A Dominican law professor teaches through the pandemic

Professor Vaughn E. James

It is 10:32 p.m. CDT, June 20, 2021. The summer solstice has arrived in the United States of America. In his sparsely furnished home office in Lubbock, Texas, far away from his birthplace of Colihaut, Commonwealth of Dominica, law professor, attorney, author, minister of religion, poet, playwright, lyricist, composer, musician and singer, Vaughn E. James (aka King Shakey) is still at work. The office is sparsely furnished by design: a very large computer monitor attached to one wall; an ergonomic computer desk at which the former Roadmarch and Calypso King stands to work 16 hours a day, six days a week (he religiously keeps the Sabbath from an hour before sunset on Fridays to an hour after sunset on Saturdays); two computers; two telephones which loudly announce each incoming call and the name and number of the caller; two headsets; various webcams strategically located around this office that looks more like a television studio than a law office; what looks like a movie director’s chair located close enough to the ergonomic desk, and close to that, a white cane.

The white cane: the first – or maybe the second – indicator that the law professor is blind. The dark glasses he is wearing are not a fashion statement, after all. They are to hide his unseeing eyes. He sits on his movie director’s chair so that we may conduct this interview he has granted me. Although we are both fully vaccinated against COVID-19, he insists that we wear facemasks. He has “seen” enough death over the past year; he is taking no chances.

The 2020-2021 school year which just ended has been a trying one for Professor James. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, his institution – Texas Tech University School of Law in Lubbock, Texas – switched to online classes after Spring Break of 2020. Unable to adjust to the Blackboard platform the law school was using, James opted for Zoom, a platform with which he had grown familiar while teaching at the University of Tennessee College of Law in Knoxville, Tennessee, during the summer months (2004-2019). Texas Tech provided him with state-of-the-art software programs that enabled him to dictate his lesson plans, power point slides, and other material to the computer which then typed and otherwise prepared the material. Meanwhile, other software programs read to him whatever was on his screen and even described pictures and emojis. Equipped with such software and his headsets, James has not had to learn braille. Yet, despite his unseeing eyes, he has continued to teach and practice law, attend court hearings and trials, participate in meetings, conduct church services, preach sermons, write books, compose music, and most importantly, he insists, be a father to his children.

As regards the books, Professor James published two books during the past year. The first, TEXAS ELDER LAW, 2020 EDITION (Washington, D.C.: Fastcase, 2020) is a desk reference for lawyers who practice Elder Law in Texas. In the Foreword to the text, Vincentian-born law professor, attorney, and former Dean of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston, Texas, McKen Carrington, writes that:

The utility of [the] book cannot be overemphasized. It is a service to the lawyer, the student, the elder law community in Texas, and beyond. Most people who have family members with Elder Law needs value the advice of good counsel. Professor James has enabled the profession with this primer.

The second book, CONTEMPORARY ISSUES IN LAW AND RELIGION (First Edition, New Orleans, LA: Esquire Books, 2021) is a casebook for law school students taking the Law & Religion course (or any law school course that focuses on the religion clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution). The publishers note that the “book is intended for educational and thought provoking purposes only, and [does not constitute] legal advice.” The book’s editors include Matthew Berger and Lauren Unger of Esquire Books, Religious Liberty Attorney Charles Eusey of Leominster, Massachusetts, and Professor Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer of Notre Dame Law School in Notre Dame, Indiana.

Last week, Professor James started dictating a new book, TEXAS ELDER LAW, 2021-2023 EDITION (Washington, D.C.: Fastcase, 2021), due to be published on October 1 this year.

As regards his music, not far from his TV-studio-like home office, King Shakey has his stash of musical equipment: two electric guitars, a bass guitar, a 12-string acoustic guitar with pick-ups, two electronic keyboards, and a violin. The violin is actually for his 13-year-old daughter, a musician in her own right, a member of the Varsity and String Orchestras at Evans Middle School in Lubbock. Joining in her father’s musical legacy, she is already the winner of several violin and piano awards. It is generally agreed that she will be the next leader of King Shakey & The Banned. For now, she is her father’s guide, accompanying him almost everywhere he goes and playing violin or piano as they play music together. King Shakey is carded to be the keynote speaker at the Dominica Houston Association’s Dominica Independence Day Anniversary Celebration in Houston, Texas, this October. He plans to begin his address with a song. His daughter will be one of the musicians playing with him.

Looking back on the just-concluded school year, Professor James is pleased about many things. He adapted quickly to online teaching. In no small part, this was due to his familiarity with the Zoom platform. He also says that he was fortunate to have some good students to teach – people who were inquisitive enough to ask questions, keeping the Zoom class discussions flowing. He also gives thanks to his colleagues at Texas Tech University School of Law, especially the staff of the IT Department who provide and run his vision-impaired software programs remotely from the law school several miles away from his home office.

