Published Online: May 11, 2010

Smart Girls Were the Rule at Kagan's High School

There were a lot of smart girls at Hunter College High School, but only one of them posed for the yearbook in a judge's robes, quoted a Supreme Court justice and is remembered for playing a tough attorney in an eighth-grade trial.

Now Elena Kagan is a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, and her classmates — including me — can't say they're all that surprised.

"In a school of overachievers, Elena shined brightly," said Leslie Hunter-Gadsden, a writer and teacher who took Latin with Elena for four years. "She was always very focused, the kind of person who I thought, 'She's going to run something someday. She's going to be in charge of something.'"

Another classmate, Justene Adamec, recalled a mock trial in eighth grade in which she and Elena played opposing lawyers. Justene, playing prosecutor, went first. Then Elena presented her side, and Justene sought a rebuttal, but Elena wouldn't allow it.

"She said I had rested my case and couldn't call anyone," Justene recalled. "We were 13!"

Justene grew up to be a lawyer too, one of many accomplished professionals in Hunter's class of '77. Doctors, professors, bankers — yes, we even have a rocket scientist, astrophysicist Laura Kay. Hunter was a public school, but it was unique: It started in seventh grade, we had to pass a test to get in, and once we were there, our teachers made it clear they expected us to live up to our potential.

"You passed this test, you are a Hunter girl, you have this opportunity, and now you have to take that and make something of it," said Leslie.

We also came of age in the 1970s, as the feminist movement demanded equal rights for women and equal educational opportunities for girls. Hunter was all-girl when we attended (though a lawsuit later forced it to go coed) and the single-sex makeup was seen as a great advantage.

"Our teachers encouraged us to speak up, say what was on our minds and not be shackled or intimidated by having boys in the class, or feel as if we had to worry about our looks," said Dr. Beth Schorr-Lesnick, a gastroenterologist and president of Elena's class. "Math and science were just as important as social studies and English."

Hunter was an extremely diverse place, too, with kids of every race and ethnic background, from every neighborhood of the city, and every income level, from welfare to wealthy — not a bad proving ground for a future judge to learn about the world.

"So you can imagine it was a place of very different points of view, opinions and takes on all the social, political, economic and religious issues of the day," said classmate Janine Lee Craane, who is managing director of Investments for Merrill Lynch, founder of the Craane Group and is listed on Barron's Top 100 Female Advisers.

Janine called Elena "a great citizen" in school, and many classmates echoed that. One recalled Elena thanking her after she helped bring a group of girls together on a difficult class project. Another remembered Elena standing up to one of our most intimidating teachers, Ira Marienhoff, in social studies.

"He asked a question that had everyone silent. But Elena met him straight on and silenced him — no small feat," said Ellen Purtell, who works as a counselor with female adolescents — a job that she says Hunter prepared her well for.

Elena was also known for a quick smile, a friendly, open manner and a great sense of humor. In a yearbook photo of a school government group in which she served as president, we thought she was playing a funny joke when she dressed in a judge's robes and held a gavel.

Now, of course, it seems like it was all just part of the plan, a first step to fulfilling her destiny.

One thing few classmates can remember is socializing with Elena out of school. In fairness, we commuted to Hunter, and at the end of the school day, we went home to our neighborhoods, so there was less hanging out than at other schools. But still, we had parties, we went to concerts, we went shopping.

Elena was less caught up in that aspect of teenage life than most of us.

"The things that preoccupied even very smart teenage girls — pop music and fashion — were not terribly interesting to her," said Elizabeth Petegorsky, a clinical social worker who attended both elementary and high school with Elena.

In our yearbook, each girl got to choose a quote to run with her picture. Many of us chose quotes from Carole King, Cat Stevens, J.R.R. Tolkien and other icons of the day. But Elena quoted a Supreme Court justice, Felix Frankfurter, in words that seem now to prefigure her successful career: "Government is itself an art, one of the subtlest of the arts."

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