…acknowledging the judge

Photo by Timothy Hiatt Photography

It’s a simple photo.  A single microphone on a stage brought to life by the spotlight.  There are no humans in the shot but the image, taken at a music festival this past weekend, brought me to tears.  It is quite dramatic… and I am not a musician, but I felt moved by the power of one voice, amplified, that this evoked.

What resonated from this shot was that I was going to be that one voice this morning… in a courtroom, for a child, as a CASA.

I could already feel the nerves tightening and I knew my voice might falter, but thinking it through while looking at this photo became a rehearsal, of sorts, for the emotions that accompany this role.  As a Court Appointed Special Advocate, I have become adept at navigating the emotions that are part of the position.   As a mother and human being, though, I will never become immune to them. Putting myself “out there”, especially for someone else, while withstanding the hit to my own heart, has come rather easy.  What hasn’t been easy is standing up for myself.  Why?  Because, even as a child, I judged myself more harshly than anyone and so, even today, as an educated, experienced, grown woman, I still cannot enter the courtroom without feeling nervous.

“Acknowledge the judge” — and I am not talking about the juvenile court judge.   You would think those words echo in my head because of my CASA training.  Nope.  Or maybe from my divorce process — which is the only other time I have been in a courtroom outside of being a CASA.  Wrong, again.  Those go way back to 1980.  I was 18 and had been crowned “Miss Union County” in our local 4-H Fair Pageant.  I had travelled to our capitol to participate in the state fair contest and that was the instruction from the pageant director.

“Acknowledge the judge” — I am not talking about you, either.  I know, I know.  Pageants… cue the huge sigh and eye roll of disrespect… and I would agree that the pageant process is one that deserves scrutiny.  However, when I signed up for it, I understood, fully, that I would be judged, superficially.   What I did not expect was the judgement from those around me, whom I had hoped would be supportive.  Several of my friends put me down for it, scoffing for being willing to be judged on beauty or appearance.  Understandable, given that his was on the heels of the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. But the contest was a part of the culture I had grown up in, more so than the expectation of going to college.  For this moment, though, hold this historical context front and center and withhold your comments on the worthiness of pageants, until you read this in its entirety.

I can remember the state contest in great detail.  I made it into the 10 finalists and it was being broadcast on live TV — a big deal in those days.   We had 2 minute commercial breaks to change out of our evening dresses, then into our swimsuits, then back into our evening dresses for the crowning.  It had been drilled into our heads during rehearsals to  walk toward center stage, stop, acknowledge the judges, seated down and to the right, walk the length of the runway, stop, turn, walk back, stop, turn, acknowledge the judges, then exit from the same side where we entered the stage.  All was going smoothly, until, as I changed from my swimsuit back into my dress, I caught my thumbnail in my pantyhose (yes, girls, we wore pantyhose) and ripped it off.  I wrapped my bleeding thumb in a tissue and stumbled quickly toward the stage.  In my haste, I did not stop and acknowledge the judges.  I blasted right on by and quickly did my stop and turns and then took my place among the other finalists.

imageI will never know if my thumbnail failure to stop and acknowledge the judges made me lose.  I’ll never know if winning would’ve given me the confidence to be different in the face of the challenges that college and career brought with it.  But all of this came roaring back to me when I was forced to acknowledge the judge in my divorce.  And the judge always stands at the periphery of my appearance as a CASA, especially today.

I had accepted a sash bearing a label that didn’t fit and it wasn’t about how I looked or how I behaved.  It was about how I felt.  I felt wrong.  Because when people told me I was wrong or had done something wrong, I believed them, even when I knew, intellectually, that what they were telling me was a lie.  So, as a child, I began holding myself to standards that I never dreamt of imposing on others.  It blinded me to the things others did to me because I could only look inward, because it MUST be my fault.  I told myself that if the people around me were happy, I was happy — even if they seemed happiest when they were putting me down.

