BARBARA’S BOOK

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A Case of the Human Condition: Choose Me, Please!

Barbara Falconer Newhall was summoned for jury duty.. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Jury duty: Many are called, but few are chosen. Photo by Barbara Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

April 21,1991, The Oakland Tribune

Jury duty is a lot like softball. I’d rather not do it. I’d rather not sit through the whiplash case. I’d rather not stand there in right field, breathing dust. Yet something in me wants to be on the team. If there is choosing going on, I can’t help wanting to be among the chosen.

As a child, I was full of good intentions toward sports. Kickball, baseball, red rover, jacks, hopscotch — gamely I tried them all. Gamely I failed.

Whatever the sport, I was afraid of the ball. I was afraid of catching it, of throwing it, of being responsible for it. But if softball and jacks were what the other kids were doing, softball and jacks were what I wanted to do.

I don’t know about your fourth-grade gym teacher, but mine followed a barbaric custom still in practice in many otherwise forward-looking institutions. She let the kids choose their own teams.

You remember how it goes. The teacher chooses the captains. The captains choose the players. The whole fourth grade lines up across the gymnasium floor. There, one’s fitness to play ball, to be on the team, one’s very right to take up space on the planet, is decided by a 9-year-old with dirty fingernails pointing one of them at you.

Or not pointing one of them at you.

Inevitably, I was left standing in the middle of the gym, one of the last to be chosen. A reject. Much as I disliked the feeling of cowering in right field, watching a hard-hit grounder crash toward my shins, even less did I like the feeling of standing there in the gym, unwanted and forlorn.

Jury duty? I'd rather be reading "Cherry Ames, Student Nurse.

Jury duty? I’d rather be reading “Cherry Ames, Student Nurse.”

Naturally, in time my good intentions toward sports faltered. I’d rather be doing something interesting, like watching TV or reading “Cherry Ames, Student Nurse.” Ideally, I would be eating from a bowl of popcorn or potato chips as the plot unfolded.

Still, perversely, whenever there was choosing going on, I wanted to be chosen. I wanted to be on the softball team. I wanted to be in the choir. I wanted to be in the school play.

Especially the school play. I could reconcile myself to a life of athletic mediocrity. But it was tough to give up on my dreams of thespian glory. Sad to say, I rarely got more than a walk-on part — the second lady-in-waiting to the queen, or the third pilgrim from the left.

Looking back now, I see that what I thought was a talent for the stage was actually a knack for memorization. I committed my lines and everyone else’s to memory. Eagerly, I delivered my lines — and spent the rest of the play mouthing everyone else’s.

Despite my inadequacy in both, there was an important difference between auditorium and gym. The drama teacher dispensed her parts quietly and without public humiliation. The gym teacher did everything out front for everyone to see.

The same can be said of jury selection. You get selected or you get “thanked and excused.” And it all happens in public.

Earlier this month it was jury selection for a routine battery case. Fifty or so potential jurors had been plucked from the comfort and predictability of their daily lives — a psychiatrist, an accountant, a student, a laborer, a retiree, a newspaper columnist. Upstanding citizens all, we sat quietly, respectfully in Judge Judith D. Ford’s courtroom — hoping to get out of it.

Each one of us had something we’d rather be doing. The psychiatrist had emergency cases; the retiree, a garage to clean; the newspaper columnist, a deadline and a bag full of interesting books.

But here we were. There was no getting out of it.  It was our legal duty to show up, sit down and stay awake.

A sign in the courtroom spelled things out. “No talking, no reading, no eating, no sleeping. Anyone violating these rules will be ordered out of the courtroom or placed into custody.”

My fellow jurors were called to the jury box one by one for questioning. I had been with these folks two or three days, chatting and laughing in the halls. If we didn’t get selected for this trial, our jury duty would be over. If chosen, we’d be coming back for two or three more days. I knew that most of my fellow jurors were hoping to be excused. I certainly was.

One juror was sure his law enforcement connections would disqualify him. Another professed a bad attitude toward the entire judicial system. I had nothing to offer except the $20 a day in child care it was costing me to be here.

Finally, 24 hours after jury selection began, Judge Ford declared, “We have a jury.” Thirteen of my fellow jurors, including the retiree with the messy garage and the guy with the bad attitude, had been chosen.

Two dozen others had been questioned, thanked and excused. A handful of us were left standing in the middle of the gym. We had not been chosen. We had not even been questioned. We were the rejects. Glumly, I picked up my book bag and prepared to leave the courtroom and my new-found buddies.

I’d be good at jury duty, I assured myself. I can think. I can listen. I can stay awake. And it would be interesting. I’d enjoy watching a jury trial unfold. Even if they don’t let you take popcorn into the jury box.

c Copyright 1991,  The Oakland Tribune

Twenty bucks for two kids to stay a couple hours after school? These days the bill is likely to be twice that . More jury duty thoughts at “Where Jury Duty Is an Exercise in Mindfulness.” More thoughts on civic duty at “Fifteen Patriotic Holiday Gifts for the Progressives on Your List.”

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