Photograph courtesy of The King's College mock trial team
To this day, the smell of sweaty polyester fabric takes me right back to my high school sport. The competitions often lasted from morning ’til night, and left me so wired and so tired that instead of sleeping I’d just lay my face against the glass of my bedroom window. I did mock trial throughout high school and for three years in college, until I took mercy on myself and quit.
As far as extracurriculars go, mock trial doesn’t get much press, so I’m used to explaining how it works. “A cross between debate and theater” is an easy sound bite to offer, even if it gives the inaccurate impression that mock trial embodies the best of the logical and creative worlds. Think of it, rather, as a dumbed-down copy of a law school exercise that’s marketed to students as the caviar of extracurriculars for impressing college admissions offices. Your team of three lawyers and three witnesses goes through all the motions of a real trial, trying not to let the hokeyness of the fictional facts of the case stop you from looking professional.
Mock trial isn’t quite as obnoxious as debate team, but it’s not far behind, either. This is partly the fault of the scoring rubric. We get points for incorporating corny themes into our case theories, and we deliver them the only way they can be: with overwrought bravado. For instance, one team went with “Intoxicated, Indifferent, and Inexcusable” for their prosecution theme. The idea is to insert the theme into your presentation as often as possible—so you might see a witness break character to exclaim, at the end of some banal description of the residential block they live on, “Which just goes to show the defendant’s behavior was intoxicated, indifferent, and inexcusable!" For a dramatic finish, they’d flash a smile right out of a product placement.
For all its public speaking requirements, lots of introverts end up in mock trial, and I was one of them. During my junior and senior years of high school, I attended a small classical school located a full hour away from my house—across from a corn field in upstate New York, if you want to get granular—and I genuinely looked forward to my two hours in the car watching boring landscapes go by every day. My driver was the school’s history teacher. He lived near me in Schenectady and had known my family for years. He was one of those people whose face assumed a solemn, almost sorrowful expression whenever he stopped talking. Every morning, I’d get into the car, and he’d ask politely about my morning. Then he’d turn up the local 24-hour classical station to a volume that discouraged conversation. This arrangement suited me.
But on the whole, I wasn’t happy in high school. It’s not that the posse of Baptist girls running the school bullied me. Nor was I dealing with any uniquely difficult personal crisis. I was an anxious teenager for reasons of my own causing. Looking back, I can diagnose a clear case of social anxiety coupled with a strong family tendency towards existential unease. Like anyone else with a narcissistic streak, it hadn’t dawned on me that most people listen to you with only 25% of their attention span. Every time I heard myself talk I felt like I was failing some test. Why didn’t I know what I wanted to say? Why did I feel so out of control? What did I even want to control? I couldn’t admit to myself that the answer was breathtakingly simple: I wanted people to like me, and I couldn’t tell if they did.
What drew me to mock trial was the overt requirement for personal reinvention. Hating the low-level panic that accompanied me everywhere, and unable to articulate, even to myself, what I was afraid of, I wanted to man up and override my shyness. Plus, who doesn’t like the idea of making a lawyer’s salary one day?
By my senior year, I’d mentally vowed to quit during more trials than not. I’d transitioned from playing a witness to a lawyer, which opened the door to a steady stream of embarrassing moments. Each trial contained a host of variables. Would the judge be a real, trained judge, or an attorney with peculiar ideas about how to rule on objections? Would the other team’s witnesses answer your questions on cross, or would they try to run the clock out with rambling answers—and would it piss the judge off if you tried to interrupt them? (Surprisingly often, it did.) Would your teammates manage to enter the pieces of evidence that you’d planned to build your cross examination and closing argument on, or would they go soft when opposing council objected to admissibility? The “fun” of mock trial is that the ground gets pulled out from under you while an audience of students, parents, and attorney advisors watches. And when I lost my nerve, the dominos all went down. I’d stutter trying to remember a piece of case law, my hands would come together in a clammy Gordian knot, and I’d go beet red as the judge’s face betrayed a hint of a sneer.
