Castleman Calls It Quits
After dropping his belongings in a chair in the jury assembly room, Roger Castleman took the small container of Dannon yogurt from his satchel and spread open the newspaper. It was going to be a long day, waiting to be called for a trial, and he had come prepared. This was his reward for being a registered voter in the city. He was called for service as frequently as the law permitted, once annually. His summons number was 386, and he was sure they wouldn’t get that far down the roll until mid-afternoon.
The first thing he did after he’d settled in his chair was spill the yogurt down his shirtfront, a big spot on his chest. Wondering if yogurt left a permanent stain, he went to the bathroom to wash it off, and before long the whole front of his shirt was wet where he’d dabbed at it with a wet hand-towel. Was this how the whole day was going to go?
When he got back to the jury assembly room, the jury instruction video was starting to play on the various monitors scattered throughout the room. Castleman was sure the young man across from him was giving him the evil eye; he hoped this was just paranoia and the man was really just looking past him at the video monitor. He sometimes had this feeling in his remedial English class with some of the students, that they wanted to pick a fight with him.
The instructional video ended, and Castleman was relieved to see it was not the evil eye after all; the man’s eyelids fluttered and finally closed, his chin coming to a rest on his chest.
Now what? Castleman finished his yogurt along with the sports section and then turned to his satchel. He’d grade the homework assignment for his remedial English class. “Jurors number one through and including one seventy-five, report to Courtroom Nine in Building South,” a voice instructed over the PA system. “One through and including one-seventy-five to Courtroom Nine, Building South.” Groans rose like the souls of the dead, as jurors rose from their seats, and there was a mass exodus from the assembly room.
The thing about remedial English was that the students did not get credit for the course, even though they paid the regular tuition charge. No, what passing remedial English allowed the students to do was enroll in the regular English 101 class, the required class for which they would receive credit. So there was a built-in resentment, the students feeling unfairly put upon. And the truth was that in many cases their writing skills were no worse than many of their classmates who were enrolled in the 101 course. Castleman wanted to pass every one of them, to send them on their way around the Monopoly board. But standards had to be met, though what these standards were was often hard to pin down, exactly.
“You’re not going to be doing any of your students a favor simply by passing them on to English 101, Roger,” Milly Spaay said, as if reading his mind, when they sat down the other day to discuss the criteria for a passing essay.
“Yeah, but are they ever going to write essays again in their lives?”
“Writing is a skill everybody can use, Roger,” Milly said, giving him the evangelical eye. “Why, just the other day I wrote a letter to the manufacturer of the vacuum cleaner I bought last month. I had some complaints because it wasn’t functioning the way it was supposed to. Well, I got a reply, along with a refund.”
“Well, yeah, but—”
“All I'm saying, Roger, is that writing impacts every facet of our lives, and if these students can't put their thoughts together in a series of coherent sentences then they're sunk. They might not be able to get a job application, for one thing. How can they expect to be hired if they can't write an application letter?”
Roger's eyes narrowed involuntarily with embarrassment and dismay when Milly used the word "impacts." She pretended not to notice, but he could tell his reaction pissed her off. Roger wanted to tell Milly that in all his years of teaching he had never seen any real change, improvement or otherwise, in any of his students' writing styles. But he realized he would be arguing against his performance or the value of his job, and decided he'd better just shut up. Might “impact on” his own continued employment.
But it was true. Years ago he’d given up on the jive about Aristotle’s four modes of discourse -- description, narration, exposition, and argument -- and just tried to get students to write consistently good sentences. But either they already knew how, or they just never learned over the course of a fifteen-week semester.
“Jurors number one hundred and seventy-six and including three hundred and fifty, report to Courtroom Two, Building West. Jurors number one hundred and seventy-six and including three hundred and fifty, report to Courtroom Two, Building West.”
Castleman had assigned a descriptive essay to the remedial English class. The idea was to put about half a dozen paragraphs together to develop a cogent composition with a thesis to hang it on, and introduction and a conclusion. The broad topic was work. It seemed like something everybody could relate to, but the objections came thick and fast as soon as he passed out the assignment sheet.
Write an essay in which you compare two jobs. Describe both. These may be
two jobs you have had, a job you have had and one you would like, your job
and another person’s job, etc. What is the basis of your thesis? (Think before
you write! Why are you comparing these two and what is the point you want to
All essays must be developed with an introduction, including thesis, several
paragraphs that flesh out your thesis and describe the jobs fully, and a
Essays should be at least 500 words (two typed/printed double-spaced
“Can’t we write about something else? This is boring.”
“I’ve never had a job, Mister Castleman!” Kiki Rogers, an 18-year girl with a big purple stain on her face, cried, alarmed.
