I met Professor Derrick Albert Bell when I was 19 years old. I was an undergraduate, but a student of his had invited me to sit in on one of his classes in constitutional law at Harvard. At that point in my life, I was thinking of going on for a PhD in… linguistics? Urban studies? Sociology? Maybe art history. I was lost in the something-or-other stage of my life and couldn’t for the life of me make up my squishy, floaty mind.
Professor Bell’s lecture fixed all that. He had that class divided into interest and advocacy groups, taking various sides in the Supreme Court cases they were studying. The teams were arguing with each other like mad, and the passion and purpose flying around that room were like tangible objects. You had to duck to avoid getting laser-beamed by the sharp, whizzing commotion of high-octane ideas.
When I actually got to law school, I discovered that not every class was like Professor Bell’s. This was around the same time that The Paper Chase came out, which highlighted the harsh questioning of the Socratic Method that then reigned supreme in most of legal academia. I cowered with my classmates in fear of what often felt like mockery or derision. In addition, there were not a lot of women in law school in those days—we were only 8 percent of the class—and sexism was only beginning to be addressed as just possibly inimical to the educational process. I had expected to love law school. Instead, I hated it within the first ten minutes.
Derrick Bell is the only reason I didn’t leave. As he had in that first glimpse of his teaching, he made ideas come alive. He made the dry pages of treatises vivid; he never let us forget the human stories behind every tract, every suit, every appeal. He imbued legal education with a sense of purpose and responsibility: we weren’t there for ourselves alone, but to live up to a calling and to become of service. He helped me reframe the sense of isolation and intimidation I felt as causes, as precisely the reasons there was an obligation to stay the course.
Until Professor Bell, people like me—females, African-Americans, students who weren’t wealthy, who weren’t legacies—were left to our own devices to try to penetrate the Old Boys network. We had to discover that secret societies even existed before we could try to break down the doors; and we had to comprehend how many deals were made in eating clubs before we could understand why invitation to those high tables was not merely about the potatoes au gratin.
There was every manner of institutional insularity in those days, calculated to shut out most of the world. In contrast, Professor Bell’s door was always open. His mind was always open. Always soft-spoken, always polite, he made others’ doors open too—he supported disability, elderly and gay rights long before any of that was part of the national conversation. He worked to get more women on the faculty when few others thought their lack an issue. Over time, his efforts changed not only Harvard but the way all law schools treated students. He spoke truth to power in a way that removed that notion from mere cliché. And he created family in the unlikely setting of a law school.