At the age of 10, Noah Walker is a kid of few words. Particularly around grownups. And in the courtroom that day were a lot of grownups. They filled the benches like it was a wedding, and up front were all these men and women in black robes, all these judges. One, they told him, was the top guy on the entire Florida Supreme Court.
Standing next to Noah before the ceremony got started was the reason everyone was here: the man who helps him with his homework, who takes him to movies and the circus, who talks to him about how you look someone in the eye when you shake his hand.
He had been Noah's Big Brother in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program for two years now, and he was about to officially become a judge in a swearing-in ceremony.
And in a crisp shirt, tie and his best church shoes, Noah had a job to do, too.
Even before he was appointed county judge last fall, Daryl Manning had a pretty interesting career. Or careers.
In the Army, he was deployed in Desert Storm and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has served over the years as a judge advocate and both prosecutor and defense attorney for soldiers accused of crimes from theft to homicide.
Then there have been the kids.
Now 50, Manning has worked in a court system where you see the unfathomable — children abused and neglected, babies shaken, bones broken, burns. He was with the state Attorney General's Office in children's legal services and also became a guardian ad litem — a child's voice in court and one judges tend to listen to.
"You just go home and hug your kids," says Manning, whose two daughters are now in college. "You're just happy they're safe and fine."
And he became a Big Brother. Noah was his second one, a quiet, reserved kid from north Tampa being raised by a single mom. He likes basketball, football and video games, and he's heading into his preteen years — a critical time, Manning says. "It's easy to have a detour and go in the wrong direction."
Manning wants to be someone he can confide in, someone he can take his questions to. They work on math and reading. They talk about what's up in the fifth grade. They go to the mall and get a bite. They hit a movie, a reward for schoolwork well done.
"I would consider us friends," the judge says.
He was officially appointed to the county bench in October and already loves it, loves the neighbor disputes over a knocked-down fence or broken window, loves the everydayness of what comes before him. Noah, he says, seems to like the idea that Mr. Daryl (as he calls him) is a judge.
"I don't think that's something he sees on a regular basis — somebody that looks like him that can reach a certain level," Manning says.
Over the holiday break, Noah spent the day with him in court. He got to sit up in the judge's chair and talk to the bailiffs about their utility belts, which clearly fascinated him. He also visited the scary holding cells where the prisoners are kept. A good day at the courthouse, the judge tells him, is when you can walk in and out when you want.
"It was so important for him to see there's such a positive aspect to being at the courthouse," Manning says. "And it's based on the choices that you make."
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As people settled in their seats for the ceremony, Noah took his place on the judges' side of the bar. When he was first invited, he figured he'd be there to watch — but no, Mr. Daryl said he would be part of things. And there was his name, listed right in the program in fancy script right under the Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court:
Administration of Oath: The Honorable Jorge Labarga … it said, as Noah Walker holds the Bible.
Who knows what about this day might stick with him years from now when he is a young man. Maybe it will be all those judges — black, white, Hispanic, women and men. Maybe it will be that the powerful chief justice was there, smiling at him as Manning raised his hand and took the oath.
Or maybe it will just be that he held that Bible steady for the judge who was his Big Brother.
Sue Carlton can be reached at [email protected]