I’ve been reading a series of chapbooks from Bamboo Dart Press because I like the idea of quick, short form books. When I opened Portrait of a Deputy Public Defender, I had a nice surprise. The author, Juanita E. Mantz, attended a high school where I worked as the school librarian for many years (though not at the same time). Having a particular interest in Tiger alumni, I happily read about her journey from high school dropout to lawyer and advocate for the indigent and mentally ill.
From Ruin to Success
This 55-page memoir opens on graduation day, 1989. The author’s twin sister is graduating. However, Mantz is crying behind the bleachers, having gone from gifted classes, swim team, and yearbook, from “goody-two-shoes to punk rock high school dropout. It only took me months to ruin my life.”
Happily, Mantz’ life is not ruined. “I decided at that moment, under the stinky bleachers, that I wanted to live. . . . To prove myself to everyone who gave up on me. . . . I just need[ed] a plan.”
Though it takes years of hard work at jobs that keep her on her feet for long hours, Mantz eventually graduates magna cum laude in English literature from UC Riverside. From there she goes on to law school at USC.
Post graduation, she goes into corporate law, but finds it soul sucking. She finds her life’s calling in public defense, particularly in defense of the mentally ill, who cannot negotiate the system without an advocate.
Becoming a Defense Lawyer and Finding Her Passion
“Public defense is the opposite and the antithesis of corporate law. It is fighting the powers that be for your clients in the system that is stacked against them. At times, there is too much autonomy and not enough help or oversight or resources. But if you’re a good lawyer, you make it work. If you love the underdog and a comeback story, you find your passion.“
Mantz mentions several good books about the prison system, an important one being The New Jim Crow. She gives many examples of how very ordinary youthful mistakes can move the very poor, people of color, or the mentally ill into the system permanently. She gives examples of her own youthful mistakes being forgiven. Hosting a kegger at her house when her parents are away is one. She is not punished, but is merely warned by police to behave. She reminds the reader that all drug offenses in her county used to be charged as felonies. Now, they are misdemeanors and marijuana is legal for personal use. The only thing that has changed is society’s attitude. So we need to rethink what makes a criminal.
A Life Filled with Hope
“My clients are all in dire situations, but no matter what their circumstances are, I always try and give them hope. I tell my clients what I told myself that day underneath the bleachers so long ago.
“Tomorrow is another day. You will be OK.“
“Ironically enough, being a high school dropout is my magic wand. My history is what makes me a great deputy public defender. I have been where my clients are, hopeless and sad. I have had no car, no money, and no hope. But I made it out.”
A Good Choice for High School Readers
High school housekeeping: This little book is full of hope for teens who are not succeeding in high school. It’s a reminder that their futures are not set yet. It’s too small to shelve—it’d be lost. But it’s a great choice for a display spinner, where a student might be looking for just the right library book.
Note: I’ve been working on reviewing books which school librarians would not typically see in review journals, but are good choices for teens.