EVERY DAY’S A SCHOOL DAY

My sister, a schoolteacher working remotely through these hard times, sent me a cartoon with an older fellow sitting on a stool in his kitchen, a pen and paper balanced on his knee, leaning forward and peering intently at the microwave, while asking his wife in frustration, “Where the heck are my students?!” Her calm response was simply, “That’s the microwave, Bob.” Truly a cartoon for our times. My sister also told me that a fellow teacher brought up a good question: “Does anyone know how to make myself the one in charge of my virtual classroom? Because one of my students is the monitor and he keeps muting me while I am trying to lecture!”

As an interpreter, I am fortunate to be allowed to work from home and limit my exposure to disease, but like Bob and many others, technology does not come easy. Especially when we have to try and learn it in isolation. Getting back into court interpreting after their cautious re-opening, I was nervous about it all: the video remote, my new headset, using WebEx for the first time, logging into pre-planned sessions, potentially doing simultaneous and switching different parties onto mute, getting codes, getting more codes, remembering to block my call if I was asked to originate the call to a defendant, and much more – both real and imagined. To add a bit of spice to my day, the court staff were given my phone number, and I was expected to take all incoming calls, which today of all days included frequent spam robocalls from ever-varying numbers with dire warnings about my social security number being hacked – which I had to keep answering in case it was a court clerk working from home.

I miss being physically in court, with my phone on silent and my laptop miles away. I miss running up and down the stairs at the courthouse and reminding the different courtrooms I am available. Seeing for myself who is in which court – whether a defendant has no-showed, whether an attorney is with another client, whether the prosecutor, crime victim, and victim’s advocate are ready for a chat. Whether a social worker or probation officer wants to talk to someone prior to the hearing, whether an attorney wants me to “go down to the tank” and interview a defendant in jail. Whether there is a walk-in for urgent help with domestic violence or housing, or someone who needs to screen for an attorney, quash a warrant, or pay a ticket. I miss seeing the familiar faces and sharing information in person. I want to see what is happening. I want my familiar world.

Working in isolation from home exacerbates my already pathological sense of helplessness and personal frustration with all the new modalities, new technologies, and very distant, sometimes even disembodied, human contact. I miss being recognized and acknowledged, even with something as subtle as eye contact, a half smile, or a silent nod of appreciation. With the inevitable stress and trauma of our work, any sense of camaraderie, of reassurance, would help ease me into the new technology. It can be lonely and scary and sometimes funny, although on the whole it is only funny in afterthought. Kind of a “someday we will look back and laugh” situation, presuming things get better. Things will certainly never be the same. And maybe that’s a good thing, but it doesn’t feel good yet.

My first call of the day was a clerk asking me to get onto the WebEx platform for a video remote jailhouse arraignment, but I had no information about the case because it was not on my schedule. So he emailed me an invitation, and I tried to sign into the hearing from my laptop. But I could not get onto their audio system. There was no sound. I called the clerk back and he told me that had happened to him as well, so I should try to call in via phone instead of on my laptop. So I tried that. But as soon as I entered the meeting room code into my phone keypad, my phone auto-filled some password, then rejected it as wrong, and then hung up on me. I tried several times, seeing if I could input the correct password from the email before my phone took over, with no success.

Meanwhile, the clerk was calling me back, and that call was clicking through while I was desperately trying to call into the hearing. Also meanwhile, I was going into sensory overload and having to breathe to keep myself grounded. I took the clerk’s call and told him what was happening with my phone-in attempts, carefully masking my voice so I sounded like a functional human being. He sighed and then passed the call over the another clerk “who is good with technology”. She in turn suggested I hang up, go back onto the laptop, open my email, use the invitation to log in to the WebEx session again, and choose the option from the dropdown menu for a callback instead of calling in myself, and then stay off my phone, and wait for them to call me back at my phone number. That would bypass the need to keypad in the password, and avoid the auto-fill. Nice workaround.

I did that, but instead of someone in the courtroom making the decision on when to call me, the system called me instantly, and when I answered, I was auto-clicked right into a courtroom, without video, where it sounded suspiciously like they had just started the hearing without me – if it was even the correct courtroom. I couldn’t see anything or anyone, of course. And I knew they couldn’t see me, so I immediately piped up and announced my presence and identity to the judge, stating that I was standing by to interpret.

