I am an addict. My hands drop my book by accident due to my unintended withdrawal as they instinctively reach out to find what is missing. The book makes a loud thud on the table, causing a slight stir in the quiet College of Law study hall.
I spin my head from side to side, like a mad man, eyeing everyone around me suspiciously, secretly fearing that they know my secret—that I am a compulsive highlighter, and I had forgotten my pencil case. Attempting to carry on, even in the face of tremendous opposition from my relapsing self and my “Negotiable Instruments” book, I begin reading it as though it were one of those novels everyone hated in grade school because there were no pictures.
I continue to punish myself with this strange cycle for five more minutes before I decide to leave for a 15-minute trek through the rain to National Bookstore and back. Out of fear that one or two highlighters of the same color will run out of ink due to some mysterious factory defect, I buy eight highlighters—one in each color (it baffles me how people can use only one color). I get back to the study hall, drenched but victorious.
I lay my book down yet again, and uncap my super fluorescent tools of yellow, orange, and pink. Pink for the terms and concepts, orange for the descriptions of the concepts, and yellow for the examples, I quietly chant to myself. But my smile dissipates and I feel as though my organs have liquefied and sunk into oblivion when I realize that I have no sign pen to underline the exceptions to the general rules of law and to encircle the ands, buts, and ifs. It’s okay, I tell myself aloud. And then I note that my dialogue with myself has begun to catch the attention of some confused onlooker. With a deep breath, I manage to solidify my innards and begin the trek back to the bookstore in weather that eventually cancels school.
Why do we law students do it? I ask myself as I embark on the long, murky, flooded drive back home. Whether it is two days or five minutes before exams, we see classmates wielding their multicolored pens, highlighters, and pencils, all making boxes and triangles or underlining words on Supreme Court cases, topic commentaries, and reviewers. Perhaps it’s because we feel a sense of personal fulfillment each time we do so after finishing a reading on some complicated legalese drivel, like how a person makes a high score in a public-arcade game and leaves a 5-letter mark for others and ourselves to marvel at, it being a badge of a presumed intellectual accomplishment. Or is it because we feel that it automatically commits everything we underline to memory?
And yet, unless you are Mike Ross from the TV show “Suits,” you will know that the rest of the human race can remember only so much, thus the need to highlight “what is important.” Then again, if strangers were to look at our notes and books, they would comment that we underline or highlight 70 percent of the material (some of us more or less than others—I belong to the portion that highlights 73.54 percent, give or take). Does that then mean all of it is important and vital to our success in becoming lawyers? Probably not, because most highlights, after a while, are simply a repetition of what has already been said or is a ripple of knowledge that has long been mastered. And yet, we continue to highlight, not perhaps because of a sense of necessity, but more because of a sense of security, to dissipate the fear that we will forget what is important.
The matter of what is “important” and what isn’t is relative and dependent on what we are presently told to search for. If a legal case has a discussion on both the constitutional right to due process, and the crime of estafa, and you begin discussing estafa rather than due process during a “recit” in constitutional law class, then you would earn the frustration of your professor who would demand that you explain why you didn’t look at the syllabus prior to reading the case.
We create a certain degree of solace for ourselves when we review notes that have been previously highlighted because we have identified what is “important.” And yet, how does one “highlight” what is important in life? What magical tool or process do we unconsciously or consciously use to highlight the intangible? Or better yet, does anyone even feel the need to do so?
We fear that without a highlight on our notes, they will be undecipherable before an exam, and that we will forget everything necessary for our success. How different is that when it comes to our personal goals, which are born in dreams rather than from pen and paper? Will not the same fear of forgetting what is “important” settle in if we do not, in some way, attempt to retain or capture the fragments of life we deem important?
There is no separation of powers when it comes to the governance of the self. No one needs to be a lawyer to realize that everyone is the author of their own laws and doctrines. And that they are chief justices of their own court, seeking to rationalize complicated issues in order to conform to a personal mindset of what is ideal justice. We execute (or at least we should) what we deem is honorable and that which reflects the best parts of who we are. Sometimes, however, we forget our own code. We forget to make decisions based on justice. And we forget that even good people like ourselves can act like ruthless dictators who bulldoze and trample others for personal fulfillment and prosperity.
It is haunting to know that the truly important things can never be highlighted with a pen. And that it is up to us, and our fragile, imperfect memories, to go through the everyday exam of life, always well-studied, but never completely prepared.
Rafael Lorenzo G. Conejos, 24, is a former professor of literature at De La Salle University, and is part of the pioneer batch of the DLSU College of Law.
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