The ActivistJohn Grisham
The opponent was the team from Central, the “other” school in town and the great rival of Strattenburg Middle School. Whenever there was a game or a match or contest of any sort against Central, the tensions were higher, the crowds were bigger, and things just seemed more important. This was true even for a debate. One month earlier, the SMS Eighth-Grade Debate Team had won at Central in a packed auditorium, and when the decision was announced by the judges the crowd was not happy. There were a few boos, though these were quickly hushed. Good behavior and sportsmanship were expected, regardless of the contest.
Strattenburg’s captain was Theodore Boone, who was also the anchor, the closer, the go-to guy when the pressure was on. Theo and his team had never lost, though they were not quite undefeated. Two months earlier, they had tied with the SMS girls’ team after a rowdy debate on the issue of raising the driving age from sixteen to eighteen.
But Theo wasn’t thinking about other debates at the moment. He was onstage, seated at a folding table. Aaron on one side and Joey on the other, all three young men in coats and ties and looking quite snappy, and all three staring across the stage at the team from Central. Mr. Mount, Theo’s adviser, friend, and debate coach, was speaking into a microphone and saying, “And now, the final statement by Strattenburg, from Theodore Boone.”
Theo glanced at the crowd. His father was sitting in the front row. His mother, a busy divorce lawyer, was tied up in court and upset that she was missing her only child in action. Behind Mr. Boone was a row of girls, including April Finnemore, one of Theo’s closest friends, and Hallie Kershaw, the most popular girl in the entire eighth grade. Grouped behind the girls were a bunch of teachers: Madame Monique, from Cameroon, who taught Spanish and was Theo’s second favorite, after Mr. Mount, of course; and Mrs. Garman, who taught Geometry; and Mrs. Everly, who taught English. Even Mrs. Gladwell, the principal, was there. All in all a nice crowd, for a debate anyway. For a basketball or football game, there would have been twice as many spectators, but then those teams had more than three contestants per side, and, frankly, were more exciting to watch.
Theo tried not to consider these things, though it was difficult. An asthma condition prohibited him from participating in organized sports, so this was his chance to compete before spectators. He loved the fact that most of his classmates were terrified of speaking in public, while he enjoyed the challenge. Justin could dribble a basketball between his legs and hit three-pointers all day long, but when called on in class he was as timid as a four-year-old. Brian was the fastest thirteen-year-old swimmer in Strattenburg, and he enjoyed the confident swagger of a great athlete, but put him in front of a crowd and he wilted.
Not Theo. Theo spent little time in the bleachers cheering for the other kids; instead, he hung around courtrooms and watched lawyers battle before juries and judges. He would be a great lawyer one day, and though he was only thirteen, he had already learned the valuable lesson that speaking in public was important to success. It wasn’t easy. In fact, as Theo stood and walked business-like to the podium, he felt his stomach flip and his heart race. He had read stories of great athletes and their pregame routines, and how many of them were so tense and edgy they would actually vomit. Theo did not feel sick to his stomach, but he felt the fear, the unease. A veteran trial lawyer had once told him: “If you’re not nervous, son, then something is wrong.”
Theo was certainly nervous, but he knew from experience it was only temporary. Once the game started, the butterflies disappeared. He touched the microphone, looked at the moderator, and said, “Thank you, Mr. Mount.” He turned to the Central team, cleared his throat, reminded himself once again to speak clearly and slowly, and began, “Now, Mr. Bledsoe makes some valid points, especially when he argues that someone who breaks the law should not benefit from it. And that many American students who were born here and whose parents were born here cannot afford college. These arguments cannot be ignored.”
Theo took a breath, then turned his attention to the spectators, though he avoided eye contact. He had learned a few tricks during his career in debate, and one of the most important was to ignore the faces in the crowd. They could be distracting. They could make you lose your train of thought. Instead, Theo looked at objects when he spoke—an empty seat on the right side, a clock in the back of the room, a window on the left side—and as he spoke he continually shifted his gaze from one to the other. This gave the clear impression that Theo was tuned in to the crowd, looking earnestly, communicating. It made him seem comfortable at the podium, something the judges always liked.