The problem with quitting was that I felt so alive when I did pull a performance off. As time went on, this happened more and more frequently. I learned to read signs of nervousness in the other team and to draw a little confidence from them. Watching yourself talk in a mirror does wonders for getting rid of stilted hand gestures. And it probably worked to my advantage that I was the type to hyperventilate about inane social interactions, because public speaking didn’t feel all that different. In a sense, it felt easier. Casual conversations needed a light touch, a flexibility with unexpected changes of topic, and a generally chiller state of mind than my brain chemistry allowed for. But in the courtroom, my objectives were more clear, and my strategy more set.
Witness roles, I should mention, are a different ballgame entirely. Most witness roles go to freshmen angling for lawyer roles the following season, but they still talk loudly about losing the script and giving the audience a good show. Their attempts at acting, based on my observations during a hundred-plus trials, fall into five basic categories: peppy blond woman, sophisticated Englishman, Southern hick (this one comes with a strong accent bordering on a speech impediment), elderly person (invariably played as a doddering fool), and crazy cat lady (a popular direction for witnesses who testify to having seen a crime take place at a strange hour, like at 2:00 a.m. during a thunderstorm). Not that I could’ve won an Oscar on the stand.
My senior year of high school, I advanced the furthest I’d ever go in the New York State competition. That year, I wasn’t actually on a team from my school. We were a scrap bag of homeschooled and private school students whose schools didn’t have teams.
Hopes were low that year. For one, there were six of us. That meant everyone had to double-team (learning a defense part and a prosecution part) and never, ever get sick. Also, take one look at the roster and you’d notice that there were two pairs of siblings on the team—not necessarily bad, but definitely weird. My fifteen-year old brother Caleb had not so much joined mock trial as allowed himself to be swept into it. All his older siblings had done it, and we wouldn’t let him off the hook. Then there were Laura and Michelle, a pair of demure sisters with long, thick hair that always looked like it had just been brushed vigorously. I pictured them choosing to join mock trial by closing their eyes and running their finger down a list of local homeschool activities, landing on one they’d never heard of before, and trusting that a year of it couldn’t be all that bad. Rounding out the team was Jon, a broad-shouldered pilot’s son with a juvenile sense of humor, and Rebecca, an aspiring lawyer who wanted to work on her public speaking.
It would be inaccurate to say our team never meshed socially. We could kill a few minutes tossing around inside jokes—the over-the-top witness names (Dr. Chris Cross, lordie!), or the possibility that Lauren, the assistant public defender who helped out at most of our practices, might get back together with her ex-boyfriend, whom we’d found evidence of on Facebook. But the fact was that there was a lot of distance between us. Maybe we were too similar—all private, self-critical perfectionists. I wanted someone loud-mouthed and irreverent to join the team and get our mojo right. Instead, we plodded through the regular season without much morale to speak of.
The best team in our county was Bishop Gibbons, a Catholic high school with gold and maroon uniforms, a reputation for excellence, and a polished cotillion of around 125 students. Unlike us, they could devote several daily class periods to practicing, and could hire a coach. (Our coach was my dad.)
We, however, were the second-best team in our county, so it surprised no one when we faced our rivals in the finals. What surprised everyone was that on the night of the championship match, Bishop Gibbons made a lot of mistakes. They used notes, an automatic drop in points. And their witnesses didn’t push back much—they didn’t even know their affidavits well enough to have a screaming fight over the textual interpretation of confusing parts of their statements. (These fights are a classic element of the more competitive trials, kind of like when basketball players play a little dirtier than usual when scrambling for possession of the ball.) Our team exchanged glances as the trial slogged on and on. We’d gotten lucky. We were going to regionals.
And the important part of what happened at regionals is that we went to state. There was, again, a lot of luck involved. E-mails of congratulation and encouragement came pouring in from local homeschool parents and ex-teammates who’d graduated.
I figured we had exceptionally good material, and our eccentricities just weren’t showing, for some reason, during the limited time judges were evaluating us. But the only way to win states was to come in guns a-blazin’. We needed chutzpah! I paced around the church hall where we met, being bossy, interrupting, suggesting rewrites. I noticed my temper getting shorter. I slept badly and woke up with a metallic taste in my mouth and with my stomach in knots.