“It doesn’t matter, Kiki. Write about anybody’s job. Your parents’ or a brother’s or a friend’s the president’s.” He shrugged, indicating the millions of possibilities. “Compare a professional wrestler with the governor. Which is more valuable to society? Compare an English teacher and a garbage collector. How are they similar?”
In the back of the class, Ross Burgess looked for a minute as if he got Castleman's joke, and then he looked as if he wanted to punch Castleman. Then his face resumed its usual expression of boredom and confusion.
“I don’t like my job. I don’t want to write about no job I don’t like,” Gregory Bryant complained. Greg was in his mid-twenties and had indicated at the start of the semester that the only reason he was in this class was that his boss at work was trying to keep him from advancing; his boss felt threatened by Greg, Greg maintained, and Greg had to prove himself.
“Write about your boss’s job, why don’t you?” Castleman suggested. “Compare his job with a prison guard’s.” Or mine with a prison guard’s, he thought.
“What’s a thesis? I don’t get it. What’s a thesis got to do with my job?”
“Why are you comparing the jobs?”
“Because you told me to.”
Castleman spoke over the laughter this rather predictable remark generated. “Is one better than an other? Why is it? What makes one job preferable to another? A 'thesis' is just a technical word to mean what drives the whole essay, what’s the point you’re trying to make.”
“I ain’t got no point. There ain’t no point to my job,” Greg looked sullenly at Castleman, as if this were his fault. Maybe it wasn’t his boss that was standing in his way to advancement, after all, but Castleman. It was moments like these that made Castleman wonder if the students wanted to duke it out with him.
“Can’t we write about something else?” the plaintive voice from the back of the room said again, already knowing the answer.
In the jury assembly room they were showing a movie starring Denzel Washington on the video monitors, about an integrated football team in Virginia during the Civil Rights era, but much as Castleman wanted to give in to entertainment, he knew he should continue to grade his papers instead. He plucked Lisa Whitney’s essay from the pile. Lisa worked as a nurse’s assistant and also manicured nails. She was a single mother and an evangelical Christian. She’d missed several weeks of class already, which were grounds for failure, but he didn’t have the heart to dismiss her. Not that she put any effort into her work, but she’d told him that her management required an AA degree from her to maintain her job. All Lisa wanted to do was stick thermometers up her patients’ asses; she did not want to write essays. She told him she’d missed the two weeks because she’d had to attend an evangelical conference in Philadelphia for her church. She prayed to Jesus to get her through the class. Castleman had been thinking of her when he’d spoken with Milly about the value of writing in everybody’s life.
When the other class members turned in their essays, Lisa said she didn’t know what to write about. Castleman finally nailed her down to comparing the manicuring with the nursing, and suggested her thesis be that one was better than the other. Introduce the comparison as a “which would I rather do if I could only do one” sort of affair. She’d finally turned a draft in two weeks late. What he was reading now was the corrected draft.
I like my job docter Wilson where Im a nurse aid and my other job is my own business where I give manicures and pedicures an it feel so good when you get your nails done it just make your life less stress when your get your nails done. I feel like some stress at my nurse job but I like my nurse job if don’t ever get boring I have my patients an I take there tempature if they sick an they there blood pressure an they fill out the some paperwork all the time an then they wait until docter can see them sometime they don’t like to wait an I talk to them and tell them it going be alright you know Jesus he dide for us and everthing be alright an just hold on an sometime I give them asprin or advil if they stress. But when I have a client for a pedicure they so happy just to see me an they feel so good when I do they nails and I know jesus want. I wish I am manicure all time but I like be nurse to an I when a person feel stress and do not then an fever don but you when an all that.
Castelman could not see much difference between the first and second drafts. This looked pretty much like the original she’d handed in two weeks before, and which he’d marked up for her. When he handed the paper back, expecting Lisa to be grateful for the care he had taken with her paper, her eyes hardened to that look of somebody who wanted to kick his ass.
Disappointed with Lisa’s reaction, Castleman remembered Jill Pitney, the student from his 101 class the previous semester who had burst into tears and run to the bathroom when she saw the grade he had given her narrative essay, a heartfelt account of her break-up with her boyfriend.
“There’s nothing wrong with a C, Jill!” he’d cried after her as she ran down the hall, her shoulders shaking with sobs. God, was this the only effect his instruction had? To send students away in tears?
“Jurors number three-fifty-one through and including number four-forty-five please report to Court-room Six in Building West, “ the announcer bleated. “Jurors three-fifty-one through and including four-forty-five report to Courtroom Six, Building West.”
Castleman gathered up his belongings and trudged over to Courtroom Six. He noted ruefully that the lunch break had been scheduled to begin in five minutes.