He continued: “However, children of undocumented workers—we used to call them illegal immigrants—have no choice where they are born, nor can they choose where they live. Their parents made the decision to enter, illegally, the United States, and they did so primarily because they were hungry and looking for a job. It’s not fair to punish the children for what their parents did. We have students in this school, and at Central, and at every school in this district, who are not supposed to be here because their parents broke the law. But, we admit them, accept them, and our system educates them. In many cases, they are our friends.”
The issue was red-hot. There was a noisy movement sweeping across the state to prohibit the children of undocumented workers from enrolling in public colleges. Those who supported the ban argued that the large number of “illegals” would (1) swamp the university system; and (2) squeeze out American students who might otherwise barely qualify for college; and (3) consume millions in tax dollars paid in by real US citizens. The Central team had done a good job making these points so far in the debate.
Theo went on, “The law requires this school system, and every school system in this state, to accept and educate all students, regardless of where they come from. If the state has to pay for the first twelve years, why then should the state be allowed to slam the doors when these students are ready for college?”
Theo had some notes scribbled on a sheet of paper in front of him on the podium, but he refused to look down. Judges loved debaters who spoke without looking down, and Theo knew he was earning points. All three of the boys from Central had relied on their notes.
He raised a finger and said, “First, it’s a question of fairness. All of us have been told by our parents that they expect us to go to college. It’s part of the American dream. It seems unfair, then, to pass a law that will prohibit many of our students, and many of our friends, from being admitted to college.” He raised another finger. “Second, competition is always good. Mr. Bledsoe takes the position that US citizens should be given priority in college admissions because their parents were here first, even though some of these students are not as qualified as the children of undocumented workers. Shouldn’t our colleges admit the best students, period? Across this state, each year there are about thirty thousand openings for incoming freshmen. Why should anyone get special consideration? If our colleges admit the best students, doesn’t that make our colleges stronger? Of course it does. No one should be admitted unless he or she deserves it, just as no one should be denied based on where his or her parents were born.”
Mr. Mount worked hard to suppress a grin. Theo was on a roll and he knew it. He managed to add just a trace of anger to his voice, nothing too dramatic, but the right touch that conveyed the message—This is so obvious, how can anyone argue with me? Mr. Mount had seen this before. Theo was moving in for the kill.
The third finger was thrust into the air as Theo said, “The final point is this . . .” He paused and took a breath and looked around the auditorium as though his final point, whatever it might be, was going to be so true and so clear that no one in the room could have any doubt. “There are many studies provin
g that people with college degrees have more opportunities, better jobs, and higher salaries than people without college degrees. It’s a head start to a better life. And higher salaries mean higher tax revenues, which leads to better schools and better colleges. People who are denied the chance to go to college are more likely to become unemployed, and that leads to all sorts of problems.”
Theo paused again and slowly checked the top button of his jacket. He knew the button was okay, but he needed to convey the image of utmost confidence. “In closing, this notion of slamming the doors of our colleges to students whose parents came here illegally is a bad idea. It’s been rejected by over twenty states already. That’s why the Justice Department in Washington has promised to file a lawsuit in this state if such a law is passed. It is short-sighted, mean-spirited, and simply not fair. This is the land of opportunity, and at one time or another all of our ancestors came here as immigrants. We are a nation of immigrants. Thank you.”
Mr. Mount appeared at the edge of the stage as Theo returned to his seat. Mr. Mount smiled and said, “Let’s have a nice round of applause for both teams.” The audience, which had been warned against expressing support or opposition in any way, offered a warm round of applause.
“Let’s take a short break,” Mr. Mount said. Theo, Aaron, and Joey quickly stood and walked across the stage, where they shook hands with the Central team. All six boys were relieved the pressure was finally off. Theo nodded to his father, who gave him a thumbs-up. Great job.
Minutes later, the judges announced the winner.
