Judgment at Hookyville

The volunteer jurists running a truancy court for St. Louis get an up-close view of wayward kids, don't-care parents and war-zone schools. It's worse than they thought.

"Nobody told you because they don't want to do all the paperwork," one of the better teachers whispered.

Tony was given an individual education plan and an appointment with a pediatric neurologist. He was found to have attention deficit disorder; after three false tries, the clinic finally found the right medicine: Concerta.

Both his grades and attendance improved dramatically.

Jennifer Silverberg
Judge Joan Burger of the 22nd Circuit Court reads an essay she assigned and hopes to give out a candy bar, for once, instead of a referral to juvenile court or drug treatment. With her is Dave Vierzba, one of two deputy juvenile officers now stationed at Roosevelt High School.
Jennifer Silverberg
Judge Joan Burger of the 22nd Circuit Court reads an essay she assigned and hopes to give out a candy bar, for once, instead of a referral to juvenile court or drug treatment. With her is Dave Vierzba, one of two deputy juvenile officers now stationed at Roosevelt High School.

"Now, just when everything's finally good, they're gonna lock me up," thought Mary.

She started calling "every person I'd ever met in my life" to be a character witness, until her delinquent, wise 16-year-old forestalled her:

"Mama, no. All you need is you and me. It's just about you and me."

Now he's telling Turner that his mother has always stood by him, that his behavior has been his own fault.

They go home together, both on probation.


Tony started goofing off in third grade, singing, falling off his seat on purpose.

Silly stuff.

By the fourth grade, he was hanging out with the bad kids because it looked like they were having so much fun.

His grades skidded down to F's.

Every year he'd fail, then go to summer school, take ceramics, do what both he and his mother recognized as "baby work" and pass to the next grade.

He shocked everybody by asking to go to the ROTC high school, hoping for discipline and structure and wanting neither.

"I didn't do nothin' but cuss out the platoon leaders, acting the fool," he says. "So they kicked me out."

Mary drove him to Beaumont. He looked up at the stately burgundy redbrick building, its center limestone panel as ornate as a lace bodice. Kids spilled down its front steps, smoking and cussing.

"They're gonna beat me up," he whispered.

"You're just like them," she snapped back.

Travis Brown, Beaumont's genial, nattily dressed principal, would have reassured Tony heartily.

Brown, who refers to himself in singsong third person and could easily host a children's show, says that Beaumont neither has nor needs in-school suspension; behavior is improving in every way.

"You make Mr. Brown's honor roll, look what you get!" he exclaims. He removes his watch, its face clearly lettered BEAUMONT. "You make top honors, I take you and your parents out to lunch."

He chuckles for a long, long time.

"See?"

Brown locks the school doors, tracks attendance every hour and keeps his staff in tennis shoes so they can walk the halls. "And at 8 every morning, the counselors come in and talk to students about their tardies, and who else comes in? Mr. Brown!"

Tony thinks Mr. Brown is nuts:

"Skipping's not hard at all. All you gotta do is check to see which of the outside doors has a little red light, instead of a green light, and then push it and walk on out."

He did this constantly last year. Hung out at an apartment house around the corner, smoking weed.

"At first it gives you this great feeling," he explains. "No fear. You're invincible. You can talk to a girl you have a crush on and not even be shy.

"But then your attitude starts to change. I barely even went home. I was wearing the same clothes all the time."

He got arrested for helping some older guys steal a car, and he was put in detention.

"It wasn't nothin'," he shrugs. "Only a few weeks. Then they put me on probation and they put me in drug rehab." Tony stopped smoking weed -- mainly because he knew he'd get dropped -- but he kept getting suspended. Beaumont now had him in a behavior-disorders classroom.

"Take all the bad kids and put 'em in one place?" He chortles at the logic. "I'd come to school drunk on MD 20/20 and walk out of class cussin' the teacher: 'Damn, man, what the fuck, why you got to be trippin' with me? Well, fuck this classroom."

Once he pointed the security guard toward another, innocent student and walked out the door.

Once he walked across all the desktops to get to the door.

That was the day everything changed.

"They suspended me, but they wanted me to go back and apologize to the teacher first. I said, 'What?' I really didn't feel I did anything wrong. Then these guys from New Beginnings came by my classroom. They told me that by me acting the fool I ain't helping nobody. My race is suffering. We ain't doing nothing positive. We ain't trying to help each other out in no way.

"That's the first time I ever heard anything like that," he says. "I went back and apologized."

He hasn't been suspended since.

"I figured something out," he says. "Every black adult is telling their children, 'The white man doesn't want you to succeed. The white man is giving you drugs.' Every white man ain't like that. If you get your education and do everything legitimate, the white man can't touch you."

All his mother knows is that just when she'd given up on her son's sodden brain, he started telling her about cryogenics. He said he was tired of his pants sagging down and asked for a belt. She picked up his bookbag and nearly dropped it: Instead of Twinkies and some clothes, he had books inside it.

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