When I think back to my days in high school, prior to my graduation in 1999, two thoughts immediately flood my mind. The first is that day during a trip in my freshman year when I met my B.F.F. (https://bit.ly/36n266L) and the next is my law teacher and the thousands of things she taught me. It was a place full of tough work, learning, and laughter. It is the reason I know that I was meant to attend that school and it is the law program that brought me there.
Back in my day, any kid in the five boroughs who didn’t want to go to the high school they were zoned for could apply to a different school with a particular program. For instance there were schools that specialized in math and science. These have never been my interests. When I decided I wanted to go to James Madison High School it was the law program that was the only part that appealed to me. I was going there not knowing a single soul but it was where my future and education would expand.
My best friend Kim and I were both in the law program. Every day for four years we attended classes there, acted out court cases, and eventually during our senior year went on to teach law at a local elementary school. It was the highlight of my life then and even now is among my favorite memories. It was a place I felt I belonged and in a school of many, many thousands to have the same kids in your classes year after year was reassuring. It built many bonds and lasting relationships. This says a lot when you are all going to school in different shifts because there are so many students. I didn’t have a lunch period or a locker and during my final year only went to school from 7:00a.m. to 10:00a.m. A short time no doubt but a lot was packed into that time.
Our primary law teacher, Mrs. Lerner was the foundation of this program. For many of us she was the foundation of who we would become too. She taught me so many things I still take to heart. One of the first was that you could tell how worthy a school was based on the appearance and volume of their library. This was a great lesson for someone who went on to look for colleges and graduate school programs. It also proved to be true.
The next attribute I can ascribe to her is that you never want to sign your name to something you are not proud of. She meant like handing in a paper you knew you hadn’t worked your hardest on. I find that I use this phrase when I do almost everything in my life. I know the qualities I was associated with my name and the value it has, ultimately the value I have.
During these four years there was only one other woman I looked at as much as Mrs. Lerner, and that was Ruth Bader Ginsburg- Supreme Court Justice extraordinaire. While this might seem like a random photo to be hanging in my classroom I need to back up a bit to explain.
The incredible law program I was apart didn’t just teach law. It was an environment to produce legal and analytical thinking minds. For that we took all of our class is the replica courtroom our school had. Picture it like you see on T.V. We had a full jury box, seating for the judge and attorneys, and even a gallery in the back for spectators. This is the room we prepared for citywide mock trial competitions and statewide “We the People” debates. Both were enormously valuable in their own ways but mock trial was a part of my soul. For the competition we went to actual courtrooms in downtown Brooklyn to battle our cases out. Aside from the fact that these trials weren’t real everything else about it was.
So it was there in our courtroom, over the judge’s chair, where that iconic photo of the Justice hanged in all its regal glory. When you looked at her face you could see how proud she was as she posed in her robe. Now for why as R.B.G. was hanging there instead of another Justice was simple; she was from Brooklyn and had too been an alma mater of the school. This exact replica of a courtroom for the future students had been built and dedicated in her honor. It was all about paying it forward.
Other notable graduates from James Madison High School, besides R.B.G. and me are: Carole King, Chris Rock and ironically Senator Chuck Schumer. Mr. Schumer gave my college commencement speech at my graduation in 2003 from Adelphi University. This really is a small world.
But back to that scene engrained in my mind, that image of the courtroom with her looking down onto it always allows me to look back fondly. Now when I think about it she was sort of looking back at me as well. Between these two brilliant women as my educational foundation my destiny seems preordained to do great things.
In April 2010 I took a leisurely trip to Washington D.C. I am being fictitious. It was anything but. Sure I was on vacation but I have never worked so hard and done so much in three days. I needed a vacation from my vacation when I got back.
The very first thing me and my cousin did when we got there was go on a rare tour of the United States Supreme Court, the land of the law, so to speak. I had been dreaming about it. Besides looking around the building and all of the magnificent artifacts and photographs we were going to get to sit in the actual court!!!
Of course the court wasn’t in use that day because they weren’t in session, as it was Easter weekend, the tour could be conducted. Naturally we had to sit in the back and not in the Justice’s chairs. I sort of figured that was coming but I had to ask anyways. I couldn’t take pictures inside of this temple but I could in other parts of the building. That was just fine and dandy. Needless to say I am the kind of woman who has the Bill of Rights on her refrigerator (on a magnet).
The 92Y has always been a special place to be ever since I won free tickets to see Roseanne Cash (yes Johnny’s daughter) there. I learned about this incredible facility and all of the one of a kind moments you can create there. For me there is no better kind. I am after all trying to live the life I imagine.
Last year I had intended to go to 92Y to hear Justice Sandra Day O’Connor speak. As the first woman to be on the United States Supreme Court that thought gave me such a thrill. Unfortunately do to circumstances out of my control I could not attend. This is why when I heard about R.B.G.’s talk there was NO way I was missing it. I booked my ticket almost two months ahead of time. I knew it would sell out.
