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.

"That a basketball, Judge?" one of the kids calls.

"Nope, it's my shoes," he says, pulling out the dry sneakers.

Roosevelt DJO Dave Vierzba, a.k.a Mr. V, runs out onto the court in a black T-shirt, long shorts, red sneakers and a knee brace. Judge Jimmy Edwards, already breathing hard from a warmup, straps on plastic sports goggles.

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.

"We're gonna die before they're gonna die," mutters Frawley.

DJO Timothy Felton dances down one of the half-court lines, wriggling his butt to encourage some cheerleading. Burger shows up dressed for a benefit dinner and sits at the scoring table, periodically yelling "Go kids!" in a sweet treble.

The play is sloppy at first, hands flailing, movements uncontrolled. Out here, the kids look their age for once: unsure which way to pass, their arms and legs not quite in sync. They remember to feint with every pass, though; they're used to faking out DJOs.

"Go right!" yells Frawley, and they all run into each other midcourt. One of the kids gets "the rock" and passes it, and a skinny long-necked freshman banks it off glass and in.

Mr. V swipes the ball back and sinks two in a row.

Nobody makes a single smart-ass remark.

Frawley's amazed every game by how courteous the kids are. There's no trash talk. The usual anger dribbles and spins itself out.

These are kids who've puffed themselves up with the false pride the street demands. It's fragile. They feel dissed by teachers every day, and they give back what they think they're getting.

Except here.

The grown-ups lead by six points, then 10.

"Nice shot," a kid calls to Edwards, who's drenched with sweat.

They all are, and the mood is loose and easy.

Basketball is a time-out. A brief stretch where the adults and the kids are playing by the same rules. A time when the kids hang out with adults who already know they're screw-ups -- and show off one thing they can do well.

Felton dribbles through traffic and charges down the court.

"Traveling!" yells the ref.

Frawley grabs a pass and dribbles toward the hoop, stooped like Groucho Marx in his white sneakers. He springs up, takes a long shot. It wobbles around the rim, bounces back out.

"Anybody need a break?" he calls hopefully.

Instead, a long-legged kid in sky-blue satin shorts steals the ball, drives down court and shoots a three. A DJO on the sidelines forgets his team and claps. The gap in the score starts closing.

But the grown-ups, puffing and drenched, still win.

Afterward, Ed Bell grins at the shocked kids and taps his forehead.

"The game," he announces, "is up here."

Frawley shoots a look at the kids' faces. He knows teenagers hate to lose at anything.

But oddly enough, here, they seem to find it reassuring.

These grown-ups are clearly grown-ups.

They're in control. They're good at what they do.

The kids can still be kids.

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