Friday, June 5, 2009

Two Roads Diverged

When I entered college, I planned to be a lawyer. I was interested in public affairs and was particularly passionate about the rights of Native Americans in the wake of the occupation of Alcatraz Island from 1969 into 1971. I took courses in history, Near Eastern studies, and politics, including one called Constitutional Law. During that class I realized it wasn’t the law that attracted me—often the reasoning seemed based on semantics rather than logic and that frustrated me to no end. Rather, I was fascinated by the stories behind the court cases, the circumstances that motivated Homer Plessy to sit in a whites-only railroad car in Louisiana or Linda Brown to fight for the right to attend a white elementary school in Topeka, Kansas. With that realization, I switched my major from politics to history and focused on social history and American studies.

Ultimately, that change in plans made me a writer. I had spent the summer after my junior year in high school studying journalism at the National High School Institute (NHSI) at Northwestern University, pounding out news stories on manual typewriters and trolling the streets of Evanston, Illinois, for feature ideas. That program gave me confidence in my ability to write under pressure, and it helped me get a job as a summer intern on my local paper, the North Jersey Herald-News, three years running. As I look back today, I realize that my career as an author of kid’s books about sports and women’s history grew from the intersection of the ongoing development of my writing skills and my emerging love of history.

There’s a reason why I’ve been thinking about this lately. It’s one of those “brush with history” encounters that’s been on my mind a lot. For while I was deciding not to go to law school, one of my classmates was building toward a career as a lawyer, and then a judge. Sonia Sotomayor and I were both members of Princeton’s Class of 1976, both history majors who took preliminary courses together. We also both were “others,” students who didn’t conform to the traditional Princeton prototype. She was Puerto Rican, I was a Jew. And we were women in only the fourth coed class admitted to the university.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that both Sonia and I embraced our outsider status when it came to our senior thesis projects. She wrote about Luis Muñoz Marin, the “father of modern Puerto Rico” who worked with Congress to gain commonwealth status for the island. I explored the achievements of Alice Davis Menken, a Jewish woman who tried to rehabilitate delinquent Jewish girls in New York City in the early 1900s. For me, at least, there was a little bit of defiance in my thesis choice. It was a good bet that Jewish women’s history was not a hot topic during the first two centuries of Princeton’s existence.

That experience of being an outsider has continued to serve me well in the topics I choose for my books and the point of view I bring to them. And despite the preposterous claims by the likes of Newt Gingrich and Pat Buchanan, I think it also will continue to serve my classmate well. Given that Sonia Sotomayor has a thorough knowledge and understanding of the law, her life’s journey can only add to her effectiveness on our nation’s highest court. I look forward to the day she takes her seat.


Karen Romano Young said...

Yeah, Sue! Yeah for both you and Sonia! I know you've made an impact on at least one other "outsider" group I'm a fan of: athletic girls. I do think that the stories that grab us magnetize us to the issues that are nearest to our hearts. One more reason to write those stories that really happened. . . Thanks for this food for thought!

Gretchen Woelfle said...

History books are soooo much more interesting these days, thanks to outsider historians and subjects. I'm finding African American history is full of great topics and subjects -- way beyond the usual suspects of the civil rights movement. Keep at it, Sue!