The necktie and jacket were gone, and Theo was somewhat more comfortable in his usual khakis, though the button-down white-collared shirt was a bit too dressy. Classes were over; the final bell had sounded, and on this Wednesday Theo made his way to the band hall for a little after-school activity. Along the way, several eighth graders congratulated him on another fine performance. Theo smiled and took it all in stride as if it were no big deal, but deep inside he was quite pleased with himself. He was savoring another victory, but doing so without being cocky. “Don’t ever get the bighead,” a veteran trial lawyer had once told him. “Because the next jury can break your heart.” Or, the next debate could be a disaster.
He entered the large band hall and went to a smaller rehearsal room where a few students were unpacking instruments and preparing for a class. April Finnemore was inspecting her violin when Theo approached. “Great job,” she said softly. April rarely spoke loud enough for anyone else to hear. “You were the best.”
“Thanks. And thanks for being there. It was a nice crowd.”
“You’re going to be a great lawyer, Theo.”
“That’s the plan. Not sure where music fits in.”
“Music fits in everywhere,” she said.
“If you say so.” Theo opened a large case and carefully pulled out a cello, one that belonged to the school. April and a few of the other students owned their instruments. Others, like Theo, were still renting because they were not sure if this music thing was going to last. Theo was in the class because April talked him into it, and because his mother loved the idea of her son learning to play an instrument.
Why the cello? Theo wasn’t sure, nor could he remember why he’d chosen the instrument. In fact, he wasn’t sure he’d actually made the decision himself. In a string orchestra there are several violins and violas, a large bass, at least one cello, and usually a piano. The girls seemed to prefer the violins and violas, and Drake Brown grabbed the bulky bass. There was no one to play the cello. Theo knew from the moment he first held it that he would never learn to play it well.
The class was a last-minute addition to the current six-week schedule, and it was billed as a beginners’ class for kids who couldn’t play an instrument. Real beginners, raw beginners, students with little in the way of musical backgrounds and even less in the way of talent. Theo fit in perfectly, as did most of the kids. It was a low-pressure, one-hour class once a week and designed primarily for fun with a little instruction thrown in.
The fun was provided by the teacher, Mr. Sasstrunk, a spry little old man with long gray hair, wild brown eyes, several nervous twitches, and the same faded brown-plaid jacket each week. He claimed to have conducted several orchestras over his long career, and he had been teaching music at Stratten College for the past decade. He had a great sense of humor and laughed at the kids when they made mistakes, which happened constantly. His job, he said, was simply to introduce them to music, to just “give them a taste of it.” He had no dreams of turning them into real musicians. “Let’s just learn some basics here, kids, do a little practicing, and see where we go,” he said each week. After four sessions the kids were not only enjoying the class, they were actually becoming more serious about their music.
All that was about to change.
Mr. Sasstruck was ten minutes late, and when he entered the rehearsal room he looked tired and worried. His usual smile was gone. He looked at the kids as if he wasn’t sure what to say, then began, “I’ve just left the principal’s office, and it looks as though I’ve been fired.”
There were about a dozen students, and they glanced at one another with uncertainty. Mr. Sasstrunk looked as though he might start crying. He continued, “As it has just been explained to me, the city’s schools are being forced to make a series of cutbacks for budget reasons. Seems as though there’s not as much money as they expected, so some of the less important classes and programs are being eliminated, immediately. I’m sorry, kids, but this class has just been canceled. It’s over.”
The students were too stunned to speak. Not only were they upset over losing a class they enjoyed, but they also felt sorry for Mr. Sasstrunk. In one of the earlier sessions, he had joked about saving the small salary the school was paying to finish his CD collection of the works of the greatest composers.
“This doesn’t seem fair,” said Drake Brown. “Why do they start a class if they can’t finish it?”
Mr. Sasstrunk had no answers. He replied, “You’ll have to ask someone else.”
“Don’t you have a contract?” Theo asked, then immediately wished he’d said nothing. Whether or not Mr. Sasstrunk had a contract was none of Theo’s business. However, Theo knew that every teacher in the city school system signed a one-year contract. Mr. Mount had explained it in Government class.
Mr. Sasstrunk managed a grunt and a grin and said, “Sure, but it’s not much of one. It plainly states the school can cancel the class at any time for any valid reason. That’s pretty typical.”
“Not much of a contract,” Theo mumbled.
