I walked down an unfamiliar hallway on the second floor of my high school feeling like my freshman enthusiasm had gone too far. Joining mock trial sounded fun, but this distressing walk was almost enough to deter me from even trying to find my way to the first meeting. It was my first week of high school, and I hardly knew the building apart from the routes I would take between classes, so I was very much in uncharted waters. Luckily, it at least seemed like I was going in the right direction, given that the numbers on the gray plaques posted outside each classroom were getting closer to the one I’d received in the interest-form email. When I finally found the right room and walked in, I discovered that it was littered with some lost-looking underclassmen like myself and a few upperclassmen who clearly ran the club. Besides looking older, they had a certain presence — unbothered and indeliberate — as if the space they took up was truly but simply theirs. I wondered if it was an upperclassmen thing or a mock trial thing.
Five months later, I was in that classroom as part of the team. We were having a late-evening scrimmage that night — and this was after having had a couple-hour-long practice after school that same day. The oddly-curved, wheely desks that the school district “upgraded” to a few years ago were moved around to vaguely assemble a courtroom setup: a judge’s table heading the classroom in front of the whiteboard with the “counsel desks” a few feet away from that. The air in the classroom mixed our burned-out stress and the multiple boxes of pizza we’d ordered.
Mock trial is a club that consists of being given a legal case for two teams to prepare both “sides” for. Usually, this falls along the lines of a prosecution and a defense. The teams field three attorneys and three witnesses on each side. There are opening and closing speeches, direct examinations where attorneys question a witness on their own side, and cross-examinations, an attorney questions a witness on the opposing side. People make objections based on the rules of evidence during both types of examinations (the type of thing you see in a movie’s courtroom scene).
Although this was not our first scrimmage, I knew it was a significant one. We even managed to get two lawyers to judge it. Our competition was also only a few days away and I had a team I was terrified of letting down. I was the only freshman on the team who had been assigned an attorney role, so I felt the weight of this scrimmage, especially. I was tired and light-headed from the nerves, but there wasn’t much time to let my focus drift. I was giving an opening statement, performing a direct and then a cross-examination after that.
When I get nervous, my hands get cold and shaky, my mouth turns dry, and my brain feels like it’s short-circuiting. None of these symptoms, as you might guess, are things you want when performing. But at that point, I was used to it. Despite the nerves and need to polish (which is perpetual in mock trial), it was obvious to me that since I had first walked into that classroom, I had improved. A lot. I even allowed myself to feel some modest satisfaction — I’d dedicated a lot of my past five months to this. The sun was out when we arrived, but it was pitch black outside by the time we finished. I had never stayed at school so late; but this, as I learned in those five months, was just part of mock trial.
Mock trial is also demanding. It’s demanding of your time, effort, and energy — demanding of you. You need to think on your feet, shed your hesitations, and speak with conviction. I joined the team because I liked to write, which, as it turned out, was a significant part of mock trial. However, writing also gave me desirable safety away from on-the-spot mistakes, which is why mock trial was so challenging for me. I could no longer hide behind the page, which had previously given me all the time in the world to write ambiguous sentences and call it a day. Mock trial was fast-paced and unforgiving, requiring that I understand logic while equipping myself with an unfailingly assertive demeanor and ability to articulate.
At first, I thoroughly enjoyed drafting while absolutely hating the performance. Speak up! Vary your tone! Pause here for effect! It was a cold slap of reality to understand my writing, which I had long considered “good,” was not enough. However, that cold slap was exactly what I needed to send me into the inertia of improvement.
So, I got better. I learned to speak up, vary my tone, and pause here and pause there for effect. Everyone has something they’re good at, but it doesn’t end there. Mock trial taught me that it means a lot less to be superb in mediocrity than struggling in something to be better. Mock trial didn’t fix every single one of my flaws — nothing can — and mock trial didn’t just push me to get better at mock trial itself. It built my everyday confidence and dexterity — not over-thinking before speaking up in class, taking the lead in group settings, barefaced approaches to experiences unknown and uncertain.
Mock trial taught me about what it takes and feels like to truly improve myself. Most of it is uncomfortable, embarrassing, and filled with sour self-doubt, but the process — even barring the final product — is rewarding in itself. I found a family in my mock trial team, and that, alone, proved invaluable.
I only had one year with my team, as I had to move this past year. Although I did join the team at my new school, I’ve also been able to join my old team over Zoom (where we all are anyway). They’ve given me a sense of belonging in a time where that can be scarce. They are the people who pushed themselves with me, and who I push myself for.