There is an old-world courtliness to J. Machelle Sweeting. She speaks of being “reared in the village of Harlem.” She pays formal visits to former elementary school teachers, now old and frail, and mentors teenagers she decides will benefit from her tutelage. Beneath her perfect manners — and confident manner — lie lessons imparted and learned decades ago in elementary school. She credits her parents, of course, but the teachers of Harlem’s PS 46 took it from there. They melded sky-high expectations with tough love. The combination transformed a shy, smart child from the Polo Grounds, the public housing project where she lived, into the Hon. J. Machelle Sweeting, a Civil Court judge assigned to Family Court. And Sweeting won’t allow anyone to forget it: “I called the new principal recently to let her know the legacy of PS 46 and the success stories that came out of that awesome school,” the Harlem resident says, laughing cheekily. “I also said I was here if she needed anything.”
My mother is a third-generation Harlemite and my father, who died two years ago, was a former policeman in the Bahamas who worked as an accountant here. There were always books in the house. In those days, you could order the Encyclopedia Britannica one by one. We couldn’t afford it, but we ended up with the complete set. Kids would come to our house to research projects. We were their Google.
I had awesome teachers one after the other at PS 46 in the 1980s, and I realize now that it wasn’t just the teachers and the principal, but that they created an environment, a sort of ecosystem of safety and hard work and a road map to success. Equally important, the teachers lived in the neighborhood where they taught. We saw them in the supermarket or at the local theater or walking down the street. They made themselves visible, living examples of how to conduct yourself.
I’m still in contact with my 3rd-grade teacher Miss Shirley Scott. She has two sisters and to this day they all dress exactly alike. She was amazing — from the pocket watch she wore on a chain around her neck, to her hair parted severely down the middle, to her ability to command a room without ever raising her voice. Another memory of Miss Scott: She had her own niece in the classroom, and no one knew it because Miss Scott was as tough on her as on the rest of us. She had us reading poetry, including Langston Hughes, and she would put him and his art in context. I remember our principal, Miss Edythe Ford. We could hear her thunder through the halls in high heels. She is dead now, but I still can hear her footsteps and see her in her pantsuits. She could orchestrate control of the entire school simply by pointing her finger.
There was no slipping or sliding for any of us academically. These women expected you to rise to the material, and we did. You see, this was not a job for these teachers; this was their lifetime commitment to the kids of a neighborhood that often didn’t offer us a picture of what success looked like. I mean, I lived in an apartment where the elevator rarely worked and I had to climb the stairs. These teachers knew what we were up against and they weren’t going to let us down.
An important piece in all this was that you could distinguish the teachers from the students. The way they dressed, the way they carried themselves. They were not our friends. They were our teachers.
I was what you’d call today, a scholar athlete. I ran track and did well academically. In 6th grade, my teacher Miss Rosa Lee Adamson played a big part in my life and what was crazy was I don’t even know how she did it: She got me a scholarship to a school in Manhattan, from which I graduated.
Recently I was nominated to the state Supreme Court, and I respectfully declined. I’m assigned to Family Court now and I love it. I hear cases on custody, visitation, orders of protection and guardianship of children. As these astonishing women were called to teach, I feel called to stay in Family Court where I can help families who are fractured. I love jigsaw puzzles. I see it as an opportunity and an honor to piece families together again.
— As told to reporter Christina Cheakalos.