“I read your book already,” said Virginia Prescott, addressing the questions of whether Justice Sonia Sotomayor would still be coming to The Music Hall in spite of a blizzard, “so I knew, ‘This woman can do anything!'”
“It’s always with help,”
said Justice Sotomayor. After a rousing standing ovation welcomed her to the stage at The Music Hall this evening, she gave credit to her US Marshal escorts for getting her there through the inclement weather. They drove her from Pittsburg to Philadelphia, which took 8 hours through the storm, to catch her train. She said she didn’t want to disappoint people who had planned to come and see her. “In this day and age when we’re sometimes disappointed in the way government works, it’s great to see public servants to do their jobs with yeomen and yeowomen-like ways.”
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Sotomayor recounted some of the stories told in her book of how she and her family dealt with her diagnosis and treatment, including the scary experience of having blood taken by a doctor. She even gave us a line that was removed from her book before publishing—“It’s really hard to feel how badly something hurts you when you’re screaming as loud as I was.” She went on to say that she still remembers the confusion she felt, diagnosed at 7 years old, and unable to understand much of what the doctors were talking about. “They had no idea how frightening it is to a child when you hear words you can’t understand, especially when they’re technical terms.”
The compassion that came as a result of these experiences was evident in listening to her talk about her life. She spoke with a sincerity and candor that brought the sold out crowd in the Historic Theater closer together, as we leaned in and felt that we were just a small group of friends to whom she was speaking. Word of Mouth’s Virginia Prescott was an excellent and eloquent audience surrogate.
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When asked about the insecurities she has had to overcome in her life, Justice Sotomayor was quick to point out, “I still have them!
I’m on the Supreme Court and I’m insecure!
People talk as if [the insecurities] have left me…” she said that anyone without anxiety in new situations must have something wrong with them (“I’m jesting of course”).
Virginia went mentioned the séances that young Sotomayor’s grandparents would hold, and remarked, “I can’t imagine reading that in Chief Justice John Roberts’ memoir!” She asked how the other Justices had responded to her book.
The advantage of sharing yourself with other people, Sotomayor said, was that more often than not—not always, but more often than not—people will open themselves up to you as well. When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was reading her book, each time she would read through a few more chapters, the next time she’d see Justice Sotomayor, she would share something similar from her own life.
The Justice spoke, too, of the relationship that she had with the other Justices. Upon her confirmation, she received a collar from Justice Ginsberg—lacy, as the ones she wore—with a note that she hoped Justice Sotomayor would have use of it soon.
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For her college interview at Harvard, she rode train ride into Boston and recounted walking into a stately room with a beautiful woman with platinum grey hair, two high-backed white chairs, a gorgeous red Oriental rug, and two little poodles—one black and one white. She was stunned at the opulence. Growing up, no one owned anything white, and no one had any furniture that was not covered in plastic! After the interview, which she doesn’t remember much of other than feeling that she didn’t belong, she left the campus, earlier than scheduled, and retraced her tracks all the way home.
Upon her arrival for her interview at Princeton, however, she was met by a friend who attended the school, and that person made all the difference in her experience. She said that without the internet, the only thing to go on in those days were the glossy brochures the universities would send you, and if you didn’t know people who attended, with a circle of friends with life experiences similar to yours, you had absolutely no idea what those places would be like until you arrived, and had no way to prepare for them.
This was a common thread throughout several stories told—the presence of an ally makes all the difference.
A college friend once complained for an entire bus ride that his father, who was a doctor making and annual salary of $80,000–$100,000, was the poorest man in his family. At the end of the bus ride, she told him she just couldn’t understand, as her mother had raised her whole family on $5,000 a year.
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When asked how she did not become a revolutionary in attempt to protest or argue about her situation, she said that people who argue and fight are good for society—they make it so that we can’t be complacent, and keep us on our toes. But it’s just not in her nature to be confrontational or angry. Although she can be very assertive in the courtroom, she does things her own way. Her advice to everyone:
Do things in your own way.
Do not turn inward or strike out anger when confronted with problems—do what works best for you, to achieve what is important to you.
One of the things about her story that resonates so strongly with others is that she came from one environment and was able to integrate into a completely new environment, and find success there. When you leave an environment you were raised in, she said, it’s difficult to assimilate successfully without forgetting where and what you came from. You will end up feeling a profound disconnect if you simply uproot yourself and join a new life. She has dealt with this by using her community activities as a way to go home, to gain comfort by staying connected to that environment, and to never forget where she came from.
“Who Sonia is, is her family,” she said.
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“I’m not sure what what influence I’ll have on the Court,” Justice Sotomayor said. Five years is just the beginning of developing yourself, discovering what being a Justice means to you, and your development of the law. “I’m still adjusting, still learning the ropes.”
This year, though, she said she is a little more comfortable. Instead of full work days on Saturdays and Sundays before a week in court, this year she is not going into the office until noon on the weekend. She gets her groceries and provisions for the week on Sunday mornings, stocking up on quick, easy, healthy food for breakfasts and lunches, which she always eats at the office (since DC doesn’t deliver like New York City does). She goes to the gym at least twice during the week and once on the weekend, and Saturday mornings she is starting to explore DC, Virginia, and Maryland on her bike (which got a big Portsmouth cheer).
