Constitution Day with the Brames



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

“Can you come here every day?” a student asked wistfully when Tracey Brame opened up Monday’s Constitution Day visit for questions at Mulick Elementary School.
Brame, Assistant Dean and Associate Professor at the Grand Rapids campus of Thomas M. Cooley Law School, laughed delightedly as she talked about that question on the way out of the school. “It sort of makes me wish I could,” she said, almost as wistfully.

Tracey’s husband Kenyatta Brame, an attorney who is Chief Administrative Officer and Services Group Vice President at Cascade Engineering, attended Mulick when he was younger, and was able to point out the exact section in the exact classroom where he sat in first grade. “I started out here,” he said proudly. “That’s why we chose it.”

The Brames were two of approximately 30 Grand Rapids attorneys who volunteered their time teaching fifth grade students about the U.S. Constitution and the law, and at the same time serving as positive examples of the legal profession for the students.

When Tracey Brame asked how many of the Mulick fifth-graders wanted to be lawyers, ten to twelve raised their hands. But when she asked how many of them knew someone who was a lawyer, fewer hands popped up.

Recognizing that in the absence of having met actual lawyers, children could get a negative perception of the profession, the Grand Rapids Bar Association began the program last year. Mark Smith of Rhoades McKee, shown below right, provided leadership in 2011. He commented in July of this year, “Our first Constitution Day in the schools, where we put lawyers in classes around the city, was a great success.”

Of course, it also serves to support the educational system’s lessons about the Constitution, separation of powers, and how the federal government functions. Sept. 17, which is Constitution Day across the United States to commemorate the signing of the Constitution back in 1787, seemed like a good opportunity.

This year, the attorneys who volunteered were able to reach over 650 students in the Grand Rapids Public Schools. The participants also distributed to each a pocket constitution, provided by the non-partisan Liberty Day organization.

At Mulick Elementary, the Brames started out by introducing themselves. They asked what it takes to become a lawyer, and students answered everything from “be the valedictorian” to “be on task and on time and don’t let nobody get you to say anything that’s not true.” Kenyatta Brame explained the process of graduating from law school, acknowledging that potential lawyers do need to get good grades, then going to college or university and attending law school, through the bar exam.
One of the first things they told the young students was that there are two different types of law: criminal, which Tracey practiced before her career at Cooley Law School; and civil, in which Kenyatta told them he started out. The students seemed to grasp the difference between the two, but discussion kept coming back to criminal law, which apparently was more fascinating than what the Constitution says about the separation of powers.

The students were well aware of the three branches, but had difficulty distinguishing that from the two houses of  Congress. The Brames gave them a quick quiz, which they worked on quietly for a few minutes, and then competed (“floor” versus “chairs”) to see who could get the most right answers.

Kenyatta Brame threw packages of candy to those who answered correctly, and most caught them without hesitation. Eventually, every student had a package. They all complied with their teachers’ admonition not to open them during class.

After that, the Brames improvised a sample “law” that went from introduction to enactment to challenge in the Supreme Court, based on suggestions from the children. As Tracey Brame called on the kids, they put together a bill that required everyone to watch football every Sunday. Suggested penalties were $1000 and jail.
Since the president did not veto the hypothetical bill, three of the students who did not watch every week wound up in a jail-like corner of the school library. The Brames led them through the process of challenging the constitutionality of the law, subtly imparting a lot of knowledge along the way.

The children paid attention for the entire hour. When, after the students got out of jail, Tracey Brame asked for questions, one student explained very politely, “This is a comment, not a question. Is that OK?” It was.

Kenyatta Brame advised the students to “always mind your Ps and Qs” so they could go to college and pursue the careers they wanted.