why brown?

finding passion in providence

I feel like I’ve walked onto a TV set.

Walter Simpson sits laughing in the courtroom.

A recording plays—it’s Walter talking to a detective on the phone, taped on December 15th of last year.

“Do you have a twin out there?” Detective Sergeant Greenough asks.

Hearing this question again, one month later, amuses Walter. Were Walter a twin, then his twin might have been the one Brandi Pisani picked out of a photo lineup as the man who sexually assaulted her. It could be the twin, not him, sitting in front of a judge with red handcuffs clamped to his wrists.

But with no twin to his name, Walter is the one shackled in Courtroom 8 of the Licht Judicial Complex listening to the State’s evidence against him. Ill-at-ease, Walter attempts to hide the chains under his slender fingers, but his grey sweater and boat shoes continue to mark him an outsider in the sea of stern dark suits and oxfords.

The scene is unfolding one block from the Rock. If you go to the first floor of the library, and head to the back window, you will see a brick building peeking out on Benefit street, almost identical to the surrounding buildings, except for an elegant marble entrance. Students may pass by on their way to Benefit Street Café, the RISD library, or Den Den, depending on their angle of origin. At least, these are the times the building has appeared in my peripheral vision.

But I never knew it was anything besides a beautiful brick building on a street known for its beautiful brick buildings. Now, on a school assignment to report on a trial, not only had I learned of its identity as a courthouse, but I had made it inside the building, inside Courtroom 9, and, in an unexpected advance, all the way to the jury bench, where the judge told me I’d have a better view. All I had had to do to gain access was flash my Brown ID to an aging cop. Even that, he told me, was a courtesy. Anyone can enter the courthouse. Just don’t bring a gun.

Now, as I sit nervously in the jury bench, Walter sits notably less nervously in front of the judge, watching the detective explain why he has been charged, once again, with first-degree sexual assault, and will likely be sent back to start what will be his 29th year in prison.

Walter looks around the room. Wooden pinecones hang from the ceiling, a remnant of the Italian heritage of Federal Hill, symbolizing abundance and quality.

Walter likely doesn’t know the antiquated meaning behind the pinecones. But, attuned to irony as he is, surely if he learned, he could find some more sordid amusement in the symbolism.

To the judge, the attorneys, and the detective, working toward the lofty pursuit of justice in a room with carved walls and gilded trimmings, abundance and quality are appropriate motifs for their lives. But to an ex-felon about to commit the rest of his life to a jail cell, they are hollow words. In fact, the whole event is hollow for Walter. Even I knew the trial was devoid of meaning and this was my first time seeing a judge besides Judge Judy.

Walter never had a chance in life. Since getting released from jail, he had been unable to get a job, and his home life was so shaky he slept with a knife. This isn’t an excuse for what he did. But it is a critically shaky foundation that was but a footnote in the trial.

I left that three-hour-long court appointment confused and alarmingly disillusioned for 11 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. Sandwiched between my Blue Room bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast bagel and my 1 p.m. afternoon class in Watson, I had taken a 10-minute walk and witnessed something disconcertingly real. The horrors of sexual assault and the endless cycle of recidivism are being played out every day, essentially on Brown’s campus.

But I had asked for this insight, planting the seeds for it in my Banner schedule. I wanted not just a degree from Brown, but passion.

Last year, I embodied the trope of the lost freshman. I would look at Brown’s course catalogue and feel like I was drowning in the ocean of class offerings. I picked inefficiently, and all of my classes ended up exclusively involving my sitting in the back of a large lecture hall. It did not matter if I was there. The entire semester could have been done remotely, submitting Canvas posts from my dorm room. By the end, it was.

I questioned my need to be at Brown, to be at college. I struggled to stay awake during class, drawing all the information and interest I could from the dry assigned texts, only to never be asked about them again. It all felt meaningless.

I thought college just wasn’t right for me. But, everyone else seemed to be thriving. So, I decided to try something new. I intentionally picked classes that required heavy out-of-the-classroom work, classes that let Providence feel like a petri dish, not a trap.

Now, I feel this passion each week, not just from my court class, but also from all of the community-oriented courses I placed in my cart. As new assignments pop up on my syllabi every Monday, I head back down to the courthouse, to Kennedy Plaza, to parts of Providence I’d never heard of until this year. What I’m learning is no longer something I’m reading on Vox, in the back of a classroom when I should be taking notes; it’s something that smells like old wood and spits fiery dialogue. It’s something I’m interviewing policemen and business owners about. It’s real, and I care.

This passion is what I’ve learned differentiates a good class from a bad class, a good college semester from a bad college semester. When I find classes with real world application, I feel fulfilled, angered in a way that makes the future seem important and imminent, and I feel content. I need to be here.