|Amy Cashore Mariani is of counsel to Fitzhugh, Parker & Alvaro, LLP and currently works as a contract attorney in all aspects of litigation matters.
A few weeks ago I was involved in a conversation with some colleagues regarding the state of today's youth. While I'll admit that I've lately found myself decrying the clothing that many teenagers wear (telling myself that I'd never let my son or daughter out of the house wearing THAT outfit) and grumbling about the mess that dirt bikes can make out of a newly planted lawn, I had to disagree with the majority of the conversation's participants, who posited that kids are less responsible and less engaged regarding important political and social issues than ever before.
After the conversation, I began to wonder why our perspectives regarding today's teenagers differed so greatly. After thinking about it for a few minutes, I realized that I have had two experiences during the past 12 months that most of my colleagues have not: (1) I worked with a Mock Trial team; and (2) I led a Conversations on Law & Liberty in Times of Crisis program. These two experiences brought me into close contact with today's teens, and provided me with firsthand knowledge of the benefit of working with kids in our local communities.
When I was asked to help a local Mock Trial team prepare for their first competition, I had no idea what to expect with regard to their level of preparation. After our initial session I was amazed at what these 20 teens had learned through the Mock Trial experience about the law, about teamwork and about themselves. First, these kids knew the complicated search and seizure law of the commonwealth better than I (granted, it has been some years since my last criminal matter). They not only knew what the cases said, but they understood the implications behind them, were conversant in the underlying public policy considerations and were able to link the case law to the facts of the matter with which they were presented. Second, they had developed a system of teamwork by which they critiqued themselves and held one another accountable. While we often hear of the negative aspects of peer pressure, the level of commitment exhibited by these students was attributable, in large part, to the positive peer pressure that they exerted upon one another to excel as a team. Third, and perhaps most importantly, several students confided in me that they had gained a great deal of confidence in themselves and in their advocacy skills through the Mock Trial program. By the time that they were ready for their first trial, they presented themselves with a level of professionalism and decorum that any judge in the commonwealth would applaud.
I highlighted my experiences in working with the Mock Trial team to my colleagues in another discussion a few days later. Their reaction? Well, they believed that the kids with whom I was working were different than your average teenager because they were involved in a volunteer activity that interested them. Again, my experiences belied their conclusions, as I have also had the chance to lead a Conversations program with a class of juniors and seniors in high school. My experience in leading that program taught me that every teen, whether he or she is bound for an Ivy League college or for immediate employment after high school, is interested in and engaged by matters that concern personal freedoms. The Conversation that I led focused on profiling issues; by the end of our session, every student in the class had participated in the discussion in a meaningful manner, without pressure to participate from a teacher. I was amazed at the insights that the students possessed and by the sophistication of the discussion that we had. There was no incentive for these students to participate in the conversation beyond their own desire to do so, as they were not being graded; the students participated because they were eager to learn about something that had significance to themselves and their liberties.
These two experiences have taught me that we cannot underestimate the desire of today's teenagers to learn about the things that we, as attorneys, can teach them. As a profession, we are endowed with knowledge that most, if not all, of these students would like to acquire. I plan to remind myself every now and then of that fact by getting back into the classroom for another Conversation. I hope that you have the opportunity to do so as well.