Field trip for homeschoolers: Country folk visit a real courthouse

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We were very excited to be on our way to the John Adams Courthouse three weeks ago with two other families. The girls and I had read some about the Judicial Branch. (The Groton and Pepperell libraries have some great books.) And we were looking forward to seeing part of a real trial: a civil trial, of course, in spite of my 8-year-old’s interest in seeing real “bad guys.” The trip was sold to my 5-year-old for the subway ride there and back, which I might add made the parking much more reasonable.

Anyone remember the really windy day in Boston? So we’re walking out of the subway towards the courthouse when in front of us are 25 men in kilts playing bagpipes. (I will refrain from pointing out the possible educational opportunities available here.) Seriously they were all policemen and they sounded wonderful. We got to watch them play and they explained the significance of some of their clothing. (The piece the children asked about was used to keep their kilt down.) What a pleasant diversion — you never know what you’ll find on Boston Common.

As we enter the courthouse, we find ourselves gawking. This building is very impressive in every direction. The main hall’s perimeter is made up of Italian-style statues of various characteristics relevant to judgment. The ceilings are mostly covered with carved gilded flowers. The parts of the ceilings not covered by flowers have beautiful paintings of what look like little cherubs. (But who knows — the “cherubs” were four stories up.) Our charming docent tells the children that people used to hang out there chatting and smoking, so the ceilings were black. The kids were impressed to hear that some very patient people spent years on their backs scrubbing that ceiling with Q-tips.

We entered a real appeals court trial attended by lawyers, judges and any interested citizens. One of the lawyers spoke rudely about another judge and received a sharp correction from the sitting judge. “You will not refer to another judge’s decision that way in my court!” That got the kids’ attention. Some person was suing because she got hurt by the plastic attachments for tags. The problem was that she refused to show the court any proof that she owned any such clothing or any plastic attachments.

As we walked into the Suffolk County Courthouse, we could tell this was different. The glitz and glamour of the John Adams Courthouse were gone. Our guide explained that the children could not see the holding cells because they were full of criminals, not shoplifters but criminals whose crimes he could not describe in front of the children. He explained that there are several elevators in the building: a judges’, a criminals’ and the regular elevator. He took us by three courtrooms, all lacking the beauty we had seen in the John Adams Courthouse but looking well utilized. He wanted the kids to see the jury box and so he took us into a courtroom that was in recess while the jury was deliberating. As we poked around the jury box, all of a sudden we heard “All rise for Judge Neil!” I never saw more shocked children: all of us jumped up. The impressive Judge explained the juror box and swore us in. Then he took the children up to the front and let the children sit in his chair. The kids were thrilled as they piled into his chair and posed for a photo. Then they went into the witness box where we discovered that witnesses don’t really swear on Bibles. The opposing lawyers for the case and the security officer were present too.

The lower court officers and lawyers made us feel very welcome. I had the sense they were happy to have a temporary escape from the criminals they usually deal with. Later my 8-year-old told me that she no longer wants to see the criminals. I think she too caught on that this is real.

As we left the Suffolk County Superior Courthouse, we found the old podium used to announce the arrival of a judge when people would turn up on horseback to bring their arguments. The day seemed like an amalgamation of several different times: from people fighting over where cows graze, through times when people figured out town gossip in the John Adams Courthouse over a few dozen cigarettes, to modern times when the crimes have become unspeakable. While we left the excitement of the big city behind us, I was thankful that out here in Groton, most arguments seem to be of the cow-grazing sort.