I was lucky enough to get in to see Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor at the 92nd Street Y last week where she was interviewed by Fordham Law professor Thane Rosenbaum (what a head of hair on that guy!) who finished off the night by proclaiming Sotomayor “a national treasure.”
He’s so right. There is some quality the self-described “Sonia from the Bronx” has that makes people warm up to her. Audience members were quite taken by her talk and gave her wild applause at the beginning and end of the evening. I think it has a lot to do with Sotomayor’s willingness to reveal her personal side, something many Supreme Court Justices down the years have been loathe to do. Mostly, they sit up there on the high court far above us.
Not “Sonia from the Bronx.” In her No. 1 best-selling memoir “My Beloved World” and on the stage that night, she regales us with stories of her youth growing up in a public housing project and going to Catholic schools and then finally Yale. She is a combination of the ordinary and extra-ordinary that makes people like her.
Her childhood experiences are typical of her socio-economic group but the results are extraordinary. Sotomayor embraces that distinction and says she wants to be a mentor for people because the strength of mentors, she says, is that they show you they are just like you. She wants those growing up in similar circumstances today to know that they can “dream very very big.”
She did and look at what she achieved. I couldn’t have more respect or admiration for her. Yes, three of the other justices from the Supreme Court are from New York but all grew up in middle class environments. There is a huge gulf between having the roadmap provided by an middle class environment and growing up without that map. Manners, ways of behaving, even how one dresses were not second nature or innate to Sotomayor.
It is no wonder so many of those from the lower income groups fail to find their way and a great achievement when they do. To climb all the way to U.S. Supreme Court from the type of background Sotomayor had, is a full blown miracle.