Last Sunday was the day. I was hesitant to go out because it was a Sunday and I like being lazy with my DVR on those days. But I knew once I was there I would be happy and I never want to live with a regret I created.
When I arrived it was like the whole neighborhood had come out. Literally everyone and their mother were there. I was so glad I had a ticket and assigned seating. The event was sold out just like I predicted. It upped the ante of my emotions.
After taking my seat I did what I normally do in these types of situations: sit and look around. I am trying to absorb the energy and excitement in the room. I can never tell if it’s just me. I feel like I am flying high and that the grin on my face goes from ear to ear, inside and out. That feeling of passion and being aware that you are in the right place at the right time is something I will never get used to. I am so grateful for this feeling and it empowers me to my core. I know I am about to be inspired and rewarded to being smart enough to do these kinds of things even if those around me don’t appreciate what I do. Feeling lucky in life if only for a night every few months is more than most people have. I am happy that I know what makes me happy. I am choosing to live in my dream by surrounding myself with people that are living theirs.
The evening got off to a late start but took off right away once it began. The Justice was joined by Dorit Beinisch, former President of the Supreme Court of Israel, and their interviewer N.P.R.’s Nina Totenberg. They were set to discuss their lives, careers, and the state of Israel and United States in today’s world.
I was there for only one person but the more these brilliant women spoke to each other and the audience the more special they became. It is hard to put into words how hard working and intelligent they are. They both rose to prestigious jobs in a time when most women didn’t even work and were simultaneously raising families. Apparently you can do it all.
Specifically R.B.G. is spry at eight-one years old. Besides her extremely petit frame you would have no idea how old she is, especially once she starts talking. What’s more is that she began to talk about her physical fitness routine and at first I thought it was a joke. She has recently thought about giving up water-skiing but still loves to go parasailing. She works out two evenings a week with a personal trainer at the Court’s gym. She has done so since her first battle with cancer in 1992 after which weakened by the treatments her beloved husband said, “Ruthie you look like you just left Auschwitz, you better do something about it.” She has been working out ever since. Talk about tough love.
R.B.G. was the second woman to be confirmed to the Supreme Court in 1993 after President Clinton nominated her. Preceding her was Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981 by then President Reagan. R.B.G. is also the first Justice of Jewish decent making this room all the more appropriate for her to be in.
She didn’t so much take “softball” questions like where she was from and what her favorite foods are, as she told us more about her thoughts on recent rulings and world events highlighted by the many impressive moments she has experienced. She was hysterical without even trying. Her knowledge knew no bounds and could recall on a whim facts, even minor details, from cases she was affected by some of which never made it to the Supreme Court. This knack of hers makes her a great Justice but also brings the material to life. I found myself listening to her, hanging on her every word, picturing what these events and people must be like. She seemed to have something on every topic. My favorite being she will not retire simply because we currently have a Democratic President and doing so would allow him to appoint another liberal to the court. Rather R.B.G. says “Who’s to say he could get his choice confirmed through today’s Senate or find someone as good as me? Besides I think we have a good reason to be optimistic in 2016.” She is of course alluding to the rumor that Secretary Hillary Clinton will run and win. I think that would be the best time for her to retire, appointed by one Clinton and leaving it in another’s hands.
These tough as nails woman who has survived two bouts of cancer herself doesn’t look like another few years on the bench will even cause her an ounce of sweat. Just that past Friday she was up until 5:00a.m. writing her decent for the Texas voting identification case (https://nyti.ms/3iplrHa). This combination of high intelligence and discipline blows me away. I don’t think I have half of her stamina and I know I don’t have half of her intelligence. She is a rare breed and it was an honor to even be in a room with her.
For those of you that have noticed I keep calling the Justice “R.B.G.” it is not just because these are her initials. Rather it is a nod to the Tumblr culture online that has t-shirts made up with her face and “Notorious R.B.G.” written on them. It’s sort of like “Notorious B.I.G.” I personally am down with “Notorious R.B.G” and so I naturally had to buy a shirt. It is just too bad I didn’t have it in time to wear for this event.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg told a story from her past when she was pregnant with her first child. Upon hearing the news she was pregnant when she was about to enter law school, was given a great piece of advice from her father-in-law. He said that if she wanted to change her mind that no one would blame her. But that if she did in fact still want to go to law school she would figure out a way to make it happen.
I feel like this is a value Mrs. Lerner would appreciate. Sadly we lost her recently to her own cancer battle but she will always be with me. I am so glad I got to keep in touch with her over these years and was lucky enough to know the woman as well as the teacher.
I suppose that the moral of the story here is if you want something badly enough and believe in yourself the world is your oyster.
For More on This:
(video from the actual talk so you too can see RBG)
For Some of the Fun I have Had at 92Y: