As I overlook the snow falling in Washington this afternoon, I am reminded of January 7, 1996, when a blizzard dumped 20 to 30 inches of snow in my hometown in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and forced the closure of schools and businesses for several days.
I was in fourth grade at the time, and my mother, in an attempt to keep her three kids occupied while also preventing learning loss, decided to give me and my two siblings encyclopedia assignments. The assignment was simple enough. She assigned us a letter, and we were to pick a topic in the the print encyclopedia (yes, we still had print encyclopedias in the 1990s) with that letter and prepare a short presentation.
She assigned me the letter “C.” I serendipitously opened the encyclopedia to the entry on the Constitution and prepared my oral report. As luck would have it, when I returned to school, my teacher discussed the three branches of the United States Government. Since I was now a self-proclaimed constitutional scholar (at the tender age of 8), I was able to correctly answer all of the questions he posed to the class. As a stereotypical A-type personality, I decided then and there that I was on to something with this whole Constitution thing, and, perhaps, I should keep studying it and, therefore, answering questions correctly.
From that moment at the age of 8 onward, I developed a deep abiding love and appreciation for the Constitution. I would go on to study student speech issues in middle and high school, and even started a “Constitution club” in high school, where students could gather after school to discuss pressing constitutional issues.
In college, I was awarded a research fellowship to study the development of the “clear and present danger” standard. As part of my research, I traveled around the country and met with a number of leading first amendment scholars. This experience demonstrated to me the importance of discussing the contours of constitutional rights.
In law school, I created Constitutional Conversations, an award-winning, non-partisan, community-based education program in partnership with the Institute of Bill of Rights Law, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and the Williamsburg Regional Library system. The program sent law students into the community to educate citizens about their constitutional rights and responsibilities. The program continues at William & Mary Law School today.
Today, I have the privilege of serving as executive director of The Constitutional Sources Project. Through my work over the last 5 years, I have had the opportunity to teach thousands of citizens about the Constitution and our nation’s constitutional history.
Several years ago, a young woman emailed me about the Constitution for a paper she was writing in her middle school class. In that email, she wrote “Dear Constitution Lady…” I think the name fits, and so have adopted it as my unofficial title as I travel the country discussing the Constitution.
I can thank the Blizzard of 1996, my mother, and a print encyclopedia for setting me on this lifelong journey. I believe my work has never been more important than it is now, and look forward to continuing to promote constitutional literacy in the years ahead!