Back in law school, my Mock Trial coach offered a bit of advice that sounded good at the time, but turned out to be flawed.
“Above all else,” the otherwise splendid instructor said. “Don’t put your audience to sleep.”
Common sense, right? You don’t have to be Cicero to know things aren’t going well when jurors start nodding off during your closing argument. We’re supposed to be advocates, after all, not Ambien.
And yet, as with all rules, there are exceptions to this one, though it would take me a few years and a lot of life to figure that out.
Me and Parker’s Pups
The beginning of enlightenment came in the late 90s, at the fall Open House for Estes Hills Elementary School, where my son Rudy was starting kindergarten. Rudy was the last of the four tiny humans who over the prior decade had showed up on our doorstep and demanded to be fed, housed and diapered. Being the smallest and least mobile, he was often lost in the shuffle.
So at Open House I decided to compensate by signing up as a classroom volunteer – something I had not done for his three older siblings, which was probably their good fortune.
“Great,” said his teacher Mrs. Parker. “You can be a Special Guest.”
This came as a jolt. I was expecting to be a chaperone for the State Fair field trip. Perhaps a playground parent. But Special Guest? What did that even mean?
My Debut as Special Guest
On a sunny Friday in September, I walked into the classroom of Parker’s Pups wearing my best suit and power tie. An army of small people rushed towards me, their faces shining and eager. I could tell they were expecting something awesome.
“Does anyone know who today’s Special Guest is?” Mrs. Parker asked the Pups.
Several knew I was Rudy’s dad. But none – not even my own son – spoke up, until a bright-eyed boy named Lamont raised his hand.
This brought a chorus of raucous laughter and impressed oooohs. It seems the class had just been learning about our 42nd president, whose smiling face beamed out at us from the bulletin board. The record should reflect that over the years I’d been told I resemble Tim Conway, Roy Williams and one of the Osmonds. But never Bill Clinton. And the children, to their credit, managed to conceal their disappointment when they learned I was not the leader of the free world after all, just Rudy’s dad.
As it turned out, being a Special Guest meant sitting on a stool and reading from Weekly Reader while the children lay quietly on their mats. I cleared my throat and launched into a riveting tale about the importance of dental hygiene.
“Our teeth are our friends,” I began. “Let’s keep our friends healthy!”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mrs. Parker slip from the room, leaving me alone with the roomful of Pups and a UNC student teacher lost in a computer in the corner. But no worries. I had aced Mock Trial and knew how to captivate, to persuade, to delight.
“Brushing our teeth is important.”
“Cookie,” came a soft voice from nearby. “Cookie.”
It was Lamont. Most of the other Pups had fallen asleep. But Lamont sat on his mat in rapt attention.
“Now Lamont,” I said. “You know this is nap time, not snack time.”
There’s One in Every Crowd
I had been warned about Lamont. He was energetic, a handful. He would not nap. Try to ignore him.
So on I plowed, sticking to my plan, just as I had been taught in Mock Trial.
“The toothbrush goes up and down.”
But Lamont kept insisting cookie, cookie, and I found myself growing increasingly annoyed. Until a little girl in pink overalls got up and went over to the shelf and brought me a book.
“He wants you to read this,” whispered my small, brown-eyed savior.
The book she handed me was “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.”
By now, most of the Pups were snoring and the TA was oblivious. It was basically just me and Lamont. So I ditched the dental work and turned to page one.
“If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk.”
And before I got to the part where the mouse gives himself a haircut, Lamont – the energetic handful who never, ever naps – was stretched out on his mat in blissful sleep.
The Limits of Legal Education
Life is not a Mock Trial. It’s a giant peach, a secret garden, an incredible journey where wild things are. I have Lamont to thank for teaching me that.
And this too. Sometimes when we think others are being difficult or irritating, they’re not trying to cause trouble. They’re just misunderstood.
They simply want what we all want: a safe place to rest their head, a peaceful nap, a happy story read aloud, one that ends where it begins, with milk and cookies, one that shows how life is a circle and we are all connected.