The Elmo Antidote

Sonia Sotomayor’s message of empathy, listening, and compromise is what we need.

Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor
Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.

On Tuesday in Philadelphia, Justice Sonia Sotomayor addressed a crowd of 7,000 overworked educators who are attempting to solve student addiction, gun violence, hate speech, and unemployment. Watching the justice in action offers an extraordinary mental health corrective to the collective crack-up of America, personified in recent times by the rage and privilege of leaders who see nobody but self. Her message is unobjectionable: empathy, listening, compromise. It has been all too easy to find those who have been incandescent with fury that she even sits on the court, much less got into Princeton and Yale Law schools, but—as she reminded this crowd—in times when people are so afraid, the only way through is to listen.

The conference was put on by NASPA, also known as the Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, the largest association of college student affairs professionals worldwide. Panels this year focused on student mental health, diversity, violence prevention, free speech on campus, sexual assault, technology, career placement, substance abuse, and the million other battles student affairs professionals must wage every day in their effort to raise healthy, whole college students. Sotomayor rewarded the crowd’s standing ovation by eschewing the formal Q&A format and instead free-ranging her way through the crowd, shaking hands and answering questions. She did warn the crowd that her security team gets nervous when people leap at her so it would be better for the audience to just smile and shake hands instead.

Most of the questions were about college, diversity, and what it was like to be a first-generation Latina from the Bronx at Princeton. Sotomayor was open about the fact that she was baffled by virtually everything on the campus at first, including a cricket outside her window: Unaccustomed to the noise—having grown up in a housing project without trees or grass—she was initially certain it lived inside her dorm room (the only cricket she’d met was from Pinocchio, she said). She confessed that in the first week when she met a fellow freshman from Alabama, who was gushing about all the foreign accents, Sotomayor had to stop herself from blurting “I thought you had the foreign accent.” And she talked about how hard she worked to make sure she had friends who helped offer some of the comfort of home because they spoke Spanish, but also friends who were “totally not like me.”

All these friends helped guide her through a world of Princeton that she says she didn’t always fully understand: One friend found a crumpled invitation from Phi Beta Kappa in Sotomayor’s wastebasket and offered that it might not be a good idea to pitch an invitation simply because “this was an organization telling me what a great honor it was to be asked, and then charging me to join.” She talked about finding mentors and teachers willing to work with her on her English writing skills, but only after she showed she would be willing to work hard to improve. She acknowledged that when she graduated with top honors from Princeton, jobs were plentiful, and that opportunities have changed for many minority students. But she also cautioned that it’s good to acknowledge the possible struggles of others, no matter their backgrounds, and it’s unwise to proclaim that someone else has had it easy.

She also talked about all the times people asked her whether she got into Yale Law School simply because she was Puerto Rican. “I wasn’t sassy enough then to say it might have helped that I was Phi Beta Kappa,” the justice noted slyly, still shaking hands and accepting hugs. Sotomayor still lives with the awareness of people who think of her as the token in the room, who “look up in shock when you say something intelligent.” She talked openly about her diabetes and why she had kept it secret for a long time.

Asked about her hobbies she copped to bike riding, going to the gym, reading—“I still like fairy tales and science fiction”—and playing poker.  She described her fondest memories: throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium; having dinner with J-Lo and Marc Anthony; being a voice in the conference room where Citizens United was decided; and getting to sit through her first state of the union as a Supreme Court justice who had once been a “little girl from the Bronx, whose father had died, and spoke Spanish before she spoke English.”

Sotomayor also had some insights about the polarization that has crippled Washington for years. The justice noted that she met with 92 senators before her confirmation hearings and some told her this story: When television cameras arrived in the Senate chamber, everyone stopped actually turning up for hearings. Before then, “you had to be in the room, you were forced to listen. And there were rules about how to listen.” Today, she noted, nobody goes to the Senate chamber except to speak. Nobody listens to one another because they are briefed by their staff. Nobody eats together in the cafeteria or meets with any group but other members of their party. She stressed that at the Supreme Court the nine justices still have conference together, eat together, and are forced to listen. It isn’t perfect. They get frustrated. “But the most important dynamic in human history is personal exchange,” she said. “And only then can you listen.”

Sotomayor then told an incredulous crowd that the justice she most resembles as a matter of character and personality is Clarence Thomas. Like her, he is an extrovert. “He knows every employee in the court, their families, when they’re sick he’s the first with flowers,” she said. “He cares deeply for the people around him. You are never in doubt that he cares for you as a person.”

She said that this and only this has allowed her to “argue, lose, win, lose again, and never turn it into hate.”

Favorite Sesame Street character? I thought you’d never ask. Turns out it’s a three-way tie:

I always liked Elmo, because he was red, but I vacillated between him and Cookie Monster. Because of my diabetes I loved anyone who could eat cookies. But then I met Abby Cadabby, who wasn’t a character when I was watching. And she was the first Sesame Street character made for little girls. She’s silly, she’s smart, and she can make you laugh.

Sotomayor’s fundamental message of decency, inclusion, openness, and listening may come off as naïve during these times of heightened political fury and mistrust. It’s easy to say the justices are either kidding themselves about civility, or lying to the rest of us. But this incredible capacity to focus on, well the 7,000 other people in the room is the way Sotomayor plans to continue to live her life. And given the choice between the sustained performance art of angry guys, and her way, it’s heartening to know that America’s educators were on their feet for her. I’d suggest that Cookie Monster would also approve.