Heroes come in all colors, sizes and genders. They speak different languages and overcome different obstacles, but they have one thing in common: They teach the old-fashioned virtues of courage, determination and self-reliance.
At age 8, Sonia Sotomayor was diagnosed with diabetes, a life-threatening illness 50 years ago. She quickly realized that her dysfunctional parents — an alcoholic father, a detached mother — could not be relied on. So she learned to boil a pot of water, sterilize a needle and give herself the insulin shots she needed to stay alive.
A year later, her father drank himself to death and her mother sank into a deep depression, locking herself in her room at night and sobbing uncontrollably. After months of this behavior, Sotomayor told Nina Totenberg of NPR, the girl banged on her mother’s door and demanded that she pull herself together. The next day her mother emerged, in a nice dress and with styled hair, and life resumed for the little family.
These are two of the stories Sotomayor tells in her new memoir, “My Beloved World,” and in a round of media interviews. They certainly help explain how a Puerto Rican who grew up speaking Spanish in the housing projects of the South Bronx became the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice. One reviewer sneered that Sotomayor “can sometimes irritate” by handing out “facile homespun wisdom, such as, ‘From a task as simple as boiling water, you can learn a worthwhile lesson.’”
But that sort of intellectual snobbishness is dead wrong. Stories conveying “homespun wisdom” are exactly how we teach our children essential values. That pot of water is a symbol of responsibility, and Sotomayor’s emphasis of such ordinary examples is what makes her book so useful. Many heroes are “fantasized” in popular culture, she says, outsized and unapproachable. Her aim is “to tell the truth,” to show “how an ordinary person, with strengths and weaknesses like anyone else, has managed an extraordinary journey.”
A critical part of that journey was her admission to Princeton, and then Yale Law School, through the “special door” of affirmative action. At college, she felt like “an alien landing in a different universe.” She writes: “I came to accept during my freshman year that many of the gaps in my knowledge and understanding were simply limits of class and cultural background, not lack of aptitude as I’d feared. I honestly felt no envy or resentment, only astonishment at how much of a world there was out there and how much of it others already knew.”
Steve has taught at George Washington University for 21 years, and Sotomayor’s description is both familiar and insightful. Students like her don’t lack aptitude; they lack experience. They have not enjoyed the advantages that more privileged families take for granted. Their minds are like empty rooms, without the intellectual furniture others construct from travels and lessons, books and plays.
Sotomayor quickly figured this out, and the same girl who sterilized her own needles at age 8 built her own furniture. She bought grammar and vocabulary texts and drilled herself during lunch hour at her summer job. But not every student who feels like an “alien” at an elite campus has that fortitude, and the “special door” of affirmative action has to be the beginning of the story, not the end. When schools accept “Sonia from the Bronx,” they have to help her overcome “the limits of class and cultural background.”
Many reviewers have compared Sotomayor’s story to that of Justice Clarence Thomas, who also entered Yale Law School through a “special door” but emerged with a deeply hostile view of affirmative action. As he wrote in his memoir “My Grandfather’s Son,” “I’d graduated from one of America’s top law schools -- but racial preference had robbed my achievement of its true value.”
Sotomayor takes a very different view, defending affirmative action that creates “the conditions whereby students from disadvantaged backgrounds could be brought to the starting line of a race many were unaware was even being run.” She confessed to The Washington Post that she occasionally feels “a touch (of) impostor syndrome,” but insists: “If affirmative action opened doors for me at Princeton, once I got in, I did the work. I proved myself worthy.”
So she has. Her book is being published in Spanish and English, but it should be translated into many other languages as well. A young adult version would be a good idea, too. We need more heroes who look and sound like Everywoman, not Superman.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.