Chapters 13–17

In this memoir, Sonia Sotomayor recounts her childhood in the South Bronx, her education and early work as a lawyer, and her eventual appointment to the Supreme Court of the United States.
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definitions & notes only words
  1. carrel
    small individual study area in a library
    Whenever I felt out of place or homesick, I took refuge at Firestone Library. Books had seen me through an earlier time of trouble, and their presence all around me was both a comfort and an answer to the question of why I had come here. From my first day on campus, I’d enviously eyed the carrels in Firestone, which were reserved for upperclassmen.
  2. faculty
    an inherent cognitive or perceptual power of the mind
    The introductory surveys would involve just as much work, given their broad scope, as more specialized advanced courses and would allow me for the first time to cultivate the critical faculties that Miss Katz had tried to instill: understanding the world by engaging with its big questions rather than just absorbing the factual particulars.
  3. perverse
    marked by a disposition to oppose and contradict
    The very thought of their proximity would keep me awake all night. And so when I realized that the psych lab would oblige me to handle rodents while I studied their reactions, I decided, a little perversely, to make the most of it.
  4. litany
    any long and tedious address or recital
    Professor Weiss told a familiar tale: although my paper was chock-full of information and even interesting ideas, there was no argumentative structure, no thesis that my litany of facts had been marshaled to support.
  5. mince
    make less severe or harsh
    In writing, however, one’s words stand naked on the page. Professor Weiss had minced none of her own informing me that my English was weak: my sentences were often fragments, my tenses erratic, and my grammar often just not grammatical.
  6. semantic
    of or relating to meaning or the study of meaning
    Over summer vacations spent working at Prospect Hospital, or later at the Department of Consumer Affairs in Spanish Harlem, I’d devote each day’s lunch hour to grammar exercises and to learning ten new words, which I would later test out on Junior, trying to make them my own. Junior was unfazed by my semantic challenges.
  7. disburse
    expend, as from a fund
    My fingers froze on the keys as I read what I was typing: financial figures of the most well-off at Princeton. This was my first glimpse of trust funds; tax write-offs and loopholes; summer jobs at Daddy’s firm that paid the equivalent of a year’s tuition; incomes in the millions, disbursed a half million here, a few hundred thousand for that poor guy there.
  8. onerous
    burdensome or difficult to endure
    The bilingual program at Hostos Community College included an English writing requirement. It wasn’t as terrifying to her as the math, but it was onerous and she was struggling with it.
  9. spectral
    resembling or characteristic of a phantom
    At the funeral, my sorrow flared into rage when I saw Nelson appear briefly, a spectral presence on the fringe of the mourners.
  10. rapport
    a relationship of mutual understanding between people
    Coming from a poor neighborhood of Brooklyn and a traditionally conservative Puerto Rican family herself, Margarita understood instinctively the path I had traveled to Princeton. We rarely needed to talk about the incongruities of our being there, and so our rapport progressed quickly to more urgent matters.
  11. belie
    be in contradiction with
    A space where one had a natural sense of belonging, a circle of friends who shared the same feeling of being a stranger in a strange land, who understood without need for explanation: it amounted to a subtle but necessary psychic refuge in an environment where an undercurrent of hostility often belied the idyllic surface.
  12. respective
    considered individually
    The blacks, Latinos, and Asians at Princeton went back to their respective high schools, met with guidance counselors, and recruited promising students they knew personally.
  13. provost
    a high-ranking university administrator
    It was not until we filed a formal complaint with the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare that we got President William Bowen’s attention and a dialogue opened. Within a month, the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education had sent someone to meet with us in the provost’s office.
  14. faction
    a dissenting clique
    I was proud of that victory, seeing it as a tribute to how well I listened and brokered compromises between factions.
  15. quorum
    a gathering of the minimal number of members of a group
    Years before, I discovered, a Princeton student had put together a course on Puerto Rican history, and now, under the guidance of Professor Winn, I set out to revive it, bringing the syllabus up to date and recruiting the necessary quorum of students.
  16. commonwealth
    a politically organized body of people under a government
    Again and again, the conversation returned to the island’s political status. Did we want to remain a commonwealth, with some self-rule and a preferential trade relationship with the mainland? \
  17. inscrutable
    difficult or impossible to understand
    The economic repercussions of each position were as inscrutably complex as they were critical to the arguments.
  18. ubiquitous
    being present everywhere at once
    But instead of playing the Three Stooges, my cousins and I enjoyed dominoes, dancing, and the ubiquitous bottle of rum.
  19. broach
    bring up a topic for discussion
    Another revelation of my adult trips to the island was how much the political questions broached in my course, especially about the island’s status, infused everyday life.
