The defense attorney wanted to shoot another question but saw that she was crying. Mr. Marcus glanced at the jury. Many of them were crying as well. He was touched also, but did not cry. This more brutal than the average inner city horror story, but it was not the worst he ever heard.
A box of tissue was passed around, first to Justin’s mother than to the members of the jury. A lengthy silence fell over the courtroom. The only sounds were a few isolated sniffles and whispers. When she had regained her composure, the defense attorney asked a few more questions about Justin and his mother’s life. But it was not necessary. The mood had been set.
After the mother’s testimony, Mr. Marcus took the stand. He only taught Justin for two years. For one year, Justin was in his seventh grade homeroom and the other year he taught Justin eighth grade history. Mr. Marcus gave his name and how he knew Justin. Then he answered the prepared questions the lawyer had discussed with him.
“What was your perception of Justin during the years you taught him?”
“He was smart, really. Very bright. A little silly though.
“What was the most striking thing you remembered about Justin?”
Mr. Marcus chuckled. “He was such a perfectionist. Most kids, you ask them to do something and they just want to finish it and get a grade. But Justin wanted everything to be perfect.”
“Can you give us an example?”
“Yes. One time I assigned my students a project where they had to write and direct a play about a famous African-American. I broke them up into groups and gave them a leader, but left the rest up to them. I wasn’t looking for anything really extravagant, just little skits about any aspect of their subject’s life. The students had to write the script, choose their costumes and design their props. Justin’s group was given Malcolm X. I chose Justin as the leader and of course, he made sure he got the part of Malcolm X. He handled everything from top to bottom. He made sure the other students knew their parts. He delegated the roles and duties. He wrote the entire script, but he still made sure everybody else had a part in it. So, in the end, his play was almost flawless. Justin was enthusiastic and it made the other students enthusiastic. I tell you, I assign the same project every year to my students, and so far no one has come close to matching Justin’s performance. That year I videotaped all of the skits, but his was the only one I kept. I show it every year to my other students so they can get an idea of how good a job they can do if they put their minds to it.”
“Do you still have that tape?”
Mr. Marcus did. With the judge’s permission, they played the tape for the jury. A young, clean cut and respectable Justin was sitting on a wooden chair. He bore none of his current tattoos and scars. The younger Justin reenacted a segment from Malcolm X’s autobiography. Malcolm was telling his teacher he wanted to be a lawyer. Malcolm’s teacher was a nice guy and really liked Malcolm, so he advised Malcolm to be more realistic. He told Malcolm not to dream about becoming a lawyer because that wasn’t a realistic goal for Negroes to aspire to. He told Malcolm he was good with his hands, and should consider becoming a carpenter. That was a good, solid career for a Negro. The skit went on to explain that was the turning point for Malcolm. He went from being a good boy, achieving against all odds, to a parasitic hoodlum.
Mr. Marcus smiled at the video. He remembered every student. Most of them graduated from high school, but he did not think any of them got into college. Some of the girls got pregnant a few years later. Many of the boys were currently locked up. A few were dead.
The attorney thanked Mr. Marcus for his testimony and excused him from the bench. The teacher walked back to his seat, making sure to flash Justin a reassuring smile. To his surprise, Justin glared back. He had never seen such hate and fury directed at him in a single look. Mr. Marcus, feeling confused and a little scared, hurried back to his seat.
The judge decided to adjourn for lunch. He instructed the lawyers and jury to return in thirty minutes.
After the jury filed out, Mr. Marcus stood up with the few other people in the audience and headed for the exit. The bailiffs whisked Justin away through a separate door, and his lawyer was off to the side talking with Justin’s mother. Mr. Marcus left the room, headed for the nearest elevator and rode down to the crowded courthouse cafeteria on the bottom floor. After waiting in line for almost ten minutes and purchasing a light lunch of juice, an apple, and a turkey sandwich, he found an empty table and sat down to eat.
As Mr. Marcus threw out his trash he spotted Justin’s mother in line. Before he could avert his eyes, she saw him and offered a slight smile. Feeling a little uncomfortable after hearing her testimony, Mr. Marcus smiled back and hurried to the trash receptacle. He turned to leave and almost ran straight into the mother.
“Oh! I’m sorry ma’am. Didn’t see you there.” He remembered his previous anger at Justin’s mother and felt ashamed of himself.
“Dat’s alright Mr. Marcus. I jes wanna thank you for standin’ up for mah boy like dat. I hope it helps. I don’t wanna lose another son.”
“I hope so too. Just remember it’s not your fault.” What if she could read his mind? What if she knew what a hypocrite he was? “How’s Justin holding up?”
“I guess he doin’ alright considerin’ the situation. I think he acceptin’ it. He know he got hisself into this mess.”
“Gangs and drugs, right?”
“Yep. Dem’s always the culprit.”
Mr. Marcus wanted to leave, but she was blocking his escape. He tried to think of something reassuring to say instead. “He was such a smart kid too. Justin was one of my favorite students.”
“Dat’s a surprise.”
Mr. Marcus was confused. “Why is that a surprise?”
“Justin ain’t like you too much.”
“What?” Mr. Marcus was shocked. Everybody liked him. He received cards from dozens of his former students every winter. His female students always volunteered to pass out assignments. His male students always greeted him like a buddy. One even took the time to teach him the newest black handshakes. How could anyone dislike Mr. Marcus? “Why didn’t he like me?”
“I don’t really know. You seem like you was a good teachuh too.” She looked at her watch. “The jury’s gonna be comin’ back soon, so’s I gotta hurry back.”
Mr. Marcus watched her leave the cafeteria, but he just stood there. After several seconds amidst the bustling cafeteria crowd, he finally regained himself and returned to the courtroom.