Yet, the year has had its challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken getting used to. Not being able to drive and having to walk with a white cane have also taken getting used to. He also fell over some furniture in September 2020, broke two toes and sprained three fingers (hence the sparsely furnished TV-studio-like office). But more than anything else, he has had to deal with frequent visits from the Angel of Death (if one can call it an “angel” at all). On June 18, 2020, his father, Leo B. James, a former Dominican Junior Secondary School Principal, died. Less than one week later, his former manager and the founder of King Shakey Promotions, Attorney, Magistrate, and Lyricist Extraordinaire, Mikey Bruney, passed away. Since then, several of Shakey’s friends and family members have gone to the Great Beyond. The most recent were his cousin, Anthony “Tony” John of St. Joseph, and his Aunt Olive LeCointe residing in Catherine’s Rest, St. Croix, US Virgin Islands, who passed away on Friday, June 18, 2021. Indeed, this has been a full circle of one year of visits from that “Angel.” Maybe the visits will stop now.

Despite the onslaught of tragedy that has filled Professor James’ days for this past year-and-a-half, he remains one of the brightest lights in Tech Law’s dim halls. Almost every student who has had the joy of spending a semester in one of his classes says that that he was a turning point in their law school experience. He has time and time again been the individual who showed us a warmer, kinder, more grace-filled side of the practice of law, making many of us finally feel at-home in a profession that is often unwelcoming. Above all, King Shakey believes that we – his students – can do much more than we might expect of ourselves. He is one of our greatest champions and most patient teachers. I am so thankful to have learned from him, especially during a year where there were two screens and hundreds of miles between me and the professor I was learning from. It was hard to be a law student in the midst of COVID-19, but it was – as always – so very rewarding to be Professor James’ student.

 

___________________________

Avery Aiken is a May 2021 graduate of Texas Tech University School of Law in Lubbock, Texas. Since May 2020, she has been serving as Prof. James’ Research Assistant. Ms. Aiken previously held various positions with the Daily Toreador, the student newspaper of Texas Tech University, including Opinions Editor and Managing Editor. Ms. Aikens is a native of Colorado Springs, Colorado.

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8 Comments

  1. July 1, 2021

    This man has the most degree’s and he don’t make a fete out of it…unlike d.a prime minister who have to buy degree’s and still make a show…

  2. Linda C
    June 30, 2021

    I appreciate the update Ms. Aiken has provided about Prof. James. I am from Trinidad & Tobago. I never got to see King Shakey perform at the Sparrow’s Young Brigade Calypso Tent in Port-of-Spain. I was too young then to go to the tents. But I first met the King when he performed at a concert at the John H. Woodson School in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, the same school where his Aunt Olive worked. Our paths next crossed when he was teaching Accounting in Michigan. As Ms. Aiken states, Prof. James was always a compassionate teacher who put the interests of his students first. He is a true light in the darkness. I have learned much from him. I am confident that even with his disability, he will continue to make a difference in this world.

  3. Goodwill
    June 30, 2021

    I am amazed. This is what you call “a can do spirit”. Right on King Shakey.

  4. Amelia W.
    June 30, 2021

    Thanks Avery for writing such a beautiful piece on one of my favorite cousins. I lived with Shakey and siblings for the first couple years of elementary school so that I could access school in Roseau. I still have stories of Shakey’s morning breakfast routine that I will not write on here but the family knows what I am talking about and will smile. Shakey has become one of the pillars of our family for many reasons – let’s start with the fact that it is always good to have a good lawyer to call on. Most of all, he makes us all laugh and trust me we all need a good laugh and he never disappoints. Thanks Shakey for being an awesome you and for your continued inspirations in life. Much blessings to you and the kids.

  5. Joey Lloyd
    June 30, 2021

    An amazing true life story of humility resilience and tenacity. My relative and former Dominica Grammar School classmate, also fellow junior calypsonian of the mid 1970’s; the news of his blindness comes as a shock to me. God be with you, my brother.

  6. Garçon
    June 29, 2021

    Waw. I am blown away. Such an intriguing and captivating story. Stories like these serve to motivate individuals to work hard and to persevere not matter the obstacles. I wish you all the best Professor James.

  7. Ulric Lestrade
    June 29, 2021

    What an inspiring contribution from one of Professor James’ students. Thank you Avery Aiken for taking the time to share this story of your hero. Shakey is my old classmate at the Dominica Grammar School and news of his visual disability is very disheartening. That he continues to perform and to thrive despite his disability is testimony to his dedication, resilience and fortitude. His persistence at overcoming obstacles makes all of us feel our inferiority. What an inspiration to all of us!

  8. Marguerite
    June 28, 2021

    Great man, great story.

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