrouded in mystery. I find the closing moments of Twelve Angry Men fitting and poignant. In that final, brief exchange, the larger than life protagonist is returned to the human scale as he bids adieu to his wise and wizened ally.  As the two men head off to destinations unknown, dwarfed by the city’s immense steel structures, we cannot help but feel a sense of nobility in the seemingly quotidian experience of jury duty.

I have occasion to share these thoughts with you not because a cherished film is celebrating its sixtieth anniversary, but rather because a cherished essay scholarship is celebrating its tenth. I can still picture Karen Wicka, an attorney turned criminal justice instructor, pleading her case as she distributed a promotional flyer at the end of an interminably long faculty meeting. We all did our due diligence, solemnly nodding our heads and scribbling down due dates. I was just praying that the Dean would not ask me to deliver an improptu dissertation on the legal aspects of the Erie Canal’s construction — the theme of the essay contest. It would not have been an outlandish request. After all, I did teach college-level history, political science, and geography courses in western New York. In truth, it’s more likely that my colleagues were doing the praying. The hour was getting late, and I couldn’t be trusted to take the Fifth.

When I returned to my sanctuary (my office — B281), I recited a few keywords as a kind of incantation and hoped that the almighty JSTOR would bring forth a bountiful harvest. In no time at all, I had managed to conjure up an impressive array of articles on eminent domain and the takings clause. It all looked like pretty heady stuff. Had I understood Karen correctly? The contest promoters were soliciting entries not from lawyers and professional historians, but from community college students?

After spending some time exploring the contest website, any skepticism I might have harbored quickly evaporated. A number of things appealed to me right away. First, I was drawn to the fact that the focus was on community college students. I teach at an open-enrollment institution with a richly diverse student population. How refreshing to see an opportunity for my students to explore, debate, and write about legal issues which affect us all! Second, students were explicitly encouraged not to shy away from or dismiss their own experiences as they wrestled with challenging questions. Third, students were provided with a range of essay question options and even given the freedom to craft their own research question based on the scholarship’s overarching theme. In sum, I had found a wonderful opportunity for students to think critically, develop knowledge and skills, deepen relationships, and participate in the free exchange of ideas.

Above all, I hoped it might be possible for my students to see the nobility in the seemingly quotidian experience of writing a paper. For the past eight years, my colleagues and I have encouraged Genesee Community College students to take advantage of this rewarding educational opportunity. It has been my privilege to mentor a number of students whose essays have garnered the top prize. Most rewarding of all was to hear from a student at the end of the Spring 2015 semester that investigating the Stonewall Riots and putting her thoughts to paper was a cathartic experience. It gave her the courage to reach out to her son and mend the relationship with him that had been frayed for some time.

The love that parents have for their children is also at the very genesis of the essay scholarship that I hope you will support. Reginald Rose, the author of the screenplay for Twelve Angry Men, waited until the end to reveal the name of the story’s hero. I have done the same. David A. Garfinkel loved history and sharing ideas. I never had the privilege of meeting him, but the contest that bears his name has been a great blessing to me and my students. I am grateful to Gloria and Barry Garfinkel for sharing their son’s passion for learning with us and for providing the generous financial support which enables The Historical Society of the New York Courts to offer the contest. The Garfinkel Essay Scholarship winners from across the State have already accomplished great things academically and professionally. Perhaps this fall you will mentor a student who goes on to serve on the Supreme Court. Hey, it’s possible!

For information about the upcoming 2018 Garfinkel Essay Scholarship, click here.

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