The Corner

Scott Brown’s Life Was Saved in the Classroom, on the Court, and in the Courtroom

“I was angry, angry all the time,” Massachusetts Republican senator Scott Brown writes in his new book, Against All Odds. “I was the kid looking for a fight, and if I wasn’t looking, I certainly wouldn’t shrink from one.”

He was angry for a host of legitimate, traumatic reasons, as he tells in the story of his youth. Abandoned by his father. Stuck living with a series of his mother’s husbands, none of them pleased by the instant family that came with her — when not sent away as a charity case, to live with cousins. Mental abuse. Physical abuse. Sexual abuse.

The latter was at a Christian camp, of all places, perhaps an insight into why Brown writes, “I’ve never felt that I needed a church,” despite a closeness to God and reliance on prayer.

But his book, released this week, isn’t the story of anger. It’s the story of overcoming it, getting beyond it, rejecting victimhood.

And it’s the story of gratitude. During his 60 Minutes interview Sunday, Leslie Stahl glossed over one of the most powerful testimonies in his 325-page book: the impact of invested teachers, a judge, and a coach.

He could have been a juvenile delinquent, and almost became one: Brown wound up in the Salem, Mass., courthouse, in front of Judge Samuel Zoll, a Korean War veteran, after being caught stealing records.

When Judge Zoll, who took an interest in him, learned that Brown was a show-off basketball player, he asked him if his sister and other half-siblings ever watched him play. It was all more complicated than the young Brown wanted to explain, but Brown told him, “A lot of times they try to.”

Zoll asked: “Do they look up to you?” Brown told him: “Yeah, they look up to me. I’m the guy who tries to keep everybody together.”

“Wow. That’s great,” Zoll told Brown. “How do you think they will like seeing you play basketball at the local house of correction? Because that’s where you’re going. You’re on your way to jail right now, as evidenced by the way you went in and stole those records. You really didn’t care about the businesses that had to work hard to pay their employees and the fact that you took something that wasn’t yours.”

Bingo.

“It was as simple as that,” Brown writes. “I know now how I seemed to Judge Zoll on that morning: lost, poised to go horribly wrong, but with potential. And in those moments he decided that I was worthy of help.”

The sentence the judge gave Brown was to write a 1,500-word essay on “How I disappointed my brother and sisters and how I think they would like to see me play basketball in jail.”

Brown writes: “I slaved over that essay with the same determination that I pounded my baseball into the concrete wall or my basketball against the backboard. I sat in my room on Salem Street and wrote and recopied, wrote and recopied. … It gave me time to think abut my coaches, about Brad and Judy, and how I had disappointed them.”

Judge Zoll spent half an hour reviewing the essay with Brown, who recalls being in the judge’s chambers when he said, “This is very, very good. And I’m going to give you a break.” But, he sternly warned: “This is the only break you’ll get from me in your life.”

“He verbally kicked my butt,” Brown remembers.

Zoll clearly made an impact. When Brown found a stapler he mistakenly hadn’t paid for when buying Senate-campaign supplies at a Staples, he went back in and insisted it be rung up and paid for. He knew he owed a debt, in more ways than one.

The Brad and Judy he mentions were a coach and an eighth-grade social-studies teacher who literally invested in him, paying for him to go to basketball camp. Miss Patterson “was not afraid to rein me in,” he writes. One day, he was rotten to an unpopular girl at school, and she “grabbed me by my long hair, pulled me into her classroom, and slammed the door shut,” he remembers. And she let him have it, as they say. “You’ve got everything in the world going for you. You’re tall, you’re good-looking, you’re athletic. You could be smart if you put your mind to it. But you’re a jerk. How dare you say that to that poor girl? How do you think she’s going to feel now for the rest of her life?”

That teacher had got to him, much like the judge would. “I was the kid who always felt like a loser,” he remembers. And “she was the first person in a long time who actually cared.”

Brown goes on to write about Brad, who modeled what he could be — a happy, responsible, upstanding family man (Brad and Judy would subsequently get married), “so full of life and enthusiasm.” Senator Brown also writes about Brad’s assistant coach, who “expected everything from me — rebounding, passing, scoring. He drilled us all, every day, and he took no crap from anyone. Instead, he goaded me with possibilities.”

The challenge, the vote of confidence, the loving investment. Some Wisconsin public-school teachers may be giving teachers a bad name these days, but teachers can save lives. True servants can and do — in the classroom, on the court, in the courtroom.

And after Judge Zoll was done with Scott Brown, Brown got a sensible haircut, too. 

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