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Taking the Stand

The world is rife with judges.

Not the robed kind, necessarily, but folks who want to size us up according to surface traits that belie our greater sense of self.

Order an extra cocktail and you’re labeled an alcoholic; turn it down and you’re a killjoy. Confess you hate to exercise and suddenly you’re a slacker; admit you love it and you’re a shallow-minded, image-obsessed, endorphin-addicted freak (maybe I’m the only one who thinks that).

In our youth, we resist such labels. I recall as a teen feeling panicked at my inability to prevent strangers — teachers, dentists, really cute boys — from branding me as something I wasn’t. Slut. Prude. Brain. Ditz. Dork. Rebel. In truth, I was any number of those things but didn’t know it yet.

With adulthood comes the sweet relief of a thicker skin, and a healthy but hard-earned disinterest in what people think of us. But I was recently sucked into an odd bubble of self-consciousness that rivaled that of my adolescence. I was called as a witness in a federal hearing, and although I wasn’t personally on trial, my credibility and character were called into question.

Which is nothing personal, of course. In a court of law, a witness is not a flawed, well-meaning human being with complicated motivations. You are simply a piece of evidence in a pinstriped jacket — no more or less dimensional than a signed document or a lock of hair in a forensics baggie. If you have something to say that will make one set of lawyers happy, it’s the other lawyers’ job to make you look like a devious fruitcake.

Still, knowing your integrity is about to be poked and prodded in the public record is unnerving. And as my court date approached, I became frightfully aware of every personal failing, public indiscretion, and lapse of citizenship that could possibly be tied to my name: abundant front-yard weeds, countless California stops, refusal to volunteer as Room Parent for my son’s fourth-grade class… the list, I’m afraid, goes on.

What if they got testimony from all the waiters I’ve tipped abominably? Or photos of me at McDonald’s last week feeding my toddler French fries for dinner while sitting outside, in front of god and everyone?

The truth is I’m not forthright in every aspect of my life. I color my hair, I ink over the scuff marks on my shoes with black Sharpie, and don’t make me tell you about my padded bra. (“Ms. Roshell, if you’re such an honest person, the court demands to know why you present yourself to all the world as a B-cup!” The courtroom gasps.) But once my miscreant keister finally found itself in the witness chair, I discovered some delightful things.

First, if you’re called to court one day but never make it to the stand because things are proceeding so slowly, you can wear the exact same thing again the next day and not a single person will notice. I swear.

Second, unless you’re instructed to holler expletives across the room, as I was — which, to be honest, feels a bit like wailing “Sympathy for the Devil” during a Catholic mass — courtrooms are not as scary as they seem.

Sure, you need a hearty hide (in part because courtrooms are kept at goose bump-inducing temperatures to prevent accidental napping). But it turns out you don’t need much else, because a witness’s job is neither to prove nor disprove anything. It’s simply to tell the truth — a task that even this cheapskate, bleachy-headed slacker mom found to be surprisingly easy.

But then, who am I to judge?

Published inColumns

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