The children were acting up as only excited children can. They bounced; they clambered over one another; their din filled the Lovinger Theater at Lehman College.
Their excitement was understandable. After all, they had just met a justice of the United States Supreme Court. And not just any justice. They had met the first Puerto Rican ever to join the highest court of the land.
At The Point Community Development Corporation in Hunts Point and the Betances Center in Mott Haven, the children had spent the summer in the new Bronx Children’s Museum Dream Big Program studying Sonia Sotomayor. They had learned that as a child, she had been a lot like many of them. Part of a large and affectionate extended family that had settled in the South Bronx, she had grown up in the projects and gone to Catholic schools in the Bronx.
Now, they were seeing her in the flesh.
On August 14, Sotomayor spent all morning reading to the children and appreciating their artwork depicting the justice’s childhood.
Then it was on to the theater, to which parents, grandparents and various Bronx VIPs had been invited. Once the program began, the children settled into solemn silence as they were addressed by Lehman’s President Ricardo Fernandez, Congressman Jose Serrano, Hope Harley, the chair of the Children’s Museum board, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Soon, a certain amount of shifting and then squirming began as each speaker prosed away on how if they were good like Sotomayor, if they worked hard and studied diligently, they, too, could be anything they wanted to be when they grew up.
When it was finally the justice’s turn, she blew the preaching away like the fluff on a dandelion.
“Want to make your parents very nervous?” she began. “Come up here.” She shooed the dignitaries from the stage and told the kids to join her.
The speakers had made her seem to be a goody-two-shoes, but in reality, she was known in her family as its chief mischief-maker, she confided. Whenever there was a commotion, her aunt or grandmother wouldn’t even go to find out what was causing it. They’d just ask, “What did Sonia do now?”
The children giggled.
Do you want to know how I learned to sit still, she asked. “I started reading books.”
At the Parkchester public library, she continued, “I met Nancy Drew.” The tales of the girl detective inspired her to become a judge. Her library card, she said, was “my passport to the universe.”
The children relaxed as her story unfolded. A few of them got up and walked over to stand next to her. Looking at her notes, one little girl piped up, “You’re reading now!”
So, it was different when Sotomayor said, “I was just like all of you kids,” and continued, “You can be just like us by having big dreams and working hard.” She wasn’t lecturing. She had told them “I’m still a little kid in my heart,” and she was talking kid to kid.
When have you ever heard of so important a person being willing to devote an entire day to children?
For so many, the Bronx is the place you leave when you succeed. But Sotomayor proudly proclaimed, “I’m Sonia from the Bronx.”
The lesson she teaches by example is surely as important as the lesson she teaches with words: Remember who you are. Remember where you came from. Show those who follow you the way.
A version of this story appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of the Mott Haven Herald.