Law & Courts

Smart Girls Were the Rule at Kagan’s High School

By The Associated Press — May 11, 2010 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.”

Related Tags:

Copyright 2010 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
IT Management Webinar
Build a Digitally Responsive Educational Organization for Effective Digital-Age Learning
Chart a guided pathway to digital agility and build support for your organization’s mission and vision through dialogue and collaboration.
Content provided by Bluum
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Data Webinar
Drive Instruction With Mastery-Based Assessment
Deliver the right data at the right time—in the right format—and empower better decisions.
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Profession Webinar
How Does Educator Well-Being Impact Social-Emotional Awareness in Schools?
Explore how adult well-being is key to promoting healthy social-emotional behaviors for students. Get strategies to reduce teacher stress.
Content provided by International Baccalaureate

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Leaked Abortion Draft Has Supreme Court Education Cases in Political Cross-Hairs
Conservatives have taken aim at decisions on educating immigrants, race in admissions, and religion. Liberals have some cases in mind, too.
8 min read
supreme court SOC
Law & Courts 'Brown v. Board' Cited in Draft Supreme Court Opinion to Back Overturning Abortion Rights
The leaked opinion in a case still to be decided by the Supreme Court cites landmark decisions including Brown v. Board of Education.
7 min read
A crowd of people gather outside the Supreme Court, Monday night, May 2, 2022 in Washington. A draft opinion circulated among Supreme Court justices suggests that earlier this year a majority of them had thrown support behind overturning the 1973 case Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion nationwide, according to a report published Monday night in Politico. It's unclear if the draft represents the court's final word on the matter. The Associated Press could not immediately confirm the authenticity of the draft Politico posted, which if verified marks a shocking revelation of the high court's secretive deliberation process, particularly before a case is formally decided.
A crowd gathers outside the U.S. Supreme Court Monday night after the leak of a draft opinion suggesting the court intends to overturn the 1973 <i>Roe v. Wade</i> precedent that legalized abortion nationwide.
Alex Brandon/AP
Law & Courts Supreme Court Rules Against Some 'Emotional Distress' Claims. What It Means for Schools
The dissenters say the decision means students cannot recover damages for the emotional harms of race, sex, or disability bias.
5 min read
Image of the Supreme Court.
Law & Courts Are Teachers Obliged to Tell Parents Their Child Might Be Trans? Courts May Soon Decide
Some administrators say outing a student could lead to child abuse or self-harm. Parents in court filings say they have a right to know.
12 min read
Illustration showing 4 individuals next to their pronouns (he/him, they/them, and she/her)
iStock/Getty Images Plus