My Quest for Something Meaningful

John Gilson is Chairman of the Advisory Board for Citizen Schools North Carolina. He is an attorney from Moore & Van Allen and a long time volunteer Citizen Teacher. I have always wanted to help improve public education and I knew that I needed to step out of my comfort zone if I was going to do something truly meaningful. In the summer of 2009 I was asked to teach a Citizen Schools Mock Trial apprenticeship, working with a group of middle school students on how to try a case. It was with one of my students that I discovered my meaningful moment.

As a former teacher and current attorney, I was a great fit to teach the apprenticeship.  But like many new volunteers I was hesitant at first.  I hadn't been to a middle school in years and I didn't know what to expect. I decided to take the plunge.

To date, I have taught four Mock Trial apprenticeships in Charlotte, North Carolina, with two other attorneys from my law firm Moore & Van Allen. In our most recent apprenticeship we had a familiar face on the first day, a sixth grader named Tyrone. Tyrone was on the losing end of his first Mock Trial the previous semester, and he wanted to come back to do the apprenticeship again, and to win!

For ten weeks, Tyrone was the first one in the classroom.  He jumped at the chance to answer questions, practice his cross-examination or find opportunities to show his fellow classmates what he had learned the first time around.

The day of the Mock Trial, Tyrone was nervous.  I noticed that he was practicing in the back of the courtroom with his mother. He had memorized everything.  I tried to remain impartial, but I was secretly rooting for Tyrone’s team.

In the end, in the case of the State of North Carolina v. Jennifer Lopez, the prosecution won.

Tyrone, unfortunately, was on the defense.

Tyrone and I were both devastated. I saw him crying and hugging his mom.

I walked over to tell them exactly what I was thinking – I was honored that Tyrone cared so much about the apprenticeship. To me, there is no better compliment as a teacher than to see that one of your students truly cares.  I told Tyrone that he had nothing to be upset about.  He did a fantastic job! Tyrone’s mother said that he wanted to be an attorney when he grew up.  At that moment, I knew that I had far exceeded my goal of doing something “meaningful" by learning 3 simple facts from Tyrone:

1. Kids are fantastic. When they are engaged in the topic, they will be energetic and excited to show you what they can do. Even when they joke around, they are eager to learn.

2. Kids are resilient. Tyrone begged to be part of the Mock Trial after losing his first case. He was determined to try again. These kids go through a lot and sometimes they get knocked down. It's a great moment to see them persevere.

3. Kids want to be inspired. When Tyrone's mother told me he wanted to be a lawyer when he grew up, I swelled with pride. If you can touch just one child through your apprenticeship, you have succeeded.

Committing to a ten-week long apprenticeship, and to the countless hours spent preparing for class, is a great sacrifice of your time. But my message to new Citizen Teachers is that when you look back on the semester you will see something meaningful in what you've done. If you're anything like me, it will make you come back to teach again and again.