On days she is not in court, she does three things: read, think, and write.
She reads the briefs, and various court cases that apply to the facts, thinks about those facts and how the law applies. And she writes, not only opinions, but dissents or concurrences (if she agrees with another Justice but for different reasons), and memos to the other Justices—lots of talking to each other in writing.
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She also meets with may groups of people from all over the nation and the world, and invited each and every person in the audience to come and see their nation’s capitol. It’s the only city she knows where almost every museum is free, and even hotels and food is available that is affordable to all levels of society.
The Supreme Court, the Capitol, and the Library of Congress are not to missed. The Library of Congress, she says, is the greatest library in the world. “I know you think yours is,” she said, but pointed out that every copyrighted book that has been written is in the Library of Congress, making it an unrivaled collection—and the building is extraordinary as well.
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For all the reading, thinking, writing, and meetings, she said even if her life may seem boring, “what I’m doing, I’m passionate at it.” She loves being a voice, and being a part of making some of the most important decisions of our time. It’s an honor she does not take lightly.
She is constantly conscious to not abuse her power, to be the most prepared she can be for every case, to understand each one thoroughly, so that “at least my vote is well informed.”
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The most controversial passage in her book, she said, came in talking about the breakup of her marriage. Her husband felt that she didn’t need him, but she stated that she had never thought that need should be a part of love. In addition to regretting that she had not made her husband feel important enough, she said that she feels that there is a big difference between need and want. To need someone is different than to want someone, and to want to share a life with someone.
There were women took issue with this statement, and some because they thought it may scare away potential guys. She is still optimistic, though, that she will still meet someone.
“I understand that it’s a little intimidating, but I am the eternal optimist.”
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In her book, she talks about her very close cousin, Nelson, who had been addicted to heroin and ended up dying of AIDS. She got the permission of his mother and sister, her aunt and cousin, to read the manuscript and give permission before deciding to include his story in the book. In tears, they said that her book had brought him back to life, and had given his story and his death the chance to make a real difference. If just one person is helped to avoid his path, they said, then sharing his story is more than worth it.
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An audience member submitted a comment and question, explaining that they, too, had grown up in the Bronx, and they were the only person in their family who had escaped life in the projects there, due to a teacher who believed in them. How does she think that they are able to do what others have not been able to do in making a new life for themselves?
“No successful person exists without at least one other person believing in them,”
Justice Sotomayor said. “For you, it sounds like it was that teacher. For me it was my grandmother.”
She called back to Virginia’s opening, where she said that after reading her book, she knew that if anyone could get here, it would be her. There’s a toughness that a background like that brings with it.
Justice Sotomayor grew up in Fort Apache, in the South Bronx, which had the highest crime rate in the country at the time. They made a movie about it, she said, which, if anyone is interested in seeing it, “I bet it’s on one of those Net Flick things.”
No matter where you are, she said, in the South Bronx, or rural New Hampshire, or the streets of Chicago, there are human beings there who are living their lives and going through their lives with all the same hopes and dreams as everyone in this room. They have integrity and hope—you just have to look at their faces, past the dirt and into their eyes—and you’ll see that many of them are just like you. We survived, she said, because we had hope for our futures. Somebody gave us that hope.
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Justice Sotomayor’s father died when she was 9 years old. What would she say, asked an audience member, to a 9-year-old girl today (regardless of if she’d lost her father)?
The Justice paused here, to really consider her answer.
“First,” she said,
“Learn to have REAL fun.”
There is nothing more exciting in the world than to be curious about the world, and to learn something new every day. It’s exciting to share new things, and learn something you didn’t know before. And SOMEtimes, it’s even useful.
She plays poker for fun, she said (“It’s a card game,” she clarified). It allows her to use her math skills in calculating the probability of each hand. Every time she plays someone , she learns something new about how to play the game better.
“Second,” she said, after another long pause,
“You feel better when you’re being nice to other people.”
You feel good when you’re being nice, even if it’s just saying to someone who is sad, “I’m sorry that you’re sad,” because it’s recognizing that they’re hurt. You’re not thinking about yourself.
If every night, you can think, “What new thing did I learn today?” and “What nice thing did I do today?” you will have a wonderful life.
She ended with an invitation that if the 9-year old girl was in the audience, to please come up for a hug and a photo. It can be scary to be in front of people, she said, but, “Only lawyers think I bite.”
I’m endlessly grateful to have The Music Hall bring this amazing hometown city of mine such wonderful experiences. If you missed the event, keep an eye on the Word of Mouth website for news of when the segment will air on NHPR and be available for listening online (sometime next week).
I was incredibly thrilled to be able to meet Justice Sotomayor backstage after the event, and she was incredibly gracious and warm. Music Hall photographer extraordinaire David J. Murray of Clear Eye Photo was wonderful enough to snap a photo of our meeting, which I can’t wait to have as a commemoration of the evening.
Some people have that special quality, the ability to inspire with their story without theatrics or drama. Justice Sonia Sotomayor has that ability, and it comes across in a passionate, yet quiet, way.