I've begun teaching three college courses this fall. One is online, and it's quite likely I'll never see any of the students. I edit and comment on their work and we exchange e-mails; but I don't know what they look like, how old they might be, what they wear or whether they fall asleep when reading my notes. For several, I can't even make a good guess at their gender.
That should be good. An online class is an unusual meritocracy: I know these students only by their work and what they choose to reveal about themselves in it. But I sometimes get this feeling that something is missing, like I'm constrained in a glass box watching something unfold. I'm shouting and no one hears me; I reach out to touch but nothing's there.
I think this is human. Who of us hasn't met someone we've only talked to on the telephone to find that he or she looked different than we'd imagined?
And we often make up stories about people we see frequently but don't really know at all. That's why we are shocked when Tiger Woods' infidelities blast into public view; we take it as a personal letdown. The stars aren't fulfilling the personality or character traits we've imagined for them. We want to fill in the gaps. And where can that fill come from but our own experiences and observations?
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All this has made me think carefully about and sympathize with two Lexington judges involved in recent controversies over sentencing in high-profile cases.
Mike Gobb and three of his fellow former executives at Blue Grass Airport ran up over a half-million dollars of questionable, extravagant expenses before Herald-Leader reporter Jennifer Hewlett uncovered their activities. They repaid some of the money and were prosecuted for misdeeds involving smaller sums. Fayette Circuit Judge Pamela Goodwine, who handled the cases, did not sentence any of them to jail time and only Gobb was put on probation.
A few days later, Circuit Judge James Ishmael sentenced former University of Kentucky basketball player Ed Davender to eight years in prison for his role in a ticket scam that cost victims as much as $100,000 total.
Both Gobb and Davender had substance abuse issues when their crimes were committed, according to court records, and are both screening clean now. They've both paid some restitution. They are about the same age: Gobb 47 at sentencing, Davender 43.
But that's about where their similarities end.
Davender is black; Gobb is white. Davender didn't seem to have much of a career after basketball, while Gobb had worked as a professional for almost two decades in his field.
And the judges are different. Goodwine is a black woman, Ishmael a white man. Goodwine served on an airport citizen's advisory committee several years ago but said she couldn't remember if she'd had any contact with the airport executives. Ishmael said he'd rooted for Davender when he trod the courts for Kentucky.
This is where things get complicated.
Why, on the face of it, should Davender do time when Gobb won't, assuming he doesn't violate his probation? It reads like just another example of racially misaligned justice.
Or not. If you wanted to take a guess at how judicial prejudice would play out, these are equally likely scenarios: White male judge basketball fan gives the former star a break. Black female judge, tired of white men getting all the breaks, puts Gobb and his buddies in the slammer.
But these judges made different decisions.
Did Goodwine think it would look as if she were seeking racial or gender retribution if she stuck it to Gobb?
Did Ishmael worry that it might look like he was giving a jock a break if Davender didn't do jail time?
If the judges did their work online and never saw the defendants — Gobb, and others in their dark business suits; Davender in an open collared shirt — would the outcome have been different?
Somehow I doubt it.
We are, after all, a government of laws, not people.
Conscientious judges — and I have every reason to believe that's what Ishmael and Goodwine are — must discipline themselves to acknowledge and then put aside this environmental noise, fabricate their own glass boxes, and do the hard work of setting a sentence based on the law, the facts and the people in front of them.
They may wish things were different — our laws are now so punitive we've locked up a huge portion of our population at an unprecedented cost with little public safety to show in return — but they're not. They may wish the people before them were better or more transparent or not a symbol of anyone else's class or racial perceptions. But they're not.
It's tough enough in teaching where all you mete out are grades and, you hope, knowledge. It can't be easy for one human, even a judge, to decide to deprive another of freedom.