  20. despondency
    feeling downcast and disheartened and hopeless
    This manic enthusiasm that gripped the island in election years, and still does, was a marked contrast to the political despondency felt by Puerto Ricans on the mainland in those years.
  21. discourse
    an extended communication dealing with some particular topic
    It was then I first saw how difficult it was to energize a community that felt marginal and voiceless in the larger discourse of a democracy.
  22. venerable
    profoundly honored
    We moved from mountainside farms to small towns like San Germán, Lajas, Manatí, Arecibo, Barceloneta; and after a time, on to what were then the slums of Santurce in San Juan; from there the mainland beckoned, and we answered, boarding the venerable US Army Transport George S. Simonds, the army transport that carried so many Puerto Ricans to New York, until Pan Am offered the first cheap airfares and we rode la guagua aérea, the aerial bus, between mainland and island.
  23. abate
    become less in amount or intensity
    I felt my own shiver of recognition too, remembering my early misery as a C student at Blessed Sacrament, in terror of the black-bonneted nuns wielding rulers, a misery that didn’t abate until after Papi died and Mami made an effort to speak English at home.
  24. bereft
    sorrowful through loss or deprivation
    Dolores sings the Mexican ballad of a lover so bereft that after he dies, his soul, in the form of a dove, continues to visit the cottage of his beloved.
  25. camaraderie
    the quality of affording easy familiarity and sociability
    Nearly every living Hispanic who had ever graduated from Princeton showed up, overflowing with pride and camaraderie, for what amounted to a triumphant reunion.
  26. milieu
    the environmental condition
    In different ways and in different styles, some loudly and others quietly, Princeton’s minorities have created a milieu in which I could act and see the efforts accepted.
  27. estrangement
    the feeling of being alienated from other people
    It was perhaps then that I made a measure of peace with my unease: the uncertainty I’d always felt at Princeton was something I’d never shake entirely. For all the As and honors that could be bestowed, there would still lurk such moments of estrangement to remind me that my being there was not typical but an exception.
  28. echelon
    level of authority in a hierarchy
    It would have been even more daunting if we could have known at the time that the class of 1979 would go on to extraordinary success even by the school’s extraordinary standards: so many members are now deans and professors at top law schools, federal and state judges, or otherwise in the highest echelons of government or practice.
  29. scrupulously
    with extreme conscientiousness
    I read the cases scrupulously and would never have dreamed of walking into class unprepared.
  30. epitomize
    embody the essential characteristics of
    But I had not yet discovered the benefit of sustained dialogue with someone who epitomized the kind of achievement I aspired to, and much beyond that.
  31. rarefied
    of high moral or intellectual value
    José maintained community relations in his pro bono volunteer work as the very model of a citizen-lawyer, but he could maneuver with equal skill and self-assurance in the most rarefied corridors of power.
  32. protege
    a person who receives support from an influential patron
    I still consider José’s advice carefully—indeed, I’ve sought it at every crossroads in my career—though I’m more likely to translate it into my own terms than to take it up directly. José has often spoken of what an unusual protégée I’ve been: how I often confer with him, only then to do exactly as I please.
  33. cogent
    powerfully persuasive
    He laid out the criteria: the note had to be original, significant, and logically cogent.
  34. precedent
    a legal decision that influences subsequent decisions
    I focused on statehood for purposes of the note because that was where precedent was clearest.
  35. barrister
    a British lawyer who speaks in the higher courts of law
    But an even bigger confidence breakthrough was shortly to come, with my participation in the mock trials for the Barristers’ Union competition.
  36. auspicious
    indicating favorable circumstances and good luck
    I was working under men known as giants in courtroom work, and I was given a variety of assignments, the most challenging of which was a contribution to a brief being prepared for a huge antitrust case—an auspicious opportunity if ever there was one.
  37. stint
    an unbroken period of time during which you do something
    The sense of failure was confirmed when I concluded my stint as a summer associate without receiving a job offer.
  38. rumination
    a calm, lengthy, intent consideration
    My ruminations continued through the days of driving, as if the white line in the road were an arrow pointing toward the future.
  39. gambit
    an opening remark intended to secure an advantage
    “That was really insulting. You presumed that I was unqualified before you had seen my résumé or taken the trouble to learn anything about me.”
    He seemed to be waving it off as just a conversational gambit, albeit on a sensitive topic, and he expressed admiration at how I had stood my ground.
  40. tribunal
    an assembly to conduct judicial business
    The student-faculty tribunal impaneled to investigate the complaint negotiated a full apology from Shaw, Pittman.
Created on February 13, 2020 (updated February 18, 2020)

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