Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan once smoked cigarettes in the bathrooms at our high school. I imagine her seated on a toilet lid, hand cradling the tobacco stem, long, stringy hair curtaining her face and eyes behind wire-rimmed aviators cast on the opposite wall. She must have spent that time, arterioles flooded with nicotine, exhaling her future onto the blankness before her.
I spent a lot of time on bathroom breaks my sixth and senior year at Hunter College High School, the elite public secondary school in New York City that Kagan also attended. I wandered the halls, read posters plastered on the boards, lingered in poorly lit alcoves, deliberately clicked my heels on the tiled floors — I was stir-crazy. Hunter taught me that I would achieve something. What that was, I didn’t yet know, but I wanted out of the Brick Prison on 94th Street and Madison Avenue.
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Kagan walked the halls of Hunter when our school was housed on the 13th and 14th floors of an office building at 466 Lexington Avenue, graduating the spring of 1977 with what seemed to be one purpose in mind. She posed for her senior yearbook picture as president of the student government, in judge’s robes, brandishing a gavel. The photo’s caption is a quote from Justice Felix Frankfurter, appointed to the Supreme Court by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938: “Government is itself an art, one of the subtlest of arts.” Kagan headed to her freshman year at Princeton set upon studying this art, having pitched her gavel into the political arena.
What did she leave behind? The rigorous chemical electrolysis that is the Hunter experience divides the student body in two: there are the smart kids who did well on the entrance exam but can’t find the motivation to complete their work and periodically berate themselves for being slackers; and there are the smart kids who did well on the entrance exam but can never perform up to their own daunting expectations and periodically berate themselves for being single-minded perfectionists. I belonged to the latter. I’m willing to bet that Kagan did, too.
Loneliness is symptomatic of inhabiting the perfectionist archetype. In the biographical articles I perused compulsively throughout her confirmation hearings, Kagan’s classmates depict her youthful self as thoughtful, deliberate, and focused, a committed citizen of her school. She is said to have been friendly and funny, but aloof. I think her mind’s reel had already fast-forwarded, past the prosaic end of adolescence and into the static of the future.
That’s where my mind was while I was at Hunter. The word “thoughtful,” a recurring comment on my written work, almost troubled me. Sometimes, I wanted to hush my thoughts, but they wouldn’t stop whirring. While others said I spoke coherently, I knew my ideas to be disjointed. My 11th grade English teacher expected to see my name in print; my biology teacher sent me to a conference of “Women in Science”; my physics teacher, who made me DVDs of televised operas, was certain I’d enroll in a music conservatory. My yearbook implies I was friends with most classmates. My memory says otherwise.
I came to Yale more driven and more lost — it is possible. Everyone wanted to know where my life was headed, myself especially. If I didn’t find my primary purpose soon, to motivate me through trying times at Yale and beyond, I would never be successful.
Kagan excelled as a history major at Princeton, graduating summa cum laude and clearly destined for a career in academia, public service, and law. After a year at Worcester College, Oxford, where she studied philosophy, she enrolled in Harvard Law School, and — surprise, surprise! — made Law Review at the end of her first year.
But we cannot all be Elena Kagan; some of us are Irving. Irving Kagan ’86, Elena’s younger brother, earned his bachelors and masters degrees in history at Yale and taught my social studies and U.S. history classes at Hunter. (He also instructs an elective in Constitutional Law.) I, among his other students, wondered how he’d managed growing up in Elena’s ever-expanding shadow of influence. Our tenth grade math teacher, whose career spanned decades and who taught Mr. Kagan in the 70s, told us his pupil had been a know-it-all. This didn’t shock me: when Mr. Kagan caught fallacies in his students’ reasoning, mischief flickered impishly across his visage.
He was, on the whole, a passionate teacher, well versed in his subject. He has a keen sense of humor — a familial trait, it now seems, imbibed at the Kagan family dinner table on the Upper West Side. I assumed at one time, that it was a defense mechanism against would-be critics of the “unremarkable” life he had chosen to live. Forgive my conditioned imprudence, Mr. Kagan. I know better now.
He sat behind his sister at the confirmation hearings, beside their brother Marc’s daughter, Rachel; both were beaming. Mr. Kagan — whose interview by local TV station NY1 I watched with rapt attention and acute anxiety, wishing he would stop interjecting those pesky “ums” — took diligent notes throughout the proceedings. I imagine he will be publishing his debut book sometime soon, and I will be pleased to see him seize this opportune occasion — the chance to document history from the inside — as his own windfall.
His sister was the image of composure. She answered the senators’ interrogatory onslaught with temperance, insight, and even wit. When the Republican senator from South Carolina Lindsey Graham needlessly asked Kagan what she had been doing on Christmas Day, she replied: “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”
I’ve been told I too have poise. In truth, I can barely keep myself together. A year ago, I cracked, under the duress of having to decide what direction my life was going to take, into a million pieces — mercury released from an old, glass thermometer. I realized that my sense of self defied containment in the receptacle of my aspirations; I was scattered in spherical droplets across the laboratory floor. It was a fucking mess.
If you talked to me, you wouldn’t have known it: Elena’s confident self-possession endeared her to her constituents, and my apparent equilibrium rarely betrayed my depressive spiral. I played what I felt at heart to be a ruse, what I was conditioned to believe is a political stratagem we have to apply at some interval in our lives: We have to pretend we know what we want and what everyone else should want, too. Without Kagan’s influence in the Senate as deputy to Clinton’s director of domestic policy, how would the consensus on a contentious tobacco bill ever have solidified? Without her guidance as Dean of Harvard Law School, how would the ideologically divisive faculty ever have hired new professors?
This is part of the static I’m sure Elena hears, that I have heard. I’ve proven I can live with this as my soundtrack, but do I want to conquer majorities and win everyone’s heart? Is my idea of success casting a stifling shadow over others under my influence and their aspirations? No. Just as Mr. Kagan questioned my own assumptions in his Hunter classroom, I want to impel others to reevaluate the status quo of ambition, not an aim, driving us forward and the expectation of composure cleaving some of us in twain. I’ve come to prioritize unity in my thoughts and actions, however it is I reassemble them.