Inside a courtroom

Ramesh Nyberg

These Kids Today…

“Children: They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. They no longer rise when elders enter the room, they contradict their parents and tyrannize their teachers. Children are now tyrants.”      

So true, isn’t it? Today’s youth bewilders, frustrates and, sometimes, angers us to no end. Now, would you care to guess who wrote that quote at the beginning of this column? If you’re trying to think of an American president or your mind is scanning the last few decades to try and pin down what social commentator or parent expert might have said it, give it up.

The quote comes from none other than Aristotle, somewhere around 470 BC.
It seems as though every generation worries that its culture is about to collapse because the “youth of today” is immersed in their own self-centeredness and ingratiation and cares little or nothing about anything beyond the tips of their own noses or, perhaps, the rectangular screen they cradle in their hand.

I will admit to grumbling and griping about youngsters who seem to have no interest whatsoever in this country’s history; the sacrifices made in the name of their freedom; and the future of our nation. I, like many of you, want to scream when I see Antifa youth so mindlessly antagonizing innocent people on the streets of Portland and other cities. I fear for those teenagers whose only goal seems to be piercing, tattooing and coloring themselves into clownish states so profusely as to become unrecognizable. I, too, have wondered what it will take for this generation to recognize that there are good people in our world; that there are caring, competent, professional police officers on the streets protecting them while they sleep. I have groaned at the hatred for authority many teenagers suffer from, so much that they are attacking teachers in classrooms and posting vicious assaults on social media so they can rack up “likes” and “follows.”

Is it hopeless? Is it irretrievable? Was Aristotle right – our kids are tyrants?

In this issue’s column, allow me to offer a light at the end of this seemingly endless tunnel. As many of you know, I teach high school now (apparently, 27 years of law enforcement wasn’t enough punishment). I will tell you that, as public schools go, I’m lucky. I teach at a magnet school with six “academies” incoming students can choose to enter. One of those, the “Legal and Public Affairs Academy,” is where you’ll find me. Because this is a magnet school, the caliber of kids we get is a cut above the “average” high school student in our county. I would attribute this to parent involvement; these students would not have had a chance to get in the school unless their parents had gone through the process of applying and attending the orientations and all the other hoops which must be jumped to get in. In all of the years that I’ve been teaching at this school – I have never seen as much as a fistfight in that time.

The kids aren’t perfect, of course, and there are disciplinary problems; kids who fail classes and have to be expelled; and so on, but for the most part, this is an exceptionally well-behaved student body. When I first got to this school and started teaching criminal justice classes, I noticed the school had no mock trial team. So, in 2010, I started one. This year, the mock trial team, consisting of 14 students, began working hard in November when the state of Florida disseminated the case package to all interested schools. The state puts together a fictional case complete with detailed witness statements and evidence, and this year’s case was a second-degree murder. Once schools receive the packet, they have about three months to practice before district competition. I’m writing this three days after my team went to competition against 20 other high schools.

I can’t adequately describe what it is like to watch 14 students – some of whom knew little or nothing about the law when we started (we allow students from other academies to join the team) – dive into their roles and practice intensely, hour after hour, week after week, to hone their skills as lawyers and witnesses. By the time competition came up, I was a little worried, as a few of them looked ready, but others were still struggling to remember details. But, it was time: Competition – February 23rd and 24th – was upon us. On that first morning, the students – all dressed in suits and looking sharper than ever – boarded a bus and headed downtown where the competition took place.

When it was our turn to do our opening statement, I was just floored. The girl who gave the prosecution opening was so good that I wanted to stand up and cheer, but, as the sponsor, I had to sit quietly at the back of the room and keep a lid on my admiration. The rest of that day and all through the second day, these kids just continued to “wow” me. The teams we went up against were equally well prepared and performed with astonishing poise and professionalism. As the sponsor for their team, I hosted our rehearsals and training in my classroom twice a week after school. I didn’t “train” them, but I did offer guidance and answered their questions as best as I could. I’m not an attorney, but I’ve worked with enough of them throughout my career, even flirting with the idea of going to law school after I retired.

The students never had to be encouraged to work hard. They took their packet home, practiced with each other on weekends, and were still rehearsing in the bus on the way to competition. Seeing them perform at such a high level, with such passion and intensity, was nothing less than fascinating. The judges at competition were all lawyers. One of them was judging for the first time. During the critique that is done at the end of each round, he looked at our students and shook his head.

“I’m just blown away. You guys did better than some real attorneys I’ve seen in the courtroom and I’m not kidding. I’m so impressed with you. Congratulations on your hard work.”

At the end of competition, we didn’t make the final four who will go on to the next round of state competition, but we smiled when we saw the winners hugging, screaming and crying when their team was announced. On the bus home, the kids were happy. There was no disappointment because their hard work, training and emphatic embrace of these often difficult rules and procedures taught them so much.

“Thank you, Mr. Nyberg,” they told me. “We’ve learned so much.”

“Yes, you have,” I told them. “And what you’ve learned about mostly is yourselves.

There are some young people who cause us despair and worry about the future. But, when I think of my mock trial kids, I see leaders, winners and young people willing to work to make a positive difference in themselves, in their justice system and in their nation.

There is hope.

Ramesh Nyberg retired from law enforcement in November 2006 after 27 years of police work. He lives in Miami and teaches criminal justice at a local high school. He also teaches regional law enforcement courses through Training Force, USA. He enjoys getting feedback from readers and can be reached at ramesh.nyberg@gmail.com. Also, Ram has recently announced his newly published book, The Ten Must-Haves to Be a Great Detective, available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle eBook.