U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor told parents of English-language learners in New York City this week they must persevere in helping guide their children on the path to college and career success.
And such parents, many of whom are immigrants to the United States, should let their children help them adapt to American society and become lifelong learners, whether that means mastering English as a second language or computers, she said.
“You are committed to your kids, their education, and their success in life,” Justice Sotomayor said to some 4,000 participants at the New York City Department of Education’s May 15 ELL Parent Conference, according to SchoolBook, a website covering education news in the city. The site posted the complete audio of Sotomayor’s 45-minute conference speech at the Jacob K. Javits Center in Manhattan. (Hat Tip to How Appealing.)
“I have repeatedly said that education is the gateway to opportunity in this country,” Sotomayor said. “Your kids will not be college-ready or find the right career in life unless you create the conditions now for their future success.”
Sotomayor, a Bronx native who is the daughter of parents from Puerto Rico, delivered remarks drawn from her bestselling memoir, My Beloved World, which documents her journey from a native Spanish-speaking youth who overcame self-doubt and other challenges to become a graduate of Princeton University and Yale Law School, a prosecutor, federal district and appeals court judge, and the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court. She was nominated to the court in 2010 by President Barack Obama.
Noting that only Spanish was spoken in her home until her father died when Sotomayor was 9 years old, the justice said, “The lack of spoken English at home affected my early education. I was a marginal C student who did not understand what was being taught in my classes. I did not become a star student until 5th grade.”
After her father’s death, the family began to learn and speak more English in their home, and Sotomayor’s mother passed along her love of reading, bringing both Spanish and English newspapers into the home, as well as magazines such as Reader’s Digest and Highlights.
Celina Sotomayor, the justice’s mother (who was present at the ELL conference), was a practical nurse who noticed that the Highlights magazine for children was always around in doctors’ offices. “She figured that if all the doctors’ had Highlights, we should have it at home,” Justice Sotomayor said.
From there, it was on to her oft-mentioned love of Nancy Drew mysteries, which helped nudge her to an interest in law.
She also learned to ask for help with her education, starting in 5th grade when a classmate aided her and when her teacher “unleashed a competitive spirit in her” by awarding gold stars that were displayed on a classroom bulletin board.
“These are the [reasons] I became a good student in 5th grade,” Sotomayor said. “They are the [reasons] I’m a Supreme Court justice.”
Parents should let their children help them learn English or other subjects, she said, and they should turn to public libraries to learn computers and other topics.
Sotomayor also urged the ELL parents to help their children acquire good study habits and to take any opportunity to encourage them to write.
“I have lived my dreams beyond my fantasies,” she said. “I have become a Supreme Court justice, sworn in a vice president, and thrown out a first pitch at Yankee Stadium. But the accomplishment that gives me the most satisfaction is having My Beloved World on The New York Times bestseller list.”
“That’s something your kids can do,” Sotomayor said. ""The written word is the most powerful tool a person can have for success in life.”
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.