Improving Our Reputation & Giving Back to the Community

By: John Booth Farese

For years, on and off, I have taught a high school course entitled "Street Law.” I am teaching it again this year in Ashland High School. This course was developed years ago by Georgetown University Law Center professors Lee P. Arbetman, M.Ed, J. D., and Edward L. O'Brien, J. D., Their text is in its seventh edition. This is a course in the practical aspects of law as it relates to the lives of our citizens on the streets of America. The curriculum can be found at www.streetlaw.glencoe.com. The program includes a teacher’s manual, workbooks, testing materials, transparencies and a video with lesson plans.

The purpose of the course is to provide practical information and develop problem‑solving skills for these future citizens for survival in our law‑saturated society. I have involved our community resource people including judges, chancellors, district attorneys, police officers and business professionals. The students have visited every political office in our county: tax assessor, chancery clerk, circuit clerk, justice court clerk, board of supervisors and land appraisal office. They have attending hearings in justice court, chancery court and circuit court. Ben Trelor, our local Farm Bureau insurance agent, came on three consecutive days to explain automobile insurance, life insurance and property insurance. Bobby Martin, President and CEO of The Peoples Bank of Ripley, came and discussed what he looked for in hiring an employee and discussed what it takes to be successful in the business world. Mr. Martin was so impressed with our students (made up entirely of young, black citizens of our county ‑ most coming from seriously economically disadvantaged families) that he invited them to come to his bank for a complete tour of the bank operations. During that visit, every important officer of the bank spoke to the class about every aspect of the banking process. Afterward, Mr. Martin provided lunch for everyone.

Part of the class time has been focused on teaching the students the necessary social skills and basic manners. The preparation of these students in those areas paid dividends. When we arrived at The Peoples Bank, the young men open the door and waited for all the female classmates to enter the building before they entered. They were quiet, attentive and respectful. They pulled out the chairs and seated the females when we were preparing to sit down and eat. This did not go unnoticed by anyone at the bank. Mr. Martin sent a most complimentary letter citing these demonstrations of the important social skilled that had been learned and practiced.

Other trips included a trip to the regional prison in Holly Springs and to the State Capitol. During their visit to the Capitol, the students met with our county's entire legislative delegation; were introduced to the Senate and House (while in session); and treated to a guided tour. The hostesses for the tour, Ms. Earnestine Collins and Ms. Nan Watkins Andrews, told the class that, in the many years they had worked at the Capitol, this group of students was the best behaved, most attentive and appropriately dressed group they had ever seen. (I must admit that I had to provide some of the students with shirts and ties because they could not afford to buy them.) Their dress was simple, neat and appropriate. These students made an indelible impression on our hostesses and learned how important that “first impression” really is.

Probably the most eye-opening revelation came one morning when we began taking about social skills and manners. I already knew from information I got the first day in class that only five of the 25 students lived with both parents. At least half lived with relatives other than their parents. I began to suspect that many of the students had never been to a “sit-down” restaurant. When I inquired, only one student had been to a “real” restaurant. My wife, Cindy, and I brought a table, chairs, table cloth, napkins, silverware, china and glasses to class. For three days, we made sure every student had an opportunity to learn and practice. The young men learned to properly seat their female companions; how to order; how to pass the bread and butter; and how to pay for the meal. I had already decided I was going to take the entire class to a Christmas luncheon. I contacted Annie Moffitt, the owner of Annie’s Restaurant in Holly Springs, and she was so excited when I told her my mission. She gave me an exceptionally low price per meal and set up tables with her personal china and silverware. The event was so inspiring. The Mayor of Holly Springs, Andrea DeBerry, came by to speak to the class and delivered the blessing. The experience was priceless.

I cannot tell you how many times I have been stopped in public places by parents, grandparents, relatives and family friends of my students. Each time I am told what a huge change they had seen in these young people. Honestly, they are more confident, focused and excited about learning. The entire class has exceeding any of my expectations regarding their grades, their behavior and their motivation.

Recently, an attorney friend of mine from Booneville, Duncan Lott, called me and told me he wanted to get involved in teaching “Street Law” in Booneville. He said he recognized how important it was for our "next generation" of Mississippians to know about the law and the role lawyers play as guardians of our legal rights. I will assure each and everyone that, if we could put an attorney in every school in Mississippi to teach “Street Law,” within ten years we would reverse the prevailing, negative opinions that the general population has about our profession and the people in it. I have always heard it said that people will feel indebted to those who help their children more than if they had helped them.

The rewards of this endeavor will far exceed the obvious impact on these young persons. Anyone, who takes the time and effort to give back to our communities and teach our next generation of citizens, will be rewarded with a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives unmatched by any professional success as an attorney. Ours is a nation of laws, and we are at a critical juncture in the battle for the hearts and minds of our citizens. We are the only soldiers who fight for the legal rights of our people. It is time that we take the initiative and start giving back to our communities and save the reputation of the legal community of our state. We are being attacked daily by special interest groups and the press. Our reputation has been tarnished. We must act and act now. I challenge everyone who reads this to seriously consider pursuing this avenue of good will. Make the commitment. Invest your time and effort. Pass on the wealth of knowledge each of you have to our youth, and watch the pendulum swing on the clock of public opinion. Nothing worth having comes easy.