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Figuring Out Elena Kagan - Her Early Years

By May 18, 2010

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Elena Kagan

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Did you know what you wanted to be as an adult when you were 17? Apparently Elena Kagan did. A week after her nomination to the Supreme Court by President Obama, interesting details of her life are emerging.

As president of the student body her senior year, she posed for a yearbook picture wearing a judge's robe and holding a gavel. She chose a quote from Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter to accompany her senior photo: "Government is itself an art, one of the subtlest of the arts."

AP reporter Beth Harpaz attended Hunter College High School along with Kagan, and Harpaz checks in with her fellow classmates to see if they remembered Kagan as she did -- a brilliant overachiever in a school of smart girls.

Single-sex in Kagan's time, Hunter College High School was an elite public high school that accepted students based on a rigorous entrance exam. Those who made up the Class of '77 (Kagan's year) were proud to be 'Hunter girls' and became doctors, bankers, professors in later life. Because it was open to girls citywide, Hunter's student body included an interesting cross-section of New York City.

According to Harpaz:

Hunter was an extremely diverse place...with kids of every race and ethnic background, from every neighborhood of the city, and every income level, from welfare to wealthy -- not a bad proving ground for a future judge to learn about the world...

[One student] called Elena "a great citizen" in school, and many classmates echoed that. One recalled Elena thanking her after she helped bring a group of girls together on a difficult class project. Another remembered Elena standing up to one of our most intimidating teachers, Ira Marienhoff, in social studies.

Even back then, Kagan was different -- more adult in her outlook on the world, and less swayed by the typical influences in a teenage girl's life. Harpaz notes:

One thing few classmates can remember is socializing with Elena out of school...we commuted to Hunter, and at the end of the school day, we went home to our neighborhoods, so there was less hanging out than at other schools. But still, we had parties, we went to concerts, we went shopping.

Elena was less caught up in that aspect of teenage life than most of us.

"The things that preoccupied even very smart teenage girls -- pop music and fashion -- were not terribly interesting to her," said Elizabeth Petegorsky, a clinical social worker who attended both elementary and high school with Elena.

Kagan's family background, early childhood influences, and high school and college experiences are detailed in my profile/bio of Elena Kagan. Read this and Harpaz's recollections of Kagan's teenage years and you'll have a good idea of who Elena Kagan is, where she came from, and where she might take the Supreme Court if she's confirmed as the court's fourth female justice.

Related article: Profile / Biography of Elena Kagan

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