First I'll get the confession out of the way. I haven't yet read Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's book, My Beloved World. It's been on my list for a while, and now that it's out in paperback I have no excuse.
But even before reading it I have been struck, from the excerpts and interviews I've read, by how thoughtful Sotomayor is about her experience growing up poor in the Bronx.
One day talking to my first-year roommate ... I was telling her about how out of place I felt at Princeton, how I didn't connect with many of the experiences that some of my classmates were describing, and she said to me, "You're like Alice in Wonderland."
And I asked, "Who is Alice?"
And she said, "You don't know about Alice?"
And I said, "No, I don't."
And she said, "It's one of the greatest book classics in English literature. You should read it."
I recognized at that moment that there were likely to be many other children's classics that I had not read ... Before I went home that summer, I asked her to give me a list of some of the books she thought were children's classics, and she gave me a long list and I spent the summer reading them.
That was perhaps the starkest moment of my understanding that there was a world I had missed, of things that I didn't know anything about ... [As an adult] there are moments when people make references to things that I have no idea what they're talking about.
For me, this is an example of how, unless provided with a really coherent, comprehensive education, many kids who grow up in poverty -- heck, many kids period -- are robbed of being able to enter into any conversation that assumes a broad cultural knowledge.
It wasn't that Sotomayor wasn't smart in the sense of being fully capable -- she has more than proven that.
It wasn't that Sotomayor's mother didn't care about her education -- Sotomayor said her mother worked hard to send her children to Catholic schools and even bought the newly popular Dr. Seuss books.
And it wasn't that Sotomayor's school was "bad" -- after all, she got into Princeton.
But her K-12 schooling didn't provide her with the kind of grounding that she should have had, leaving her feeling lost. Sotomayor was sure to feel social disorientation -- she had never heard of a trust fund until she realized many of her fellow students were living on them, for example. But her schooling should have provided her with enough grounding to avoid academic disorientation and understand ordinary conversations.
All kids should be able to rely on their schools to help them become conversant enough with important cultural, historical and scientific touchstones that by the end of 12 or 13 years in school they aren't lost when they hear about Alice in Wonderland, or references to Gettysburg, or read a newspaper story about a Supreme Court case or scientific breakthrough. But that kind of grounding requires schools to be very intentional about what kids need to know and be able to do and plan accordingly.
Right now, far too many kids are still receiving a haphazard education that doesn't allow kids to enter the larger civic and cultural conversation. That is bad for all kids, but it puts a barrier in front of any kid whose family is unable to fill in the gaps. Sotomayor notwithstanding, for many children who grow up in poverty, it can be an insurmountable barrier.