I recently accompanied one of my ESL students to traffic court. He had been ticketed for doing 84 mph in a 55 mph zone . This is reckless driving and can carry a jail sentence. He intended to go alone, as he did not want his parents to know about this. He explained to me that his parents, his sister, and himself had only recently arrived to the United States, and he felt his parents – who were each working two jobs – were already dealing with enough. However, his English was not near where it should be for court, so I thought it best to go with him. We met at the courthouse at nine in the morning, and after finding our way to the courtroom, saw that it was crowded with people who were being called up in alphabetical order. My student did not approach the bench until 2:45, as his surname begins with N.
So from nine in the morning until the lunch break, the two of us sat together in the courtroom and listened. Some people who were charged with reckless driving walked out of the courtroom smiling, their case dismissed. From what I could hear, there seemed to be an issue the with the police officer’s calibration records. Other people with the same charge were being given a fine and 120 days in jail, with 110 of those days suspended and the choice to serve the ten days immediately or over the next five weekends. The judge patiently explained to each violator that the suspended 110 days would be hanging over their head for the next two years, so if they got into any more trouble, they would have to serve the remaining 110 days. One young girl who would spend the next five weekends in jail walked back to her father’s side with tears streaming down her face.
So my student became increasingly anxious as the day wore on. When court broke for lunch, I was able to explain a few things, like suspended sentences, waiving a right to a lawyer, dismissed, and calibration records. I explained that many of the reckless drivers whom he saw walk out of the courtroom – dismissed – had their own lawyer, and that he could ask to return on another day with his own lawyer, too. This would not guarantee no jail time, I explained, but it might help. We returned to the courtroom after lunch. When it was my student’s turn to approach the bench, the judge explained to my student his right to a lawyer, and my student said – as clearly as he could - “I need a lawyer.” He is to return to court in a month’s time with his own lawyer.
The judge and I both deal with young people, but I have it easy compared to him. On my community college campus, I am surrounded with hard-working young people who are trying to better themselves. The toughest thing we instructors have to do is fail a student. I have one colleague who always stops by my office when she has to fail a student. She goes through everything she did during the semester to help the student be successful. Then it is my turn to console her for she feels so bad about it, still thinking it was some failure of hers in teaching her class that gave this student such poor results. About that time, I bring up the 19 students in her class who passed, and she sighs, going back to her office to enter the grade into the computer. Teachers do not like to fail students.
And judges do not like to send kids to jail. And when they do, they don’t get to deliver the news through a computer. They have to do it face-to-face in a courtroom with the kid’s parents watching him be such a brute. But I think we all understand what this man is doing. The judge – more than anybody- wants these kids to turn their lives around and he is doing what he can to make that happen. After ten days in prison, they may never break a law again in their lives. But being the one to impose this lesson is not an easy job.
When I was growing up, my father arrived home from work every night just before dinner was served. If my brother and I had a cop show on TV, he would always say “Turn that crap off.” Dad never discussed his day at work over dinner, but talked of his various hobbies and interests or the book he was currently reading. My father died when I was twenty one, but my day in traffic court helped me understand him that much more, for my father was a judge. He had been dealing with that ‘crap’ all day, and it was not a TV show for him. It was as real and as difficult as it was for the judge I watched in traffic court last week.
My day at the courthouse made one thing very clear to me. We owe all the people working in law enforcement and our court systems an incredible debt for theirs is not an easy job.
(My student returned with his own lawyer. His reckless driving charge was reduced to a normal speeding ticket with a fine, which he paid at the cashier’s office. After he did this, the two of us walked out of the courthouse and into the brilliant sunshine of a beautiful spring day. He told me that the next time he is in court will be the day he becomes a citizen. I hope to be a witness.)