Remember the 1990’s? Back then, I had a very part time position at the community college working as the Literacy Coordinator. I coordinated a volunteer program that matched volunteer tutors with adults who read below a sixth grade reading level. As the Literacy Coordinator, I wrote monthly newsletters and mailed them off to all the tutors. Here is the front page article I wrote for the January/February 1996 newsletter:
February brings us cold weather, hearts and flowers, and President’s Day. A holiday when we remember 2 great Presidents of our Country – George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. I usually celebrate this holiday in two ways. First, I go out to the mailbox, open it, and say, “oh yeah” and then walk back to the house empty handed. Secondly, I tape up the Washington or Lincoln silhouette made by one of my children at school a few days earlier. But this year, I may think a little more about our Country’s founding fathers and the principles they lay down as sacred in our Constitution.
One of our country’s principles is that you are innocent until proven guilty. Another is the right to a speedy trial with a fair and impartial jury. And in the usual hustle and bustle of December (including my twin boys’ 7th birthday), I was called upon to enact these principles by serving as an alternate juror in a Murder One case.
A dealer had set up a crack house. Over several months, he built up a “clientele.” There were regulars who came daily and hung around the house socializing and smoking. One day while the dealer was away, his clientele decided to sell his t.v. so they could buy more crack. When the dealer returned, he was mad and blamed one man in particular. This man’s right to life, as specified in the Constitution, was brutally taken away – for a t.v.
This trial personalized for me the stories we hear every day on the news. Two drug dealers, smart enough to never use crack. Four people brought across the state from prison to testify, one had had a baby two weeks prior, one a convicted murderer, all of them crackheads. A prostitute. A planned drive by shooting. Two young children left alone all night while their mother goes for crack. A man who had everything he owned in a small duffel bag. A man who didn’t even own a duffel bag. A witness from prison, call out “Hi Mama” in a soft, gentle voice in the middle of her otherwise deadpan, monotone testimony. I saw the power of crack, of poverty, and of evil. I saw too many people whose human potential was wasted.
I also noticed something about one of the witnesses. When shown an enlarged diagram of a one room apartment, he couldn’t point out the front, the only, door. When asked to initial a certain paragraph, he sat motionless until the exact spot was pointed out to him on the paper. When given 2 one-page documents and asked to refer to a certain one, he shrugged. He didn’t know which one to pick up. I don’t know if the other jurors or if even the attorneys knew, but I knew: this man could not read.
Thomas Jefferson, another one of our great presidents, described jury duty as the single most important duty of a citizen in a democratic society. In addition, he believed in education for all citizens and that it was vital to a democracy. He believed that if you were given more, you had a responsibility to give more. Our country, with all its problems, desperately needs the ideas and ideals of Jefferson, Washington and Lincoln to be lived out by every day people in their every day lives. Literacy tutors do this in every single session.
No, I don’t think I’ll be making that trip out to the mailbox this President’s Day. This President’s Day, I have a better idea.