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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, October 31, 2003

Food drive staves off hunger, law professors

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

All this week, students at the University of Hawai'i's William S. Richardson School of Law have been sneaking apparent contraband into class, making sure to keep it out of sight of their professors.

UH law professor Hazel Beh's students donated canned food in exchange for passes on tough questions during a food drive at the William S. Richardson School of Law.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

Hiding the goods in bags under their desks or in the bottom of their backpacks, they wait for the time to strike — that moment when a professor throws a question into the air and points at some hapless student for the answer.

That's when it happens.

With the flash of a hand, a can of Spam hits the desk.

Or a can of corned beef.

Occasionally, even an entire canned chicken.

The whole idea is to buy yourself a pass on a tough question, the kind made famous by the 1973 movie "Paper Chase" and its imperious, archetypal law professor, Charles Kingsfield Jr., played by John Houseman.

It can play out something like poker, but with a can, not a card, determining whether a student gets to skip answering a tough question.

"Some professors will let you pass with one can and others will try to trump you," said third-year law student Scott Suzuki, adding that one professor said "nothing could beat Spam, and then (fellow student) Malcolm Barcarse produced corned beef and (the professor) said that did trump Spam ... But the whole chicken trumped corned beef.

"The rules of the game are each professor gets to choose how they want to approach the can donation."

For at least a decade, law students across the country have participated in "Canned Immunity" week with the idea that they can do good, have fun and learn at the same time.

The program at the UH law school — sponsored by Phi Delta Phi, the law school fraternity — last year gathered two pickup-loads of canned goods for Thanksgiving distribution by the Institute for Human Services, which serves the homeless and other people in need. The students hope to top that in this year's program, which concludes today.

"Our objective is to get ourselves involved in activities that benefit the community," said third-year law student Jennifer Young, who, with Suzuki and others, is helping coordinate the project.

"Some professors will let you pass with one can or two cans," said Young. "There was a professor last year who would trump, but she's on sabbatical. I think I used seven cans in her class."

But the absent professor wasn't the only one who liked to trump. Associate professor Casey Jarman, who teaches environmental law, toted in six bags of cans just to be ready.

"I brought in 34 cans Tuesday, one for every student in the class," said a triumphant Jarman. "I trumped all of them because I had more cans than they did."

Even Sara Cosson's six cans didn't beat the Jarman trump.

"They hide them, so you don't always know who has them," Jarman said conspiratorially. "And they borrow cans. But they don't know how many I have, either."

For first-year law student Sarah Kam, "Canned Immunity" can postpone — for a day, at least — those occasional moments of terror.

"Especially during the first month, they use the Socratic method and put you on the spot and demand you know the answer, and that person is pretty much drilled through the entire period," said the 22-year-old.

Even being prepared doesn't always mean you know the answer, she said.

Young remembers that same heart-thumping fear as the professor's hand dangles in midair and a finger moves relentlessly in your direction.

"It's stressful the first year," she said. "The second and third year I still get nervous, but it's not as nerve-wracking as the first year. Especially first semester."

Law professor John Barkai can empathize. He remembers being so shy in law school that he never said a word. That doesn't stop him from encouraging students to speak up, but it keeps him from going in for the kill during "Canned Immunity" week in his evidence classes.

"There is a fair amount of sweating going on," he said. "But I don't think they live in fear of being called on in my class. The idea is to have some discussion. And in most situations there aren't clear answers."

Professor Hazel Beh, who teaches contract law to first-year students, allows students two "passes" a year, but yesterday she handed out a surprise third one to every student who produced canned goods.

"But I cautioned them they couldn't sell them to their classmates," she said. "I wouldn't want to start a black market in passes."

At the end of the day, it's the students and professors who have the fun, but the folks at IHS who are the winners. After the project ends today, law students will deliver the food, including giant Costco-size cans of marinara sauce and boxes of Stove-Top Stuffing that could serve 25.

"I brought in five the first day," said Suzuki. "And then I went and got more, and I've got 20 I've been lugging around. And I had some friends who forgot to bring theirs, so we shared."

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8013.