When we drove into Albany on the morning of the competition, it struck me as looking more like a capital than it ever had before. The plain brick buildings suddenly seemed imbued with history. I noticed the hotels, law offices, and suited professionals on the sidewalks. I stared at a patch of gray fabric on the inside of our van and wondered which of two very different moods I’d be in when I saw it next.
Once, then twice, we went up against teams that I was sure were better than us. All I could hear were the little tics that we’d been trying to cut out of our presentations, that we’d written on a whiteboard in practice, but that were still showing up in fine form this morning. One of our lawyers ended every question on cross-examination with a snippy, “Correct?”
You know the Powerball commercial where the right ball keeps getting sucked up with a little pop? That’s what happened to us. We put on a better showing than I had given us credit for. We were going to the final championship the next morning. But basic probability will tell you that it’s still a long shot to get the last number right, because there’s no such thing as being on a roll when it comes to luck.
We were sent to the biggest courtroom in the courthouse. I would one day get married there—it was that pretty.
Our competition, we were told, would be the Bronx School of Science. Great, I thought. Science nerds! Maybe we had a decent shot. Then I caught sight of my older brother’s apprehensive face. Luke had taken a bus up from Manhattan, where he attended college, to be our unofficial team advisor. And he happened to know the state education scene pretty well. It turned out that the Bronx School of Science was a legendary specialized public school. They accepted about 5% of applicants based primarily on an entrance exam score. The Washington Post named it one of the 22 top performing schools in America in 2012. Eight of its graduates have won Nobel prizes, the highest number of any secondary education institution in the United States.
It’s not like we had nothing going for us. Jon would occasionally, in moments of dire need, display a burly forcefulness that surprised and impressed the whole room. And Luke was really a bit of a secret weapon. He’d whisper us advice until the final second he had to take his seat. Right before the trial started, when I got a stress nosebleed, he arrived with tissues before the blood touched my white shirt.
The trial began. I sat back in my seat and watched something amazing happen. Everyone was doing exactly what we rehearsed—maybe even better.
Cross-examining witnesses was where we usually lost our cool. We sounded shrill when we tried to sound forceful. Michelle had to cross-examine I. M. Feddup, a local busybody called to the stand by the defense to give testimony about the noise level of the town’s high school students. The question of this year’s case was whether the defendant, Mayor Allen, of Empireville, New York, had observed due process when enacting a parking ban on the local high school students, or whether he was motivated by purely political reasons (scandal: bad blood with Superintendent Chris Crangle!). I. M. Feddup explained to the courtroom that the high school kids who parked on her block made such a ruckus that her quality of life was ruined. Michelle asked if Miss Feddup happened to live near an airport—a minor biographical detail she’d found in the first paragraph of her affidavit. I. M. Feddup, startled, admitted that she did.
“And do airports tend to be . . . noisy?”
This point mattered more than you’d think. If the students’ honking and laughing was a minor nuisance relative to the ear-splitting noise of landings and takeoffs, then I. M. would lose credibility as a witness—she would have clearly exaggerated a pain point to benefit the defense’s case.
“Um, no. It is a really quiet airport.”
“So it’s your testimony today”—this phrase signaled that something truly incredulous had been said—“that the jet planes at the airport are quiet?”
I. M. was blushing. “No, I guess I can hear them, but it’s not a busy airport, you know, our town is super small—”
“Miss Feddup, you did testify on direct that you lived on a quiet street before the high school students started parking there? Even though there’s nothing but a fence between your backyard and the airport?”
As minor an inconsistency as this was, it was enough to unravel I. M. Feddup. She hadn’t expected the airport question! Meanwhile, Michelle straightened her 5’9” frame to new heights.
These little victories kept adding up. Finally, the trial was nearly over, and the judge looked at me. “Closing statement, counselor?”
