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Why I volunteer as a High School Mock Trial Attorney Coach

by Mark Vandelist

It is fall again in Minnesota. I know that not because the leaves are turning or the weather is getting colder, but because High School Mock Trial is starting again.

It is this time of year that I continually ask myself, why am I doing this? Why did I once again volunteer to teach/coach twice a week for 2 hours on a Tuesday and Thursday night? Why did I agree  to get up at 7 AM on multiple Saturday mornings to go sit in cramped smelly High School class rooms for tournaments? What form of mental illness as described in DSM IV do I have that makes me do this every year for the last couple of decades?

But then try-outs come along. Try-outs for our team are really a fallacy. Everyone that comes to try-outs makes a team. We decided several years ago that everyone is welcome and as a consequence we have 47 kids and 4 mock trial teams.

So two weeks ago, on a cold Tuesday night, I had just finished a particularly difficult court calendar with 50+ criminal cases on it, and I had to rush to the High School for “try-outs”. This year the kids were told to think of 3 moments in their lives that made them the person they were today, and talk about it, without notes, for 5 minutes or less. I thought... “oh great this will be really boring, what life experience does a 16 year old suburban kid have that can be in anyway interesting, compared to the stuff I see in court everyday”?

I picked up a Little Caesar’s cheese pizza on my way and settled into a small, tight, sticky, high school desk to suffer through these speeches. And for the next two and a half hours I was mesmerized and humbled by what High School Mock Trial means to these young kids.

The first young lady told a story of moving here from Canada as her first major life event. Then meeting a new group of girls in 7th grade who she thought were her friends, but ended up bullying her to the point where she would come home from school with bruises up and down her arms. But she thought it was ok because they told her they were her friends.

Then in 9th grade she “auditioned” for mock trial. She was a timid girl who I remember barely being able to hear because she spoke so low and would not even look at you during her audition.

She made the team. When she was told she made the team, she was thrilled with her success. She met a whole new group of kids, became part of a team, which is more like a family, and the course of her life completely changed. She is now a 12th grader, and those “mean girls” have either dropped out of school, or are at the alternative learning center. This young woman is applying to colleges, and last year won several individual awards for best witness and best attorney at several Mock Trial tournaments.

The next young man that came in told us of a tragic event in his life that changed the course of his family and him individually. After this event, all he did was sit in the basement and play video games and eat snack food. He was clearly clinically depressed due to the situation which had occurred. He became overweight and when he got to high school his mom told him he had to try out for three extracurricular activities or he would be grounded. So he went to the activity fair and somehow gravitated to the Mock Trial table.

He too tried out and made the team. The teammates he met that year in Mock Trial became his closest friends. They brought him out of his depressed state, they accepted him for who he was, and to this day they are his best friends. He has gone on to be one of the top 5 kids in his class academically, and went to the State tournament with his Mock Trial team last year.

Every 10 minutes, a different kid would come into the room to tell of their 3 life changing events. And every single kid who had been in Mock Trial for at least a year would invariably say in some form or fashion, “Mock Trial changed my life.”

So that is why I do what I do. That is why I give up 4-6 hours of my precious free time every week and get up on Saturday mornings to drive to god knows where for a tournament. Because I make a difference in these kids’ lives. Mock Trial makes a difference in these kids’ lives. It is not about the winning or the loosing, it is watching these kids go from 15 year old 9th graders to 18 year old 12th graders and seeing the transformation from shy, introverts, to killer trial attorneys. And by March, I am sad to see the season end.