Fifth-graders hear a story from real life Experience as a defendant inspired him, judge says

March 25, 1997|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

The first time he was ever in a courtroom he was on trial, Robert M. Bell told a group of fifth-graders at Centennial Lane Elementary School yesterday.

Now he's the highest-ranking judge in the state.

The chief judge of Maryland's Court of Appeals said the experience as a teen-ager -- he was eventually convicted of participating in a sit-in at a lunch counter that barred African-Americans -- did not scare him away from the justice system. In fact, it inspired him.

"I did it because it was the right thing to do," Bell, 53, said of the sit-in, adding that he knew it was against the law at the time and could get him into serious trouble.

"The point of the story is that things work out if you stand up for your convictions," he told the group of about 40 children in an auditorium.

Bell's life story -- which starts in a poor, single-parent home in East Baltimore -- served as a tale of inspiration for the students, though they are in a school that by most measures serves one of the wealthiest districts in Maryland.

Bell was invited to speak at Centennial Lane by Howard Circuit Court Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, whose son, a fifth-grader, attends the school.

Kendra Norris, 11, wants to be a marine biologist or a writer, and the fifth-grader said she does not think it is going to be an easy path.

"I learned you may start at nothing, but you can always get somewhere," Kendra said of Bell's talk. "There's probably going to be something that's going to stand in your way, but you can [overcome] it by taking chances."

For Emi DiStefano, 10, Bell's talk taught her the value of perseverance.

"He said he kept trying and got an education," DiStefano said. "I think it was good he kept trying."

Bell emphasized the value of education and implored the students to reach beyond what they saw as their own limits.

"My theory is if you aim high enough, even if you fail you have achieved a great deal more" than if you hadn't tried at all, said Bell.

Sitting on a stool in front of the students, Bell told them about the ironies of his life's struggle. The man who prosecuted him when he was 16 ended up sitting with him on the same bench years later. The son of the judge who heard the case also became a colleague on the bench.

"My philosophy is if it can be perceived, it can be achieved," Bell said.

Pub Date: 3/25/97

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