In Courtroom Six, the case for which a jury panel was being seated involved the “sale and distribution” of illegal drugs. The judge, the defendant, the prosecutor and the defense attorney all happened to be African-American. When all of the potential jurors had taken their seats, the judge explained the case before them, asked anybody who knew any of the people involved, including the arresting officers, the defendant and a storeowner outside whose shop the transactions were taken place, to step forward and identify themselves so that they could be dismissed. After two people came forward, the judge asked if any of the potential jurors thought they might have a problem serving on the jury in this particular case for any other reason. Castleman raised his hand and was asked to step to the bench.
All of the lawyers, the defendant and the judge were huddled together over the judge’s table. The top came practically to Castleman’s chin, and he felt like a little boy looking up to a judge.
“Your honor, my brother’s been involved in several drug arrests and trials, “ he said. The defense and prosecuting attorneys took in the information impassively.
“Do you think this would affect your judgment of the case in any way?”
Castleman thought about it. “Not really.”
“Okay then. Have a seat.”
What he did not tell them was that Al had called just that morning, around 2:00 AM, high as a kite. Castleman had speared the receiver with his left hand midway through its third ring, shocked into wakefulness by its urgency, gasping, “Hello?” into the mouthpiece, suddenly awake and alert.
“Hey, Ace, what’s up? Won a Pulitzer Prize yet?”
“It’s fucking two o’clock in the morning!”
“Sorry,” Al said, and then took a deep drag on a cigarette. “It’s only eleven out here. The night is still young.”
“I have to go to work in the morning, Al.”
“Sorry, Ace. I thought you might want to hear from your brother, is all. It's been a while since we’ve talked.”
“Tell you what, I’ll call you this weekend.”
“Hey, you remember Danny Flethere, the kid in the grade ahead of me they sent to Huntsville for armed robbery?” Al said, ignoring Roger, his mind apparently drifting to somebody with whom they’d gone to high school decades before.
“Talk to you later, Al.” Castleman hung up.
“Was that your God damn brother?” Jodie said from her side of the bed. “I could kill that bastard.”
Back at his seat, Castleman waited as potential jurors were called, seated in the jury box, and the lawyers proceeded with the voir dire process to impanel a final jury. Each attorney had the right to exercise a limited number of peremptory challenges for which no reason was required; the potential juror was just told to scram. Castleman was seated as juror number eleven after several had been dismissed. He did not really want to be selected, but he enjoyed sitting in the little railed-off jury section, looking at the lawyers. They seemed to be scrutinizing him closely. The defense attorney consulted with his client, and then the defense attorney asked that juror number eleven be removed.
As he headed back to the jury assembly room, Castleman’s relief gave way to disappointment and annoyance. Why had he been dismissed from the panel? Didn’t the defense attorney think he would be sympathetic to his client? After all, he’d mentioned Al’s drug problems; he obviously associated a human face with the problem and was therefore less likely to be judgmental, wasn’t he? They knew he was a teacher. Did this work against him somehow? Was the attorney distrustful of white men? Castleman looked down his shirtfront, but the yogurt had not left a stain. The damp shirt had dried during his walk to Courtroom six, so his appearance could not have been the cause of his dismissal. He’d never know why he’d been told to go.
For some reason, he began to think of Lisa Whitney again, not because it was her paper that he was in the midst of grading, but it made him reflect on the ultimate unknowablity of the judgments people made. What did she think of him? Did she think he was picking on her? That he was prejudiced against her for being African-American? For being a woman, a single mother? He could hear Lisa’s voice, pleading, when he’d handed back the marked-up essay.
“But what‘s wrong with this, Puh-fesser Castleman? It look all right to me. I done prayed to Jesus for guidance, and I work so hard on this, and my son, he in trouble with his teachers `cause he got ADHD and he all over the place bouncing off the walls and everything and I can’t make them understand about him nohow.”
Oh, it was more than the essay that was out of Lisa’s control! Did she not see what incoherent gibberish her writing was? And here he was, Roger Castleman, just another roadblock in her path to peace. How could he ever lend her a helping hand when she was surely going to fail this class over and over and over again, no matter how many times she took it, no matter how fervently she prayed to Jesus? The more he thought about it, the more he felt how futile it all was, how ultimately loathsome his job really was. He could not face another class, he felt sure.
Back at the jury assembly room, Castleman went over to the public phone, dropped a quarter into the slot and dialed Milly Spaay’s number. It rang three times before her voice mail message came on.
“Hello, Milly? Roger. I’m calling from the courthouse. I’ve got jury duty today. Listen, I just wanted to tell you I’m going to resign at the end of the semester.”