One invisible person giggled shortly, but no one else said anything. I had no way of knowing whether the giggle was for my interruption, or whether anyone had even heard me. No one directed me to interpret. No one directed me to stand by silently, or hang up, or get into another courtroom. Just the short and mysterious giggle into the void. So I just stood by as my heart rose to my throat and I thought about getting a job in a daycare or as a gardener. Would it really be that much less money? Plus they cannot make you do those jobs remote! After an ice age, there was a short break in the hearing, and I heard and recognized one of the clerk’s voices as they chatted. I called him by name and asked him if I was in the right place. He told me yes, and to stand by. They had passed over my hearing, he explained. A voice from the darkness. A voice of comfort. I was okay. My hearing would be next.

The day crept forward between these blind calls and some short written translations for traffic court. Between interpreting sessions, I exchanged many emails regarding scheduling updates, and received 5 or 6 more robo-calls about “criminal or fraudulent activity in Texas using YOUR Social Security card! Urgent action is needed! Please stay on the line!”

At the final hearing, we had a pro tem (substitute) judge. She was asking a lot of questions and trying to make sure everything was done correctly. This was an old pending case that had been in line to become a dismissal, except the defendant had picked up new charges, and thus lost her chance to avoid a conviction. The two sides had negotiated an overall settlement for both old and new cases with a guilty plea, and credit for time served. The hearing went well, I thought. The sound was fine, and I was allowed to interpret consecutively, which was very nice. Everyone stayed close to their microphones.

Then the prosecutor was asked to fill out the Judgment and Sentence. He did so as we stood by, then announced that when he sent it electronically for all signatures, it had turned into a blank form. He asked for time to fill it out again. Granted. But the same thing happened. He then found that the version that he had originally filled out was still on his computer, and asked if “instead of reinventing the wheel,” he could send it as a PDF, because it was “not transmittable from Library”. A voice from the void stated that a PDF does not allow for signatures. Meanwhile, another voice from the void, likely a clerk, offered the opinion that “you should never send a document from Library, but only from Workflow, because it generates an automated sending to all participants while Library blanks things out”.

The prosecutor announced tersely that he had to use Library because Counts 2 and 3 were being added to the same case resolution, and you cannot have added counts in the Workflow system. Workflow doesn’t allow it! Another voice suggested just printing it and handwriting in the new counts, but that didn’t seem adequate to preserve the record. The judge suggested that the document should stay intact in Library but be emailed for signature as an attachment, and then signed through Adobe Sign. Another voice stated the defendant herself would not be able to sign the document in Adobe Sign, not having a login, and there was an unresolved discussion about whether you need a login.

The clerk circled back around to suggest strongly that “nobody should ever use Library” while one of the lawyers reminded her again that “it’s the only way to add the two new counts!” and this discussion went on for a while. At some point, people clearly moved away from the microphones to look at and discuss the paperwork, presumably looking at each other’s screens, and conferring about how to make this happen. From my perspective, darkness, mumbling, and personal discomfort.

Things were eventually resolved – I was not privy as to how. The final document was sent around and signed electronically, and that was clearly stated on the record, and duly interpreted. The judge brought the case to a close with a sigh of relief, and reminded us that “as a family member of mine likes to say, Every Day’s a School Day… we are all here learning together. And we will figure this out! Thanks everybody for your patience! And thank you, Madame Interpreter! You are released!”

I would have liked to be physically present and look around the courtroom just for that brief second, to share in a communal sigh of relief with my colleagues. To nod in acknowledgment of the judge’s encouraging words. To catch someone’s eye on the way out with a silently shared, “This is hard, right?!” But I am not standing in the courtroom as the case goes off the record. I am sitting here alone at home, in my basement office, with a disconnected phone in my hand. And with all due respect for the luxury of working in a suit jacket with pajama bottoms, it can be disheartening. Trying to figure out the technology, working in the dark, and remaining isolated are heavy weights to bear. Others have it worse, of course, and my heart goes out to them. But I direct some of my compassion back to myself, in a very small circle of comfort indeed.