When Sonia Sotomayor was a law student, she told a professor that her career goal was to be a federal judge. But more than a decade later, when she was urged to apply for an opening on the district court in New York, her mentor and law partner at the time, David Botwinik, could not get her to complete the necessary paperwork.
“I told him it was a useless enterprise, they would never pick me,” she recalled in a speech at Hofstra University. “He took away my work, put an application on my desk, and said, ‘Fill it out.’”
That’s what mentors do. They’re counselors and cheerleaders, disciplinarians and therapists. They know that some proteges need a kick in the rear, some need a pat on the back, and many need both.
Sotomayor’s story embodies many virtues: from the devotion of her single mother to her own courage as a pioneering Hispanic woman. But one important theme deserves more attention – the critical role that mentors have played in her rise to prominence. Without Botwinik’s persistent prodding, Sotomayor would not be where she is today, a nominee for the Supreme Court.
Justice Department statistics show that youngsters receiving guidance from a mentor are far less likely to start drugs, skip school or lie to their parents. But that’s the big picture. The real joy of mentoring is making a difference and leaving a mark, one young person at a time.
We’ve both been fortunate to have wonderful mentors in our lives, and like Sotomayor, the first ones were our parents. Steve’s dad, Will Roberts, was his best editor and earliest fan. A young professor at Harvard, John Rodman, repeatedly told him five important words: “This is not good enough.”
His first job out of college was doing research for James Reston, then the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times and probably the most influential journalist of his time. Yet every day, Scotty, as he was universally known, took time to answer a question, offer a suggestion, make a phone call.
During his long career, Scotty employed 26 clerks, and when he died, 18 of them were pallbearers and ushers at his funeral. As Steve carried his coffin from the church, his mentor was teaching him one last lesson: This is what’s important, this is what’s lasting, not the famous people I knew but the young lives I touched.
Cokie’s mother, Lindy Boggs, was a “multitasker” before the word existed. One of Cokie’s favorite memories is watching her mother holding a baby with one hand, stirring a pot of pickles with the other, while dictating a speech into a phone wedged under her chin.
The nuns who taught Cokie, from the Society of the Sacred Heart, took her seriously as a woman of intellect and competence. Friends at National Public Radio formed an “old girls’ network” that helped launch her broadcasting career.
Sotomayor was similarly fortunate. Her high-school debate coach, Ken Moy, first urged her to apply to Princeton. Once there, a young teacher, Peter Winn, took time to correct her English, which still reflected her Spanish heritage.
“Taking such constant criticism could not have been easy,” Winn wrote recently in The Washington Post, “but Sonia kept coming back.”
At Yale Law School, Sotomayor sought out Jose Cabranes, the university’s general counsel. As Amy Goldstein wrote in the Post: “Jose Cabranes had been told by one of Sotomayor’s undergraduate professors to keep an eye out for a talented young woman whose parents had, like him, come from Puerto Rico. He hired her as an intern, asked her to help research a book, and opened doors rarely cracked for Yale law students.”
The chain continued. Cabranes helped get her hired as an assistant to New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau; Morgenthau introduced her to a law firm, Pavia & Harcourt; Botwinik, a partner at Pavia, pushed her for the federal bench; once there, she told Judge Miriam Cedarbaum that a mutual friend “suggested to me that I should seek you out as a mentor.”
Sotomayor has not forgotten the cardinal rule of the mentoring process: If you get help, you are obligated to help others. One of her favorite programs is the Development School for Youth, which teaches New York high-school students how to function in a work environment.
We try to follow the same rule. “Mentor” is one of our favorite titles, right up there with “grandparent.” So we know the pride and satisfaction that Sotomayor’s mentors are feeling this week.
Cokie Roberts’ latest book is “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation” (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at email@example.com.
Copyright 2009, Steven and Cokie Roberts.
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