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The theory of words

By Ed Brock

There were times when Melissa Bray and her fellow students at Brown College of Court Reporting in Atlanta got together and wondered if it was all worth it.

"When you sign up they tell you it takes two to three years to become a court reporter," said Bray, 37, of Jonesboro. "Well, that was wrong ? I was in school for six years at night."

Her former boss of 10 years, Atlanta attorney Nick Papleacos, witnessed Bray's transformation from legal secretary to court reporter, a process that began in 1994.

"I remember she was working and she was pregnant and was going to court reporter school," Papleacos said. "She is a very hard worker ? I don't know how she did it. I couldn't have done it."

Many a lawyer and criminal suspect may have overlooked Bray as she diligently took down their every word during proceedings in Clayton County's courtrooms. She works there two or three times a week, usually on Thursday and Friday, and she also free lances for lawyers, some of whom, like Papleacos, employed her as a secretary.

It was 1989 when she came to work for him.

"She had never been a legal secretary," Papleacos said. "Inside a short period of time it was like she'd been one all of her life."

The skills she developed at that time helped lead her in the direction of her new career.

"I type about 120 words a minute, so I thought the dexterity would help," Bray said. "I wanted a career that would allow me to work and at the same time have time to be at home."

At home are her two children, 8-year-old Alek and 1-year-old Kahlen. Born in Douglas County, she moved to Clayton County after marrying her husband Chris Bray, a native of this area.

Though she is actually pretty busy already with work and family, Bray plans to start a home business soon, The Wedding Box, for which she will make wedding gifts and themes.

"I've always been a crafty person," Bray said. "Every gift I've given to anybody has been homemade."

There's also more to the court reporting craft than what one may see in the courtroom. As Bray explains the concepts behind her job they sound like the esoteric formulas of high science.

Like all good science it begins with a theory.

There are three theories with which Bray is familiar, and she uses two. The first is the Brown Theory, named for Forrest Brown who is also the founder of Bray's alma mater. After that is the Phonics Theory in which the words are initially spelled the way they sound. The third theory is Stened Theory, a "perfection" of the Brown Theory.

Bray practices the Stened and Phonics theories.

There are no letters on the 22-key steno writer that she uses, with some keys equaling letters, some phrases, others words. It often depends on which side of the keyboard the button is on or what combination she uses. Bray uses a paper backup and two tape backups, and the machine stores everything she types onto a floppy disk (or downloads it directly into a computer) and the computer then translates the shorthand style into regular speech.

After downloading the transcripts Bray must clean them up, so her turnaround time for making the transcripts available is usually 21 business days.

Along with dexterous hands, a court reporter must be able to retain at least the last 20 seconds of conversation in their mind since that is the usual lag time between the speaking of the words and their transcription into the machine.

"It's just a natural process for me. I don't have to think about what I am writing," Bray said.

Papleacos said he prefers steno writing reporters like Bray over "voice reporters" who repeat other people's words into a special recorder because he can read back over the steno reporter's notes rather than having to play back the recording. As for the need for court reporters in this age of video and audio recording devices, Bray said a court reporter can keep people from speaking over each other in court and make notes on things that happen in the courtroom.

Also, tape recorders break.

"The most challenging is when you walk into a deposition and 10 lawyers walk in," Bray said. "When you have 10 lawyers it's kind of hard to program in who they are."

Bray's equipment is battery-powered and portable, so she has been asked to document depositions in a variety of circumstances.

"You go wherever they ask," Bray said. "I've had to go to jail cells before. I've had to look through the glass and barely hear the witness and take their deposition."

And what's the most common word Bray hears?

"?Now' is the most common word," Bray said. "Now, let's look at this. Now, ladies and gentleman of the jury."

The training never stops. Bray still must go to speed classes regularly to improve her skills.

But nevertheless, Bray has answered the question her classmates and she asked so often. It is worth it.

"Even though I spent six years (working and going to night school) it is the greatest career I could have," Bray said.