Judgement from so-called dignitaries were not the ones who had the authority to give me confidence.  The judge in divorce court did not contain the capacity to undermine my future.  The only judge who could affect my life, in those moments, was the one who has judged me,  unfairly and unceasingly, throughout my life.  The one who rooted me in that spot on that stage was the one who kept stuck in a life that led to a contentious divorce and it was only me.  And I still had the audacity to criticize myself in public.

It wasn’t perfectionism.  It was persecution.  And that’s the thing about the CASA work that I love.  I am clear on my role, as well as the role of the judge and it is NOT about punishment.   It is about doing what is best for the child.  It is about putting the potential for a child’s pain, centerstage, and acting from the list of facts and events that have been documented about the parents’ actions.  The child’s future is simply framed in light of the parent’s past.  Like the microphone on this stage, the child stands alone… except for me.  Willingly.  Voluntarily.  Beholden to no one except that child and the oath that I took when the court appointed me.  That day was weighty.  But today was weightier.

Today was weighty because I take my role very seriously.  I knew I was making the right recommendation for this child.  I knew that it would hurt his parents.  But, I have never judged them for their choices — my job is to simply document them, letting their efforts speak for themselves.  The judge just listened and that, I have found has been the key to freeing myself from the life sentence I had inflicted upon myself.  I began to listen to my own internal judge.

I listened to the words it said.  I listened to the rhythm of its voice.  And the more I listened, the more I realized it was not mine.  They were words that had been said about me, to me, so often that I believed they were my own.  And since they were wrong, I felt I was wrong.  The moment I knew it was not my voice I became healthier.  Happier.  Healing.  Every time my thoughts turned to “should’s” and “ought to’s” in “that” tone, I tune it out, stop, turn, and acknowledge who the judge really is.

Because here’s the thing… judging myself harsher than I judged others was a gift.   Being understanding of the struggles of others, even when it hurt me, cultivated compassion.   Refusing to “smile and wave” to cover the fear uncovered my truth which holds up pretty well under a harsh spotlight, after all.  Listening to the “judge” culminated in an integrity that was integral in my divorce process as I would not do anything that I could not explain to my children.  Listening to an internal critic causes me, still, to evaluate my creative work as an interior designer objectively and confidently.  And, when I make a mistake, I document it as a choice that I will strive to do differently next time.  Over the course of “due process”, I began to judge my body less and let my body of work speak for itself .  Then, not only did I listen to that, I began speaking more kindly about and to myself.

I remember one other thing about that queen contest.  The first one.  The county one.  The one I won.  The finalists had to do an impromptu speech on a question given by the judges.  Their question began “The 4-H motto is…” and I thought, “Oh, crap!  What is the 4-H motto?  I don’t remember!  What am I going to do?!” and over the spiraling-out-of-control mind chatter I heard them continue “to make the best, better.  What does that mean to you?”.  Aah.  Exhale.  I got this.  I live this.  This… this is the internal judges, job, right?  Best… made better.  Because if I never feel best, I am always striving to be better, right?

Right.  For all intents and purposes, I had the best life.  To anyone on the outside, looking in, I couldn’t have it any better.  Unless you’ve been thoroughly ingrained with the value that the best can always be made better.  That was my answer then, and that is my answer today.  That there is always room for improvement if you judge yourself accordingly.  I can remember beaming at that moment.  I fill up thinking about it now, but not with tears.   Because it has led to this moment.

I am not a singer.  But today I am reminded of something my mother used to say, as the leader of the junior choir at church.  She used to say she would rather hear a loud wrong note than a soft right one because it meant someone was willing to sing.  I thought of that this morning as I settled in behind the slender, black microphone that amplified my oath to speak the truth for the judge and the court reporter.  I pictured this beautiful, stark, sparkly microphone captured by someone dear to me.  And I spoke on behalf of a radiant young child that may never even know my name.  And I will always, forever, know that this… This is my crowning achievement.