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Supreme Court Nominee's Advice To 5th-Graders: 'Be The Brave One'

Jun 15, 2016
Originally published on June 17, 2016 1:34 pm

Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland finally got a hearing in Washington on Wednesday. Not from the U.S. Senate, but from the fifth grade graduating class at J.O. Wilson Elementary School, where Garland has tutored students for 18 years.

His testimony, as it were, was in the form of a commencement address, and he was almost as emotional as he was at the White House when he was nominated for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

"You know, I like my job, but my favorite days are when I come to J.O. Wilson, and get high-fives walking down the hall," he began.

"I know your parents and teachers are getting a little teary today," he told the children, eyes welling. "And I know that because ... I'm getting a little teary, too."

Garland's message to the class was: Don't be afraid of the next challenge — middle school. It can be your home just as much as J.O. Wilson has been. But you have to look out for your friends.

"Don't follow the crowd in the wrong direction," the Supreme Court nominee said. "You be the brave one. Lead your friends in the right direction. Don't let them make bad choices."

He noted that the theme of the graduation was "If you can dream it, you can do it!" But, he added, there is an important step in between: "Hard work."

"When you watch Steph Curry glide down the basketball court, and Beyoncé dance across the stage, it sure looks easy," he observed. "But every step is a result of hours and hours of practice, discipline and determination."

The ceremony was at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, where the school has held graduations before as a mark of how special the day is. The boys sported white shirts and dark ties, the girls white dresses, white shoes, and hair decorations that ranged from white ribbons to sparkly crowns.

It's a toss-up as to who was more excited, the children or the teachers.

Principal Heidi Haggerty put it this way: At the beginning of the year, it looked as though some students might not be able to graduate. But every child in the fifth grade class made it, and the occasion was celebrated with all the fervor of a college commencement: red and white balloons, a huge rotating slideshow at the back of the stage, countless awards for achievement in everything from reading and math, to poetry, and even "most improved."

Garland arrived without White House handlers, just a couple of guards. He hugged teachers and chatted with them while parents, some dressed to the nines, others clearly coming from work and still in various uniforms, rushed in. The parents of Jenifer Morales-Garcia, one of two students in this class who was tutored by Garland, brought the whole family, including grandma and their 9-month-old baby who, remarkably, fell sound asleep.

Morales-Garcia and the other student Garland has been tutoring for the last few years, Vernell Garvin, both won academic awards on Wednesday. Morales-Garcia said that after she watched a video of Garland's nomination ceremony, she was "excited," and asked him about it. She said her tutor told her he was waiting to see if he would be "accepted."

Judge Garland has been coming to this school in a tough neighborhood of D.C. every other Monday for nearly two decades, and he encourages his law clerks to do volunteer work here, too.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In this week of tragedy and fear, here is a story of inspiration, hope and personal commitment - the graduation today of the fifth-grade class from the J.O. Wilson Elementary School in Washington, D.C. Here they are reciting a poem during the ceremony called "Don't Quit."

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Don't give up though the pace seems slow. You may succeed with another blow.

MCEVERS: Don't give up though the pace seems slow. You may succeed with another blow. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg covered this event because of the commencement speaker, a man the kids have known for a long time.

He's been a tutor at the school for 18 years. His name is Merrick Garland, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: When we got to the Atlas Theatre in Northeast Washington this morning, the students were already there - boys wearing white shirts and dark ties, girls in white dresses, white shoes and hair decorations that ranged from white ribbons to sparkly crowns. It's a toss-up who's more excited - the children or the teachers.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You have to be paying attention.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Stand in a row.

TOTENBERG: Every child in the fifth-grade class is graduating today, and it's being celebrated with all the fervor of a college commencement - red and white balloons, a huge rotating slideshow at the back of the stage, countless awards for achievement in everything from reading and math to poetry and even most improved.

Before the ceremony, the teachers are drilling the children on how to file up onto the stage and then back to their seats.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: OK. Eyes on me. When you are finished singing or reciting your poem, Romeo (ph) was still lead the line back to the end, and you will take your original seats.

TOTENBERG: When the parents start to arrive, the kids are hustled out into the hallway where, of course, giddy chaos ensues.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Original seats.

TOTENBERG: Followed by a trick to get them back in focus - clapping.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Clapping).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right.

TOTENBERG: Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland arrives and hugs a couple of the teachers while parents - some dressed to the nines, others clearly coming from work and still in various uniforms - rush in. Sitting in front of me are the parents of Jennifer Morales Garcia, one of two students in this class who've been tutored by Judge Garland. She'll get several academic awards today, and her parents have brought the whole family, including grandma and their 9-month-old baby who remarkably falls sound asleep.

Judge Garland has been coming to this school in a tough neighborhood of D.C. every other Monday for nearly two decades, and he requires his law clerks to volunteer here, too. The two girls he's been tutoring for the past few years introduce him to the audience taking turns reading his biography.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Merrick Garland is the chief justice of the most important federal appeals court in the nation.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: He led the investigation and prosecution that ultimately brought Timothy McVeigh to justice.

TOTENBERG: Ending up together - well, sort of.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Welcome...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Please welcome Judge Garland.

TOTENBERG: Garland is almost as emotional in this address as he was at the White House when he was nominated for a seat on the Supreme Court.

MERRICK GARLAND: You know, I like my job a lot. But my favorite days are the days when I get to come to J.O. Wilson and to get high-fives when I walk down the hall. Thank you class of 2016 for letting me share this moment with you

TOTENBERG: I know your parents and teachers are getting a little teary today, he says.

GARLAND: I know that 'cause I'm getting a little teary, too.

TOTENBERG: Garland's message to the class is don't be afraid of the next challenge - middle school. It can be your home just as much as J.O. Wilson has been. But you've got to look out for your friends.

GARLAND: Don't follow the crowd in the wrong direction. You be the brave one. Lead your friends in the right direction. Don't let them make bad choices.

TOTENBERG: He knows that the theme of the graduation is if you can dream, you can do it. But, he adds, there's an important step in between, hard work.

GARLAND: When you watch Steph Curry glide down the basketball court or Beyonce dance across the stage, it sure looks easy. But every step is a result of hours and hours of practice, discipline and determination.

TOTENBERG: Finally, it's time for the last song of the ceremony, "Try Everything" by Shakira.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh. Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) I'll keep on making them every day, those new mistakes. Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh. Try everything. Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh. Try everything. Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh. Try everything. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.