I am thinking, tonight, about high school speech. About the miracle that was high school speech. About Clarence Darrow, whose courtroom defense of Leopold and Loeb I chose to deliver for my sophomore year speech. Imagine a sixteen-year-old, only half understanding the magnitude of it all, standing in the middle of a dingy classroom in Duluth or Roseville or Princeton, Minnesota, reciting Clarence Darrow’s 1925 words:
The easy thing and the popular thing to do is to hang my clients. I know it. Men and women who do not think will applaud. The cruel and the thoughtless will approve. It will be easy today; but in Chicago, and reaching out over the length and breadth of the land, more and more fathers and mothers, the humane, the kind, and the hopeful, who are gaining an understanding and asking questions not only about these poor boys but about their own, these will join in no acclaim at the death of my clients. But, Your Honor, what they shall ask may not count. I know the easy way. I know Your Honor stands between the future and the past. I know the future is with me, and what I stand for here; not merely for the lives of these two unfortunate lads, but for all boys and all girls; for all of the young, and as far as possible, for all of the old. I am pleading for life, understanding, charity, kindness, and the infinite mercy that considers all. I am pleading that we overcome cruelty with kindness and hatred with love. I know the future is on my side. Your Honor stands between the past and the future. You may hang these boys; you may hang them, by the neck until they are dead. But in doing it you will turn your face toward the past. In doing it you are making it harder for every other boy who in ignorance and darkness must grope his way through the mazes which only childhood knows. In doing it you will make it harder for unborn children. You may save them and make it easier for every child that some time may stand where these boys stand. You will make it easier for every human being with an aspiration and a vision and a hope and a fate. I am pleading for the future; I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men. When we can learn by, reason and judgment and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of man.
I feel that I should apologize for the length of time I have taken. This case may not be as important as I think it is, and I am sure I do not need to tell this court, or to tell my friends, that I would fight just as hard for the poor as for the rich. If I should succeed in saving these boys’ lives and do nothing for the progress of the law, I should feel sad, indeed. If I can succeed, my greatest reward and my greatest hope will be that I have done something for the tens of thousands of other boys, or the countless unfortunates who must tread the same road in blind childhood that these poor boys have trod, that I have done something to help human understanding, to temper justice with mercy, to overcome hate with love.
I was reading last night of the aspiration of the old Persian poet, Omar Khayyam. It appealed to me as the highest that can vision. I wish it was in my heart, and I wish it was in the hearts of all:
So I be written in the Book of Love,
Do not care about that Book above.
Erase my name or write it as you will,
So I be written in the Book of Love.
There was a shrewd-faced judge immediately in front of me, fellow speakers scattered about. Most sleepy; speech mornings are early, and Minnesota winters are cold. And I could see, as I spoke, when someone’s eyes wandered to the clock above me or the posters at my back. And I used to think that perhaps an effective antidote to such rudeness would be to pause the words, stride to the offender, and shake their shoulders roughly. “This is important!” I would yell into their face, “Can’t you hear how important this is?”
Of course I couldn’t do that, couldn’t even pause for: “Now listen carefully here. He’s reciting Persian poetry at a murder trial. Poetry! Omar Khayyam! Listen carefully.”
So I simply spoke on, trying my best to let the words reverberate against the graphite-streaked desks, the hanging cell models, the linoleum.
“Erase my name or write it as you will,/So I be written in the Book of Love.”
Poetry! At a murder trial!