Sotomayor Found Her 'Competitive Spirit' In Gold Stars

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor says she wrote her autobiography, My Beloved World, to encourage "ordinary people" like herself to succeed. Legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg sat down with Sotomayor to talk about the book, her family and her career. Sotomayor talks about how she worked her way up the ladder in school — starting out in fifth grade by chasing gold stars.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. When President Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court, supporters and opponents drew two very different portraits of her. Now, Sotomayor offers her own with a new autobiography, called "My Beloved World." In an interview with NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, she talked about her transition in elementary school from middle of the class, to overachiever.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Sotomayor says she was a C student until fifth grade, and then the nuns started giving out gold stars.

JUSTICE SONIA SOTOMAYOR: I wanted some of those gold stars. I found my competitive spirit. And I went to one of my classmates who was receiving more gold stars than anybody else, and just said to her: Please teach me. How do you study and get all those gold stars?

TOTENBERG: And so Sonia Sotomayor learned how to take notes; she learned about memory cues; she learned the skills of studying. And she got lots of gold stars, eventually graduating as valedictorian from Cardinal Spellman High School. She was toying with the idea of going to college when one of her friends told her she had to apply to the Ivies. She didn't know what the Ivies were, but she applied - Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton - eventually, getting into all of them.

Her first choice, she thought, was Harvard, which she'd fallen in love with from the movies. But her interview was a disaster. The perfectly coiffed admissions officer brought her into a beautiful room, and sat down on a white couch with two yippy dogs, one on each side.

SOTOMAYOR: I became dumbfounded. I looked at this image, and it was something I had never, ever seen before. I simply had never seen a couch that didn't have plastic on it, to protect it.

TOTENBERG: The whole scene was so foreign that she quickly finished the interview and fled, picking Princeton instead. Once there, however, academic life was not all roses. She got a C on her first paper.

SOTOMAYOR: It was the first C since fourth grade, and I was devastated. I picked myself up; I marched into the professor's office and said, please explain what's wrong with my paper.

TOTENBERG: The first thing the professor said was that the paper lacked any analytical structure.

SOTOMAYOR: That, I got.

TOTENBERG: But the next thing was a surprise.

SOTOMAYOR: She then said to me that I wasn't writing in complete sentences. That certainly shook me because I had been an A student in high school.

TOTENBERG: The next semester, Sotomayor didn't take classes that required papers; and that summer, she went on a crash self-improvement program to fix her writing. She went to the place she was told was the best bookstore in New York - Barnes & Noble, on Fifth Avenue; an area this Bronx native, amazingly, had never ventured to. Once there, she piled up books about grammar, from first grade through high school; and for good measure, she added vocabulary books, too.

SOTOMAYOR: And I took them home, and I spent the whole summer reading those books, and beginning the process of teaching myself how to write again.

TOTENBERG: The next semester, a different professor sent her first paper back; commenting how well she'd done in her analytical structure, but that she seemed to have some writing difficulties. So once again, she went to see the professor. He pointed out she was using adjectives as they're used in Spanish, not English; and he circled examples. The next paper, he circled verb tenses that were wrong. For the next three years, Sotomayor would take a course with the professor each semester, and he would help her to improve the way she wrote in her second language, English. Her improved writing was just one example of her stubbornness.

SOTOMAYOR: You know, failure hurts. Any kind of failure stings. If you live in the sting, you will - undoubtedly - fail. My way of getting past the sting is to say no, I'm just not going to let this get me down.

TOTENBERG: Sotomayor, of course, turned into a spectacular student; graduating summa cum laude, winning the coveted Pyne Prize, and going on to Yale Law School. In between, she got married to her high school sweetheart, a marriage that later ended in amicable divorce. But at the time, living together was not an option.

SOTOMAYOR: Oh, my God. Nina, I'm a Catholic Puerto Rican. Do you think my family would have ever tolerated us living together? As independent as I am, I was not going to be thrown out of my family.

(LAUGHTER)

TOTENBERG: At Princeton, she does not deny and indeed, embraces the fact that she was the beneficiary of affirmative action. And so I asked her why her view of such admissions preferences is so different from that of Justice Clarence Thomas, who felt victimized by affirmative action and saw it as a scarring experience.

SOTOMAYOR: I can't explain that - why, because as much as I know Clarence, admire him, and have grown to appreciate him and his views, we're different people. I have never, ever focused on the negative of things. I always look at the positive. And I know one thing - if affirmative action opened the doors for me at Princeton, once I got in, I did the work. I proved myself worthy. So I don't look at how the door got opened.

TOTENBERG: Doors open for people in different ways, she observes; noting that kids who've gone to prep schools, and know what an Ivy League school is, all have a leg up to begin with.

SOTOMAYOR: They had read children's classics. I hadn't. They had lived in a society where writing was the norm - in English. They knew what to do when they got to school. Is that a fair advantage? No. It is life. And so the affirmative action I was familiar with, is not quotas. It was an affirmative action that was saying, don't take your kids only from the prep schools. Start looking at these other schools - like my high school, whose students have the potential to master your environment.

TOTENBERG: Unlike her colleague Justice Thomas, Sotomayor says she did not feel stigmatized in college or law school except once, when she attended a recruiting dinner at Yale Law School with a partner from a Washington, D.C., firm.

SOTOMAYOR: The partner looked at me and said, did you get into Yale only because you're Puerto Rican? It stunned me. It took me aback, to think that someone was actually looking at me that way. Now, that's the price of affirmative action that Clarence Thomas talks about, and it's one that can lead to the sense that the benefits might be outweighed by the negative impressions it leaves. But that was my first moment experiencing that kind of overt discrimination.

TOTENBERG: The day after the dinner, Sotomayor went to talk to the man. After recounting her academic achievements, she asked him why he had asked the question before he knew anything about her.

SOTOMAYOR: And his response was, you didn't seem upset. You handled it very well. And I almost exploded - inside of me. I looked at him, and I said, if the question was born from a stereotype that every affirmative action admittee is unqualified, then you're also judging a response from a stereotype; that I'm an emotional Latina, and I'm going to make a scene. I'm much more polite than that, but don't mistake politeness for lack of strength.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, Sotomayor filed a complaint against the firm with the school, but she didn't want to become a symbol for a crusade. She still wanted, as she put it, a career in the law - not a place on every firm's blacklist. Eventually, the student-faculty tribunal negotiated a settlement. The firm was not barred from recruiting, but it did extend a full apology.

In the end, Sotomayor went not to a firm, but the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, more on her professional career and her appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News.

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