Altamont, TN – If I was to learn rural Tennessee, I had to understand the people. My cousin, who sometimes mediates in the courts, offered to let me shadow him for the morning. In the muggy morning, we headed to Altamont in Grundy County, one of the poorest counties in the state. I was over-dressed wearing jeans as we walked into the court. On the wooden wall behind the judge, an emblem read, “The Great Seal of the State of Tennessee – 1796. Agriculture. Commerce.” Images of a plow, a sheaf of wheat and a cotton plant illustrate the key historical cash crops of the state. Below, a riverboat sails eternally, speaking to the history of commerce along the rivers.
“It’s empty today,” my cousin said. “I don’t know if you’ll see much.”
I shrugged. It might be a slow day but I was happy to have a chance to hear the proceedings. To the left of the judge sat a probation officer and a sheriff wearing a black t-shirt with a yellow silk-screened badge on the front. The probation officer slumped in his chair as the judge called my cousin to speak with a couple navigating a divorce. Yes, they were open to trying mediation. The husband was on his seventh probation order to stay away from the woman and her children.
Walking toward the jury room, he stated, “I’ve had seven of these…what does that tell you?” He waited for an answer and then said in frustration, “It tells you that I know how they work!” Like many who came to the court, this wasn’t their first rodeo.
Eight of us were left in the quiet courtroom. The judge called up three people involved in a juvenile case of teenager who pulled a knife on his girlfriend during a dispute about her pick-up truck. In Tennessee, one can acquire a driving permit for farm work at age 14. The adults were upset. One woman looked to be about 30 and the other two in their sixties. The judge clarified their roles.
“Ma’am,” he asked the older woman. “How do you know the boy?”
“His aunt,” said the older woman. The judge made a note. The woman held her hand in a fist and shook it up and down, wrist up, like she was ready to fight.
“Sir?” The judge nodded to the older gentleman.
“His grandpa.” He was noticeably the most calm and the judge thanked him.
“And you?” He nodded to the woman in her thirties.
“I’m his girlfriend.” I wasn’t sure if I heard that right.
“He needs help, sir. You gotta help him.”
The judge looked at her. “Are you related?”
“No, sir.” This seemed to be a standard question. She leaned forward.
“You gotta help him; he needs help.” The aunt glared at her.
The judge explained that they would discuss helping the youth in a moment.
“And where is the father?” he looked at the three people.
They shook their heads and looked at each other.
“I don’t know.”
“Haven’t seen him.”
“Okay, out of the picture,” and the judge made eye contact with each of them again.
They nodded. No one mentioned if there was a mother. In such tight community, some things are known, assumed and do not need to be discussed. I noted that I could possibly bring up painful memories in the learning curve of these relationships. Asking too many questions or revealing how little I knew about the community would dismantle the trust. The curve would climb steeply and my role would be to keep quiet during the unfolding, holding on for the ride.
The judge began with the aunt, asking her side of the story. She explained that she lived across the road. Her eyes filled with tears as she shook her fist in increasing anger at the girlfriend as if she was pumping herself up for a fight. Her complaints moved away from the issue at hand. The judge asked held her to task gently and asked if there was anything else. The woman said, no. He explained to the grandfather that he could only leave Putnum County on probation until the hearing. Was the grandfather willing to take the kid home and be with him constantly until the hearing? The grandfather said he would.
He asked the girlfriend her side of the story. She explained what had happened the afternoon that the teen, her boyfriend, had threatened her with a knife he picked up from the seat of the pick-up truck. She told him that she didn’t want him driving it and grabbed the knife out of his hand. The story infuriated the aunt who was still pumping her fist up and down.
“As far as I’m concerned, you’re not my daughter anymore!” she burst out at the girlfriend and stormed past me out of the courtroom. She slammed the door and the judge continued his conversation with the girlfriend. The sheriff in the black t-shirt felt for his pistol, calmly stood up and walked over to sit between me and the door. I could tell from his t-shirt that he wasn’t wearing a bullet-proof vest and wondered if he was questioning that now. I saw the aunt pacing outside the courtroom but she did not try to enter.
The girlfriend continued her plea to the judge to do something to help the teen.
“Is he on drugs?” the judge asked and she nodded that she thought so. He asked for clarification.
“More than marijuana?”
She nodded again. He asked her how she knew this.
“I just know…” And she asked the judge again to help him. He repeated the question.
“I take painkillers,” she said finally. “And one day, like, 40 of them were missing. And I know it’s not my kids. I asked them and they said, ‘No, Mommy, we didn’t take them.’ And I told them I’d kill them if they did so I know it wasn’t them. It could only be him.” She started to cry. “I’m just so scared that I’ll wake up one morning and he’ll have done something bad…that they’ll be dead.”
The judge nodded. He gave her some time to calm down and then looked at the grandfather.
“Are you willing to take him? He has to be with you at all times, you understand?”
The older man nodded. The judge thanked the man and told the two of them to sit down. When they had sat behind me, he nodded at the probation officer who stood up and walked to a door marked “Holding Room”. He unlocked the door and held it open.
The teen walked out wearing shorts and a t-shirt. His hair hung into his eyes and he brushed it out of the way as he walked up to the judge respectfully. The hackles around his ankles jangled. He only looked at the judge. The judge explained that his grandfather agreed to let him stay with him until his hearing.
“Now you tested positive for THC,” he continued. “Are you still using?”
“If I tested you today, would you test positive?”
The teen stalled.
“When was the last time you used?”
“Maybe three weeks ago?” he tottered in that awkward teen space between acting respectfully and wanting respect. He looked up at the judge.
“I’m assigning you a lawyer. You need to tell her all of this. I’m not going to test you today but if I did and the test was positive for THC, that wouldn’t be good. You cannot use or this is going to be a whole lot worse.”
The teen nodded and looked back to his grandfather, a look that said he wanted help but was trying to act as he thought an adult should, dignified and aloof. The judge called the grandfather back up and explained the situation.
“Here’s the name of the lawyer and he has some things he needs to discuss with her.”
He nodded at the court reporter who handed the older man some paperwork. The older man said he forgot his glasses and the judge handed him his own. The older man signed the forms to release the teen into his responsibility and the judge waved over the probation officer. The probation officer motioned for the teen. He waded over in hackles and knelt backward on a chair. The officer unlocked the cuffs and the teen stepped back down.
“You call that lawyer today,” the judge said and took his reading glasses back from the grandfather.
“Those work pretty good,” said the grandfather and the judge laughed. The grandfather and the teen left the courtroom. The girlfriend left a few moments later.
Outside the courthouse, I met my cousin and watched the girlfriend drive off with two other men, one shirtless, in the pick-up truck.
“Sorry it was such a quiet day,” my cousin said.
“It’s okay. I…learned a lot.”
We set off to hike to the Stone Door, tucking our pants into our socks against chiggers and keeping an eye out for rattlesnakes. I had a feeling that the learning curve had just begun.