Do you believe people can change? I mean deep down, real change? I do. The following is a short story about a young man who learned a very important lesson. I wonder where Mitchell is now, two years after this piece was written. I may have to write a follow up.
If you enjoy this post, please be sure to see "Rage" and "Leaving," both written by me during this same creative writing class. As always, I welcome comments. If you loved the story, please let me know! I want to hear from you if you didn't love it, too. Please tell me why. Be gentle, though, I'm still new at taking constructive criticism.
by Karen Lockinger Greenberg
“All rise. The honorable Judge George Henry presiding,” the bailiff barked his order while staring at the defendant. “Case number 09-01273, Mitchell Shockley vs. State of Arizona. Mitchell, also known as Meatball, is charged with assault to a person over the age of 60, making this a hate crime by Arizona state statues.”
The courtroom was filled with reporters waiting to break the story of the first hate crime verdict against the elderly residents of Arizona. Meatball was 16 years old, poorly dressed, and sporting an attitude to match. The reporters knew this boy was the perfect example for the new sentencing laws. They sat on the edge of their seats, impatiently waiting for the judge to start.
Judge Henry entered the room and sat down, “Be seated.” The judge, though intimidating in his current position, could only be described as a little old man. Curly grey hair and a face marked by the years made Judge Henry’s scowl even more pronounced. “So tell me, boy,” he began, “where did you come up with the idea to knock down a woman, steal her handbag, and run away? You been watching too many TV shows that indicate this is appropriate behavior for a young black gentleman such as yourself?”
“Nope, dawg. Just hangin’ wit da boys. I was dared, you know. Can’t turn away from dat.”
“Meatball,” Judge Henry said as he held up his fingers to make quotations marks, “I dare say that you have earned your nickname. That was just about the stupidest reasoning I’ve heard all day. I don’t know what you were thinking, kid. You think it’s cool to do such stupid things to impress your ‘homies’? Them boys are nothing but trouble.” The judge, known for his monologues given from his soapbox perch, continued. “I’ve been there myself. I was your age once. Being a black teenager in Gilbert, Arizona, is tough. It’s easy to fall out of line when you are being asked to prove yourself every day. But…. this should be a reason to show the world how grown up you are, how you are ready to take on responsibility and make a positive change. You’ve behaved like a monster, making stereotypes stronger. It is not the sign of a powerful man to push over a lady half your size. I struggled tooth and nail to sit on this bench, to show the citizens of Arizona that black men could make something of themselves, too. Boys like you make me angry. You hear me, son?”
“Wha’ ever, bro,” Mitchell’s words matched the rolling of his eyes and the cocky way he held his shoulders.
“Mitchell, I think you need to learn a lesson in respect,” Judge Henry said through clenched teeth. “Boys like you think you are tough. I’ll show you otherwise. By the time I’m done with you, you’ll know what it means to be a man.”
Everyone in the courtroom held their breath waiting for a verdict they knew would set an example. Judge Henry was known for handing down sentences criminals didn’t soon forget. This being a hate crime, Mitchell could be facing up to 10 years in prison. He was already being tried as an adult. Adding to the suspense, the judge called a 15 minute recess.
(Page break to indicate a new chapter or section)
Meatball looked around at the tiny little house. The words of the judge echoed in his head, “Boy, I’m going to do you a favor. Jail time will teach you nothing, and I believe what you need to learn is respect. You can make something of yourself if you apply the lessons you will learn throughout this experience. I hereby sentence you to 260 hours of community service. These 260 hours will be spent helping your victim, Mrs. Mackenzie, with any chores she may have for you. Cooking, cleaning, gardening… At the end of this time you will submit a five-page typewritten report detailing your duties and any thoughts you had regarding those duties. If you fail to complete these hours within 52 weeks we will revisit this courtroom in order to reexamine the necessity of you spending time in lock-up.”
Meatball knew he had gotten lucky that day in court, and it felt good that someone could see the positive side of him. While relieved that he wasn’t going to spend his junior year of high school in prison, he wasn’t sure if he deserved the light sentence or the confidence of the judge. Even now he was eyeing the $50 left carelessly on the hutch.
“Meatball, can you please find the Pledge and a rag under the kitchen sink and dust the dining room for me?” Mrs. Mackenzie called out from the backyard where she was kneeling in the garden.
Meatball started the dusting with the hutch. As he looked around and noticed that Mrs. Mackenzie wasn’t looking. He quietly slipped the $50 bill into his front pocket. She won’t notice this missing, he thought. She doesn’t even know what day of the week it is half the time.
When he thought about Mrs. Mackenzie being confused, an image of his grandmother popped into Mitchell’s head. MawMaw had been Meatball’s favorite person when he was a little boy. She had always had bear hugs and soft cookies to share with him when Meatball came to visit. As a young boy he would spend the night with his MawMaw, and the two of them would go on grand adventures together; a bug hunt one time, a trip to the ice cream store down the street another. Meatball couldn’t believe she had been dead for a whole year already. So much had happened, and he wished he could share it with her the way he used to.
Looking at his reflection in the freshly dusted hutch, Meatball slowly took the money out of his pocket and said a silent apology to Mrs. Mackenzie. He said one aloud as well, “I’m sorry MawMaw. I’ve really made a mess of things since you’ve been gone.”
Walking out into the garden, Meatball decided that today would start a new chapter in his life. Playing the tough guy since MawMaw passed was becoming exhausting. “Mrs. Mackenzie, do you have any cookie dough? I’d like to make you a batch.”
“Meatball, that sounds like a grand idea. Let me wash up and we can bake together.”
“Mrs. Mackenzie, please call me Mitchell. Meatball doesn’t hang here anymore.”