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Charity in a Contested World



As a new student at Yale Law School, I began my first day simultaneously trying to impress others and hide the inadequacy I felt within. One of the law school’s traditions is a small-group-format class for every first-year student. My small-group class was constitutional law. Our professor was the diminutive giant of a man, Joe Goldstein. In a class of 14, there aren’t many places to hide. I took my seat that first day wondering what was about to happen and how I could manage others’ impressions of me.


Professor Goldstein was sitting as he always sat, in the middle on one side of the small room’s boardroom-style table. He had an age-defying mane of striking gray hair that he sometimes touched and stroked while speaking in a soft gravel. He seemed always to be leaning slightly to his right, his upper half pressed from the left by some unseen force. His gaze was relentless, yet gentle. He demanded respect not by requiring it but by giving it.


I was immediately struck by how he listened to and cared about what we had to say. We were barely competent to be studying the Supreme Court cases we began studying, but Professor Goldstein unfailingly considered our words and opinions with care and gravity. He often mentioned how important it was to read the cases we were studying charitably—not to read to see how they were wrong, but rather to read so as to understand perspectives from which they might be right. Only then could we see and understand enough to see strengths and weaknesses of cases with some level of informed objectivity.


Professor Goldstein considered our own words with this same charity. This was true even when our words didn’t merit it. On a particular day early in that first term, Professor Goldstein asked my opinion of a case I had not studied fully enough. I stammered my way through a rambling answer and concluded by saying that the opinion didn’t really make my heart sing. “Are you suggesting a ‘heart sings’ test for the Supreme Court of the United States, Mr. Ferrell?” he asked, the gravel in his voice somehow smoothing the edges off of a potentially embarrassing situation. My classmates chuckled, and I smiled sheepishly. It was a gentle, charitable rebuke for a student who had come unprepared. I knew that he believed I had more to offer than I had that day. The gentility in his joke comforted my anxious heart and made me believe I could do more.


We lost Joe 21 years ago. I miss him. The world could use his charitable reading and listening now more than ever.