“No, it’s not. I’m sorry, kids. I guess class is over. I’ve really enjoyed myself here, and I wish you the best. A few of you have some talent, a few do not, but, as I’ve said, all of you have the ability to learn to play with hard work and practice. Remember, with practice anything is possible. Good luck.” And with that, Mr. Sasstrunk slowly and sadly turned away and walked out of the room.
The door closed quietly, and for a few seconds the students stared at it in silence. Finally, April said, “Do something, Theo. This is not fair.”
Theo was standing. “Let’s go see Mrs. Gladwell. All of us. We’ll take over her office, and we won’t leave until she meets with us.”
They followed Theo from the room and marched as a group out of the band hall, across a foyer, outside through a courtyard, into the main building, down a long hallway, and finally into the central lobby where the principal’s office was located near the doors of the school’s front entrance. They marched inside and stopped at the desk of Miss Gloria, the school’s secretary. One of her many jobs was to guard the door that led to Mrs. Gladwell’s inner office. Theo knew Miss Gloria well, and he had once given her advice when her brother got caught driving while drunk.
“Good afternoon,” Miss Gloria said as she peeked over the reading glasses on the tip of her nose. She had been typing away and seemed a bit
irritated by the fact that suddenly a dozen angry eighth graders were in front of her desk.
“Hi, Miss Gloria,” Theo said without a smile. “We’d like to see Mrs. Gladwell.”
“What’s the problem?”
So typical of Miss Gloria. Always wanting to know your business before you could discuss your business with Mrs. Gladwell. She had a reputation for being the nosiest person in the school. Theo knew from experience Miss Gloria would find out sooner or later what the kids were up to, so he knew how to play the game.
“We were in Mr. Sasstrunk’s music class,” he explained. “The one that just got axed by the school, and we want to talk to Mrs. Gladwell about it.”
Miss Gloria arched her eyebrows as if this simply wasn’t possible. “She’s busy, in a very important meeting.” As she said this she nodded to the door of Mrs. Gladwell’s office. It was closed, of course, as always. Theo had been in there many times, usually for good meetings but occasionally for something not so pleasant. Just last month he’d been in a fight, his only fight since the third grade, and he and Mrs. Gladwell had discussed it behind that closed door.
“We’ll wait,” he said.
“She’s very busy.”
“She’s always busy. Please tell her we’re here.”
“I can’t interrupt.”
“Okay then, we’ll wait.” Theo looked around the large reception room. There were a couple of benches and an assortment of well-used chairs. “In here,” he said, and his classmates immediately took over the benches and chairs. Those who could not find a place simply sat on the floor.
Miss Gloria was known to have grumpy moods, and evidently she was in the middle of one. She did not like the fact that her space had been invaded by a bunch of unhappy students. “Theo,” she said rudely, “I suggest you and your friends wait outside in the front lobby.”
“What’s wrong with waiting in here?” Theo shot back.
“I said to wait out there,” she replied, suddenly angry and raising her voice.
“Who says we can’t wait in the school office?”
Miss Gloria’s face turned red, and she seemed ready to explode. Wisely, she bit her tongue and took a deep breath. She had no right to order the kids out of the reception area, and she knew Theo knew this. She also knew Theo’s mother and father were respected lawyers who did not hesitate to defend their son against adults when the adults were wrong and Theo was right. Mrs. Boone, in particular, could get rather firm when Theo took a stand against unfairness.
“Very well,” she said. “Just keep it quiet. I have work to do.”
“Thank you,” Theo said. And he almost added that they had yet to make a sound, but he let it pass. He’d won this brief little battle; no sense in causing more trouble.
For five minutes they watched Miss Gloria as she tried to appear busy. But it was almost 4:00 p.m., and school had been out for half an hour. The day was quickly winding down. A few minutes later, the door to Mrs. Gladwell’s office opened and two young parents stepped out. They barely glanced at Theo and his gang as they hurried away, obviously not happy about the meeting. Mrs. Gladwell stepped into the reception area, saw the crowd, and said, “Theo, nice job today in the debate.”
“What’s going on here?”
