Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor may have had Nancy Drew as a role model in her youth, but hundreds of Multnomah County high school students will now have Sotomayor as theirs, thanks to a multi-pronged partnership that included the Cultural Trust.

Last night a few Trust staff and Board members had the chance to join 900 high school students and Portland’s top brass in welcoming  Sotomayor to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland. The Trust was invited to Everybody Reads, Multnomah County thanks to the FY14 grant we gave The Library Foundation for the program.

What impressed me most, in addition to Justice Sotomayor’s inspiring story and creative process in writing “My Beloved World,” were the young people’s reactions to her talk.

Last year, we had a similar front row seat to Everybody Reads author Sherman Alexie, who told condom jokes, used four-letter words, upbraided himself for swearing in front of school kids, and then dropped another F-bomb, meanwhile detailing a poor American Indian’s poignant journey from impoverished child to bestselling author. Sotomayor’s style stood in contrast to Alexie’s. If you look up classy in the dictionary, her face might be there. If you look up outrageously funny, it’s probably not. But, despite her more serious manner, she never talked down to the students. As a reward, they greeted her with a mix of whoops, “Te Quiero Sonia!”s and awed silence.

She told the audience, for example, that, given the chance, she’d advise her 14-year old self to “have less fear.” Fear is the most debilitating of all emotions, she opined. Fear stops people from pursuing their dreams.

And yet. She encouraged students to be realistic in forming those dreams. Not everyone is going to be a sports star, for example. But, then again, despite an early fascination with law, she never imagined she’d serve on the highest court in the land…

In choosing a career path, she suggested young people make a list of things they do not like and are not good at, and narrow the field from there. For example, she will not be quitting her day job to sing. In fact, at her fellow justices’ birthdays, she mouths the words to “Happy Birthday” rather than torment them with her voice.

In approaching the Bench, she said she recognizes, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Any one of us may be one (not very smart) decision away from being in court. Her goal for the future is to grow into being a great justice. At nearly 60 years old, she is not leaving the Supreme Court anytime soon. She still has some growing to do.

Sotomayor admonished students not to ask for mentorship, but to help would-be mentors. When someone asks her to be a mentor, she confesses her first reaction is overwhelm. But if an underling or a student asks how he or she can assist, there is space for a mentorship to develop.

On Tuesday night 900 Multnomah County students, including many from disadvantaged backgrounds, had a quasi-intimate audience with one of the most powerful women in America.

A humble presence, with references to her own disadvantaged background, she shuffled back and forth across the stage for an hour after spending the day in several Multnomah County schools. A tiny powerhouse in heels, she spoke of her life, of her loving family, of the joy she found writing her story. She discussed the idealism of the law, and the opportunity that can still exist in this country if we create an equitable funding model for education.

The students wandered out past our information table in the lobby, some dazed, some bright-eyed and talking fast, others contemplative. The adults left too, clearly moved. After all, the wise counsel was also for them. I packed up our table and sat in my car several minutes, overwhelmed with gratitude to live in a state that finds value in bringing someone like Justice Sotomayor to town, honored to be affiliated with such sponsors as Literary Arts, OPB, The Library Foundation, and proud to be part of an organization that works behind the scenes to foster such dialogue.

-Meryl Lipman, Trust Communications Manager