Loud, proud, clear, and slow. These were the oratorical principles that began every session. The words my Legal Apprenticeship students in Citizen Schools grew to uphold and that were delivered by Jerry Facher, a legend jurisprudence in Massachusetts and beyond. A master of excellence in teaching, he delivered the same high quality instruction to my students from Garfield Middle School in Revere, Massachusetts, that he has delivered at Harvard, Oxford, and in his role as intellectual mentor to the attorneys from the Wilmer Hale law firm that guided our students.
I was at another major crossroads on my path of service to this nation, one which has given me the opportunity to be a part of many amazing partnerships. It has led me from the 9th ward of New Orleans to the public schools of Oberlin, Ohio and Oakland, California, and now back to my native state of Massachusetts . No endeavor better represents the synergy of the non-profit, public, and private sectors than the Legal Apprenticeship Program, a partnership between Revere Public Schools, Citizen Schools, Discovering Justice, and Wilmer Hale.
It began with a trip to 60 State Street, in the heart of downtown Boston, and twelve students from the Citizen Schools program. A group of energetic learners from all backgrounds, they all believed that they could join the ranks of those who had argued before volunteer judges at Moakley Federal Courthouse. It began with gazes of wonder, and ears popping, as we embarked on the golden glittering elevators, and when we saw the expansive view of Boston from the 26th floor boardroom. It began with name games led by Wilmer Hale’s public service coordinators Anne and Lindsay, who greeted the students warmly and always made sure they were satisfied and on task at each session.
As a teacher in this program, I had the rare luxury of observing the relationships forming between the students and their volunteer attornies as the weeks progressed. I saw Selena, a beaming young girl with a smile that can hardly be hidden behind her braces, work competently and excitedly with Jerry Facher, well over half a century her senior. I saw the leadership qualities of Lorenzo develop as he worked alongside his attorney Seth Ragosta who similarly displayed the dedication to each and every member of my class. I saw the sharp-witted Anass salute his attorney “Mr. Michael” with appreciation at every opportunity. I saw the genuine excitement brimming on the face of the attorney Michael Saji as he coaxed the shy Shekyna into opening up that big smile that allows her to overcome her jitters of speaking in front a group.
As our case unfolded, students learned the critical legal terms involved and designed their arguments while sitting together in a plush boardroom. Our students got a crucial first look into the future of wide open opportunity that awaits them if they reach for success in middle school, high school, and move towards higher education. The attorneys served many roles, as teachers, mentors, task managers, and as role models for the hard work it takes to succeed in a career. Some of the firm’s staff even got to show their skills as actors as they played the parts of different witnesses and players in the case. I can promise that thanks to them, the experience of this trial was one of the most genuine things I had ever seen. I could see that it opened young people’s eyes to a new world.
As December approached, the stakes rose significantly. The trial was only weeks away and all the knowledge gained by our teams was finally being put together. It wasn’t always easy, as we had conflicts over who was going to fill each role in the trial and everyone worked hard to memorize their lines. For some of the students, like Camilo, for whom English is their second language, there were extra hurdles, however no one let challenges derail us from our goals. It was then I told the students that the choice ahead of us was clear. We could simply go into a room and read off a script or we could reach for greatness. I could see as we packed in numerous extra practice sessions at school, that the students were heeding the call and taking ownership of their success.
Even on the day of trial, the nerves and doubts were still there. I still had to calm down the tempers and the stress between students as they took out some of their nerves on each other. However, once we crossed into Moakley Federal Courthouse, taking our places in the courtroom, I knew that my students were ready to rise to the occasion. I could look on proudly as my students were dressed in their Sunday best. I watched excitedly as Ivan, who often showed up as shy in our run-throughs, came in pinstripes and delivered his arguments crisply as he held his note cards comfortably behind him. I pumped my fist from the 4th row back when the loud, clear, and captivating voice of Xenia filled the entire courtroom.
It hardly mattered who finally won the case, because they had all been victorious. Observers of the legal program for over a decade had been blown away by the fact that the Garfield Middle School team had their lines completely memorized, setting a standard for the program going forward. Our volunteer judge congratulated us in the courtroom and specifically mentioned the powerful speeches of Selena and Xenia. I met families and parents of both sets of attorneys, the aspiring, and those already admitted to the bar. I saw what the power of experiential learning through Citizen Schools could mean for my students, this community, and the youth of our nation.
In closing friends and supporters, that potential is the fuel that drives me each and every day to confront the daunting challenges of the achievement gap in an underserved community. It is the promise that I and the Citizen Schools organization seek to give to America, so these students can face life’s challenges and struggles and reach for greatness. It is something that I hope and humbly ask you to be a part of. I entreat you to not only commit your material support to this effort, but also to make the commitment to ask yourself where you will serve the youth of our nation.
Colin A. Jones