I had ten minutes to talk. These minutes often decided the trial. You could do damage control on the mistakes you’d made over the course of the trial and pull out an argument along the lines of, “the defense is going to come up here in a minute and try to tell you that [X damning statement our witness accidentally made] should determine the outcome of this case, but this case is about constitutionality, not the human flaws that X witness—and you, and I, and everyone else—have.” I was going with this tactic. I remember locking eyes with United States Magistrate Judge Randolph E. Treece. He sat with immovable folded hands in a throne-like seat above me. I knew that everything I was saying was to some degree baloney, and that we were discussing a fictional village that was full of gossips and cronies. But I wasn’t thinking about that. For ten minutes, I willed myself to be an entirely different person who had a compelling story to tell. And I remember Randolph looking back at me and slowly nodding, and arching an eyebrow in a “yes, I suppose you’re right” expression, and making a few notes, and then me being in my seat, and then arms around me, because we’d won.
I celebrated quietly on the outside—modest thank-yous, insistence that it was all luck (which in retrospect I’ll reiterate it most certainly was)—and quietly on the inside, feeling highly at peace with the world. I forgot about the awful breakup I’d been sniffling about for weeks, about the terrifying prospect of my impending graduation, and, most importantly, about the feeling of being a foreigner that followed me everywhere. Actually, “forgot” is the wrong word. I remembered those feelings almost curiously, and surveyed them more objectively than ever before. They weren’t affecting me. hough I’d been proud of other accomplishments, like passing a physics test on a module I hadn’t actually read or learning to oil paint, this was my first taste of glory.
Strong cravings often signal that we’re lacking something necessary for survival—feeling thirsty at the end of a hike, for instance. Other cravings are symptoms of dangerous dependencies, like thinking about a cigarette all through a meeting at work. We talk about needing external validation like it’s in the latter category. Loving yourself is considered healthy, but the thin blue score sheet the judge handed me at the end of a trial—well, it’s exactly the kind of anecdote you’d hear about in The Narcissism Epidemic, the critically acclaimed indictment of our attention-seeking culture. “Whom the gods wish to destroy,” Cyril Connolly famously said, “they first call promising.”
Recently, while skimming a book preview in the online magazine TES, I ran across the psychologist Benjamin Bloom’s finding on the origins of success. He caught my attention by denouncing the standard recipe for high achievement: hard work plus natural abilities. Rather, Bloom suggested that having a parent who believes you’re “special and different from other children”—you can taste the sourness of those family dinners—marks top performers. Concert pianists and Olympic athletes are nourished by the secret knowledge that they are better. Anyone is nourished by that belief. What’s more comforting when you’re walking down a high school hallway, feeling lost in the shuffle of bodies, than that? It’s a piece of secret knowledge that brings color to your cheeks.
This is not the savoriest piece of information about human nature. It stacks the deck even higher against kids who weren’t born into supportive homes, and it makes external validation out to be a much more powerful motivator than rational self-confidence.
And yet: if the need for approval is analogous to the need for a drug, I’m never going to be cured. And I don’t think that’s admitting defeat. It’s giving up the charade that we’re rational animals capable of self-sufficiency, which is neither true of our bodily needs—cities, police, and Wi-Fi are things I want to keep—or of our emotional needs—to be listened to, to be agreed with, and to be congratulated, every so often.
After the state championship, the real world came crashing in and told me that I wasn’t perfect. I had to be told, for example, in a note from a judge when I was a sophomore in college, that when I was at “counsel table” (the three-person table where lawyers sit when they’re not talking) that my face “had a very snarky-looking expression.” That I have a strong predilection towards resting bitch face was news to me, but it has been confirmed by many a friend since. I’m grateful to have this information.
For years, I answered the question “Why mock trial?” by saying I wanted to learn the art of debate. But I knew that was a throwaway answer. These days, I avoid political debates whenever possible, I consider changing subway cars if I think someone might be staring at me, and I work in publishing, where we prize literature, tea, and cats far above personal exhibitionism. I didn’t “use” mock trial, in the eyes of my attorney advisors. They saw in every high school student a potential law school applicant. If anything, mock trial taught me that I didn’t have to torture myself by doing it anymore—that I’d done enough. I had potential in life. I’d be fine. I could get a liberal arts degree, move to New York City, and even be a lifelong introvert. I had every right to remain silent for as long as I pleased.