“Well, Mrs. Gladwell, this is what’s left of Mr. Sasstrunk’s music class, and we’d like to know why the class has been canceled.”
She sighed and smiled, then patiently said, “Can’t say I’m really surprised. Please step inside.” The students filed into her office, with Theo bringing up the rear. As he closed the door, he couldn’t help but flash a nasty grin at Miss Gloria, who was watching. To her credit, she returned the smile.
Inside, the students all stood in front of Mrs. Gladwell’s desk. There were only three chairs for guests, and no one was bold enough to sit down. Mrs. Gladwell understood this. “Thank you for stopping by, kids, and I’m very sorry about the music class,” she said as she picked up a report of some kind. “This is a memo I received this morning from the main office of the city school administration. It came directly from Mr. Otis McCord, the superintendent, the number one man and my boss. The school board met last night in a special meeting to address the rather urgent budget problems. It seems as though the Strattenburg city school system will receive about a million dollars less than what had been promised from the city, the county, and the state. All three contribute to the school’s budget, and for several reasons the funding has been reduced. So, cuts have to be made. Throughout the city, part-time teachers are being laid off. Field trips are being canceled. After-school programs, such as Mr. Sasstrunk’s music class, are being cut. And the list goes on and on. It’s very unpleasant, but I have no control over it.”
Mrs. Gladwell had a wonderful way of making things clear. The kids absorbed every word as it became obvious that there was nothing they could do.
“What happened to the funding?” Theo asked.
“That’s a difficult question. Some people blame it on the recession and tough economic times. Tax collections are down, and so there’s not as much money to go around. Other people claim the school system wastes too much money, especially at the home office. I really don’t know. My job is to follow orders. In addition to this music class, I have to eliminate one janitor, two cafeteria workers, four part-time coaches, as well as six other after-school classes. And, I’ve just told Mr. Pearce that his seventh-grade science class cannot take the annual trip to the Rustenburg Nuclear Plant.”
“That’s awful,” Susan said. “That’s a great trip.”
“I know, I know. Mr. Pearce has been doing it for years.”
“It doesn’t seem fair to give a guy a contract, a promise, then yank it away in the middle of the course,” Theo said.
“No, it doesn’t seem fair, Theo. But, I’m not in charge of contracts. There’s a lawyer in the home office who handles these things.”
Several of the students looked at each other as reality settled in.
Mrs. Gladwell said, “I’m very sorry. I wish there was something I could do, but it’s out of my hands. I’m sure Mr. McCord and the school board will hear a lot of complaints, and you’re free to join in.” After a long pause, she said, “Now, if there’s nothing else, I have a meeting to attend.”
“Thanks for listening, Mrs. Gladwell,” Theo said.
“That’s my job.”
Defeated, the students filed somberly out of the office.
Since before Theo was born, his parents had worked together in a little law firm called Boone & Boone. Their offices were in a converted old house on a quiet and shady street lined with similar offices, just a few blocks from Main Street and downtown Strattenburg. When the weather was nice, lawyers were often seen walking along the sidewalks of Park Street with their briefcases on the way to and from the courthouse, which was only ten minutes away. And during the noon hour there were packs of lawyers and accountants and architects strolling along, talking and laughing as they headed to lunch. Secretaries and paralegals were often seen scurrying about delivering important papers to other offices or hustling off to the courthouse.
Kids on bikes were not common sights, not on Park Street anyway. But every afternoon during the week at least one—Theo—came flying along.
To his knowledge, Theodore Boone was the only thirteen-year-old in town with his own law office. It wasn’t much of an office—just a tiny room at the rear of his parents’ building with a door that opened onto a small gravel parking lot used by his parents and the other members of the law firm. Law offices never have enough storage room because lawyers are mentally unable to throw stuff away—and they create an enormous amount of paperwork—and Theo’s office had once been used to store old files, along with cleaning supplies. Once he took over and cleared the space, he installed a card table as his desk. In the attic, he found an abandoned swivel chair that he held together with wire and superglue. On one wall there was a poster
promoting the Minnesota Twins, his team, and on another wall there was a large cartoonish drawing of Theo that had been given to him on his twelfth birthday by April Finnemore.