I don't know how many of you are aware of it, but the Huron County Common Pleas Court has moved into Norwalk High School for the summer, while repairs are made at the courthouse on Main Street. This fact has been in the newspaper. I have known about it, and yet it didn't seem real. The high school is where I teach, and where my children go to school. A courthouse?
But earlier this week, I went looking for my husband, who was "in court." That meant "at the high school." I went there to find him, thinking I would just stroll right into the high school as I do during the year. I knew things were different when I was greeted by a sheriff's deputy outside the main door of the school. "Are you going to the clerk of court's office or the courtroom?" he asked me. "The courtroom," I responded. "But I can find it myself," I assured him. After all, I know my way around the high school building.
"Wait," he told me firmly. He took out his "wand," and said he had to check me over first, in case I was carrying a weapon. OK, this is definitely not the high school any more.
Once assured that I had no weapons, I was allowed into the library, which serves as the clerk of court's office. That was extremely odd, seeing adult court employees stationed around the library, but I walked through quickly, eager to get to the court itself, which is housed in a social studies classroom.
All of the classrooms at Norwalk High School are quite similar in shape, size and color. Each one has windows, whiteboards, a screen for the overhead projector, a closet, a television mounted in the corner, an American flag mounted in another corner. This one had all those familiar things, but it also had no desks. There were chairs for spectators and people waiting for their court appearance. There was a podium for whoever was speaking. And there was Judge Conway and his bailiff and the court reporter all in what is..er..a classroom and yet not a classroom.
It was very odd. First of all, it made me think of what makes something a court. I always thought it had something to do with that massive, dignified old building that sits at the corner of Benedict Avenue and East Main Street. Wrong. This was a court, too, even though it looked not much different from my own English classroom on the second floor.
OK, well then maybe it's the people who make it a court. But no; I have seen different judges come and go. When we first came to town, the common pleas court meant Judge Robert W. Smith. It was "his" court. And yet it was not, really, because after he retired to private life, court went on under Judge Philip White and then under Judge Earl McGimpsey. In fact, Judge Conway has only been judge for a few months, and yet it was still clearly a court.
What makes it a court? If it's not the building or the people, what is it? It is the authority of the law, pure and simple. That room, where during the school year students learn (or don't learn) history, now has all the seriousness and dignity and power of a high-ceilinged place with portraits of old judges. I know that because I saw people in that former classroom plead guilty to crimes, saw them sentenced, and saw them kneel while the sheriff's deputy shackled their legs. I heard the assistant public defender plead for "justice tempered with mercy," and I heard their excuses and their mitigating circumstances, and I heard the judge sentence them to months or years in prison.
I know that school will start next month, and the courthouse will have to be out of the high school. But how educational it would be for the students to see the real-life results of violating the law. It is not glamorous or exciting or daring to be put in chains and taken to prison. Some of the prisoners were not much older than high school students. I will never forget the sight of the prisoners' legs being shackled, as they looked down in shame; I will never forget the looks in their parents' eyes as they watched, unable to stop the power of the law or interfere with the consequences of their offspring's behavior. One day spent in the back of a courtroom, watching this, would be quite an education for high school students.