Supreme Court Nominee Leads Ceremony for School Where He Tutors

By Mark Walsh — June 15, 2016 3 min read
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Federal appeals court judge and U.S. Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland told graduating 5th graders from the Washington elementary school where he has tutored for 18 years that they can achieve their dreams through hard work, though they can make time for fun.

“Every step between dreaming and doing, you have to work for,” said Garland, who has been nominated by President Barack Obama to fill the Supreme Court seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. “Dreams don’t come true by magic, even if you’re Harry Potter.”

Garland’s nomination has been stalled by Senate Republicans’ refusal to give him a hearing or vote. The White House has let Garland make limited public appearances, such as the commencement speech in May at his alma mater, Niles East High School in suburban Chicago, where he also sprinkled pop culture references into his remarks.

At Wednesday’s promotion ceremony for 52 graduating 5th graders from J.O. Wilson Elementary, held at an auditorium in a hip retail corridor in the nation’s capital, Garland referred repeatedly to Harry Potter, the singer Beyoncé, and the basketball player Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, the reigning most valuable player of the National Basketball Association (and who shortens his first name to Steph).

“When you watch Steph Curry glide down the basketball court, or Beyoncé dance across the stage, it sure looks easy,” Garland said. “But every step is the result of hours and hours of practice, and discipline, and determination. So go ahead and dream, but like Steph Curry and Beyoncé do your homework.”

Garland arrived just before the 10 a.m. ceremony and took a seat on the stage with faculty members from J.O. Wilson Elementary. Girls in white dresses and boys in white shirts and black ties nervously filed into the auditorium in a procession, but also flawlessly performed a series of group poems and songs, such as “Dreams” by Langston Hughes and “Try Everything” by Shakira.

Garland was flanked in his seat by two students he had tutored since they were 3rd graders, Vernell Garvin and Jenifer Morales-Garcia.

Garland told the students that they had arrived at the elementary school as “kind of fidgety” youngsters who could barely dance, but could now do the Whip and Nae Nae and other dances.

“Sadly, none of you could teach me to do any of that stuff,” he said.

Garland choked up as he urged the students to thank their teachers and parents, and he called for them to look out for their friends as they moved on to middle school.

“As Professor Dumbledore told the Hogwarts class at the end of their school year, it takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to your enemies, but as much to stand up to your friends,” Garland said. “So don’t follow the crowd the wrong way. You be the brave one. Lead your friends in the right direction. Don’t let them make bad choices.”

Principal Heidi Haggerty thanked Garland for tutoring the school’s students and “for your commitment to lifting them up.”

Later, she told reporters that Garland’s level of commitment to tutoring was unsurpassed.

“He affirms them with his presence,” she said.

As the ceremony ended, Garland remained on the stage for several minutes to pose for pictures with the students or their families. But as the relatively small media contingent closed in, Garland’s White House handlers decided it was time for him to exit via one wing of the stage.

Charlene Wilburn, a 2nd grade teacher at the school who has paired Garland up with some of her students for tutoring, recalled the telephone call the school received from the White House on the March morning when Obama introduced Garland as the Supreme Court nominee in a Rose Garden ceremony.

The school office contacted Wilburn in her classroom and told her the White House was on the line. “Tell the White House to call me on my cell,” the teacher said. She learned that the administration wanted her to attend the ceremony that morning.

“I was in jeans and a J.O. Wilson T-shirt,” she said. But she was able to change into nicer clothes and make it to the White House in time.

“I was excited to see our president choose someone of such character for the job,” Wilburn said. “Judge Garland is someone who cares about his commitment to our children. That is a good role model.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.