As a newly hired, tenure track assistant professor of Social Studies Education at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, I was excited to attend and present my research at the NCSS (National Council of the Social Studies) Annual Conference in San Diego Nov 30-Dec. 2, 2007.
At some conferences, education attendees often leave early to keep within a particular travel budget (no Saturday night stay, cheaper weekend airfare). But, the auditorium at the San Diego Convention Center was packed.
Everyone stood and applauded the keynote speaker, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, as she rose to the podium.
Justice O'Connor shared her story of growing up on a ranch in high desert Arizona, riding horses and mending fences as well as her brother, and dealing with the environment. There were no excuses. If something had to be done, she did it. She applied herself to her studies with the same deliberate focus, attended Stanford University Law School and passed the bar, only to be denied opportunity after opportunity to be taken seriously when applying to law firms as a credentialed attorney. Even the women thought that she would join them in the secretary pool or assist with making coffee.
But, she would not give up. She shared her passion for legal writing and research and encouraged the audience (teachers, faculty and researchers) to make time in the curriculum for Civics Education, so that children would learn the history of the U.S. Supreme Court, The Constitution, and decisions that effect their rights. She even promoted a program that integrated law into the state standards.
I made my way to the airport and found the gate where my Southwest Air Flight, bound for Phoenix was schedule to depart. Sitting in the crowd of passengers was Justice O’Connor. This woman who made history, and helped shape the laws that effected all Americans, was waiting like the rest of us. She was unassuming, down-to-earth, and genuine.
I sat next to her on the flight back home. We were both flying economy class. Justice O’Connor, a legend, and me, an assistant professor... in awe.
I introduced myself and mentioned that she was my hero and felt privileged to meet her. I took my work, passing on her legacy as a teacher educator at NAU, integrating Supreme Court decisions and The Constitution into my courses, seriously, and lamented that because of the focus on testing of Math and Reading, (the meat of the curriculum) Social Studies was often relegated to a side dish status – fit in when teachers had extra time, coupled with holidays, or blended with snippets of history. Civics was rarely taught.
Justice O’Connor’s sky blue eyes met mine. She shook her head, pursed her lips, dug into her purse and pulled our her pocket U.S. Constitution. “This goes with me everywhere, “ she shared with seriousness. “I refer to The Constitution several times a day. The framers provided us with a living document that has stood for more than two centuries.”
I gazed down at her well-worn, purse-sized guide as she continued, “But, this document needs to be passed on to the next generation. And, that is your important work.”
I learned that Justice O’Connor advocated Civics Education and created a foundation to promote teaching Civics in schools. But, what was most impressive, was her authenticity, kindness and concern.
We touched down at night on a rainy tarmac. Justice O’Connor offered me her advice:
"Barbara, I do hope that you will stay in the valley tonight. There’s a winter storm advisory and I would be concerned for your safety if you were heading to Flagstaff tonight.”
I assured her that I would stay in town and appreciated her sharing her wisdom and concern.
In retrospect, I should have taken a photo on my phone to memorialize the event. That next week, my students chided me for letting an opportunity to be photoed with a legend of the Supreme Court, pass me by.
But, sometimes, you need to savor the moment and know in your heart that a person’s wisdom is only surpassed by their character.
Thank You, Justice O’Connor. You set the bar so very high, and for that, I, and other Social Studies educators, are grateful.
Be well. Take good care.