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Disconnect to connect, and other lessons from a one-time juror

I knew it could happen. I've always known it was coming for me. As such, the fear lay latently curled, like a hibernating animal, in the dark recesses of my mind. And then, on a sunny day in mid-August, the nagging beast was awakened.

I had received a summons to jury duty.

"Don't worry," my sister told me later that day over the phone, "you won't get picked."

"Just act crazy in the interview and you'll get dismissed," my friend offered. That seemed feasible. According to the National Center for State Courts only 15 percent of Americans get summoned to serve on a jury in any given year—fewer than five percent ever end up on a jury—the odds were in my favor.

While I am one of the 67 percent that believe serving is part of being a good citizen, I simply did not have time with so much on my plate: work, a toddler to feed and tame, raucous raccoons nesting under my house... As Sweet Brown once wisely stated, "ain't nobody got time for that."

And so, with conflicted thoughts and an optimistic exit plan, I entered the four stages of my American civic responsibility.

Stage 1: The stress of the summons

Receiving a summons didn't automatically mean I was expected at the courthouse. I was only required to check in online daily to see if I needed to make my patriotic sojourn.

I developed a good luck routine: each day before I keyed in my assigned ID number I pulled on my lucky hoodie, a green, fleece-lined H&M find. Laugh all you want but I won $76 dollars while wearing it and playing slot machines in Vegas.

By Wednesday night of that week, I felt certain that my life was safe from being interrupted by legal proceedings. But my luck ran out—maybe I shouldn't have washed the hoodie without fabric softener—I would be spending my Thursday at the county courthouse.

But my luck ran out. Maybe I shouldn't have washed the hoodie without fabric softener; I would be spending my Thursday at the county courthouse.

Stage 2: The chosen one

I arrived promptly at 8:00 am the next day, sans hoodie, with laptop and latte in tow. As Social Media Manager for Zendesk I'm online most of my waking hours monitoring our social channels like a hawk. I planned to work while I waited to (not, fingers crossed) be called for an interview.

Then I saw the sign: no electronic devices allowed. A wave of panic came over me, my stomach dropped, and my throat tightened. What did they expect us to do all day? I glanced around the room at my fellow captives, many of whom were engaged in small talk or reading a book. Books? Small talk? Why was the universe punishing me?

I sat silently with my anxiety, only springing into action during breaks to rush outside and check my phone, always careful to avoid eye contact with the others. I was an island and planned to stay that way.

Until 4:00 pm that is, when I was the last person called for an interview. Let me lay out the cards: I was the last person and there was one alternate juror spot to be filled. There was no chance to act insane or make excuses—I was chosen.

Stage 3: A lesson in listening

As the reality of being separated from my phone and laptop set in, I couldn't help but wonder if the judge had meant what he said—punishment with jail time for any juror caught texting.

"What are you in for?" my fellow inmates would ask. I would lean back against the cinder block wall in my orange jumper, give a Presidential pause, slowly remove the toothpick from my lips, "doing a dime for texting." Could I even have toothpicks in jail?

Just as I had during the previous day's proceedings, I kept to myself during breaks from the courtroom. I was amazed at how many of the jurors would casually chat and laugh on the breaks, while I feverishly fumbled with my phone. Didn't these people have a life that needed their attention? How could they all just stand around like we were at a picnic?

Didn't these people have a life that needed their attention? How could they all just stand around like we were at a picnic?

Then it happened. A female juror directly asked me how I was doing. A few other jurors smiled and gave me expectant looks. I politely replied that I was “well” as I slipped my phone back into my purse and introduced myself to a few people.

Damn it, there’s a lesson here. Is this what it takes for us to unhand our phones and listen to what's going on in our present surroundings? Is this what it takes for us to connect with actual people?

And that's when they sucked me in.

Stage 4: Acceptance

If you've ever seen a shy, sulking kid dragged to a birthday party by her parents, then has such a blast that by the end she doesn't want to leave her new friends, you'll understand my turnabout during jury duty.

As the trial progressed I came more and more out of my shell, checking my phone less and less. On the last day, I went to lunch with seven of the other jurors. We had a wonderful time discussing our jobs, kids, travel, and retirement plans.

As we wrapped up the trial that final afternoon I came to the rueful realization that I would likely never see these people again. I couldn't go back and spend less time on my phone, but I vowed to seize opportunities in the future to connect with people in person, in the present, to just be where I am.

I couldn't go back and spend less time on my phone, but I vowed to seize opportunities in the future to connect with people in person, in the present, to just be where I am.

My first opportunity came the following week as I was waiting with my toddler in a long line to order food at a restaurant. An elderly man entertained my son with funny faces and gestures. The old me would have smiled and then slipped us into a far-away booth to be by ourselves. The new me invited the man to dine with us. The three of us had a grand time as we talked, laughed, and ate together. The man eats there every Wednesday night so we will likely see him again soon.

There's a warm feeling that comes from real connection. My jury duty experience will be memorable, not because of the trial—the legal proceedings were long and dry—but because it's when I learned how to disconnect to connect. There’s something special about this civic responsibility, after all.