Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Another statistic

A few minutes into seventh period, there's a knock on my door. I see Gerald standing in the hall, wearing a dress shirt, hair pulled back into neat corn rows. Just got back from court, I realize.

During class, he's quiet. Thoughtful. But not his usual joking self.

When the bell rings, I go up to him. "How'd it go?" I ask.

"Not good," he says. "They actually used the letters against me!"

"I was afraid of that," I say.

"They said that the letters prove that I have potential. But that I'm wasting my life outside of school!"

A couple of weeks ago, he asked me to write a letter for a judge. He had a case coming up, and he was told that a few letters from teachers might help him get parole. So I wrote the letter. And I tried to be honest: Attendance spotty at times but hard worker when present. Lots of potential. A team player. Helps others. Wants to do well. Is proud when given positive feedback. I included a couple of anecdotes showing how memorable this kid can be.

When I met his mother at report card pick-up day last week, she was nervous. Almost defeated. She loves her baby, but this time he might have gone too far.

When I handed him a copy of the letter on Friday, Gerald perked up. "I can smell freedom," he smiled. "Thanks so much." And I thought, I've got you now! You'll kick ass the rest of the school year.

So his court date was today. He showed up afterwards, actually came in to class. But there were no smiles today.

"What did you tell the judge?" I ask.

"I said that I was trying to be good. That, really, my mom doesn't have the money. And some of the money I was making, it was going for school supplies. For things I need."

"Do you have a lawyer or a public defender?"

"Public defender."

Over the years, I've met a few public defenders. And overall they seem like hard-working people who really want to help. But they are so overburdened. And when I think about Gerald, a poor kid from the West Side, I can't help but wonder what would happen if he were from a wealthy suburban family. Would he have to rely on a public defender? Would he have a bench trial instead of a jury? Would he face prison time for a possession charge? Or would he get to learn his lesson another way?

"Listen," I say. "I don't really know all that much about this stuff. But make sure you apologize. Make sure you show how you've learned from your mistakes, how you want to graduate from high school and be a productive member of society. Somehow you've got to prove that you've changed."

He looks defeated. And as he leaves, I'm left wondering if just another statistic has walked out my door.

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