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Anchorage teen speaks her mind to Supreme Court justice about immigration, civil rights

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 24
  • Published July 24

Olivia Tafs, 15, won an essay competition for the Western United States, comparing Japanese World War II internment to President Donald Trump’s travel ban, and got to read the essay to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch in San Francisco last week. (Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News)

No one who knew her would be surprised that at 15 years of age Olivia Tafs found herself on a dais with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, instructing him on the relevance of the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II to President Donald Trump's travel ban.

Tafs won an essay contest run by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers the West Coast and Pacific region, including Alaska. She read the essay at a judicial conference in San Francisco last week.

Gorsuch was a late fill-in speaker at the event. Since he was Trump's appointee and a supporter of his executive order limiting travel from a group of majority Muslim countries, some international media made a big deal that he had to listen to Tafs' essay. The Daily Mail of London called it a confrontation.

But it wasn't. Tafs is a polite and sensible girl. She had a pleasant conversation with Gorsuch.

Her essay reads like a Supreme Court brief, closely reasoned and deeply researched, without emotion or cliches. She explains the legal basis for the imprisonment of 100,000 Japanese Americans in 1942 and how such wartime abuses can return.

"The ability to discriminate against racial or ethnic groups in times of war remains a legal precedent and a part of America's national consciousness, and in the fight against terrorism we've seen how the instinct to profile and mistreat groups deemed 'the enemy' returns in times of conflict," she wrote.

"Remembering the lessons we learned after Japanese internment is essential today, as America struggles to find a balance between the safety of the masses and the standards of liberty and civil rights our country was built upon," Tafs continued.

Olivia talks with US Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch in San Francisco earlier this month where she read her award-winning essay comparing President Donald Trump’s travel ban to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. At right is Joshua Riel, who won in the video category of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ essay contest. (Courtesy of Cristina Tafs)

She told me she didn't expect to persuade Gorsuch, because he should make his ruling on the travel ban based on the U.S. Constitution, not her ideas. But she hoped the experience broadened his judicial viewpoint with real-world context.

What interested me more was what this taught me about education.

I worked with Olivia a few years ago in a writing group for my younger daughter's class at Chugach Optional Elementary School. Her talent and calm intelligence were already obvious in fifth grade.

In sixth grade, she won the Anchorage Daily News writing contest with a short story about refugees.

Another student in teacher Linda Biddle's class, with my older daughter, wrote about quarterbacks winning championship football games in every story for my group. I couldn't get him to write about anything else.

A few years later I picked up the newspaper and read that this student, Conor Feckley, by then a high school sophomore, had led West High School to its first football state championship. Although short of stature, Feckley went on to set records as a quarterback in his college football career at the Division III level.

"When I picked up that newspaper, I was not surprised at all," said Biddle, Conor's fifth- and sixth-grade teacher. "It was his Excalibur sword. He picked up that ball and he knew who he was. He recognized himself."

"I knew he was a frustrated little boy. How could I get him to recognize what he was good at?" she said. "Take that to your heart and know you can accomplish lots of things."

Biddle taught 25 years, including eight when each of my four children went through her fifth-sixth grade classroom.

As I look back on it, Tafs and Feckley's stories are not unique. An amazing group of young people came through that classroom before they were amazing.

This is the legacy of a great teacher. I wonder how many Excalibur swords Biddle helped her students find.

With Olivia Tafs, talent and bookishness were evident. Biddle just wanted her to laugh.

As I've written before, these highly gifted students can easily become miserably overcompetitive. Some rush to high academic levels quickly, arriving at the top as boring, dimensionless drones, or simply regretful they missed the fun of childhood.

Tafs was lucky neither Biddle nor her parents wanted that to happen. Biddle saw how Phil and Cristina Tafs fed and balanced their daughter's brilliance, giving her support and freedom.

"I want her to be a kid, encouraging her not to take every advanced class and difficult class there is. I want her to take pottery too, some of the fun stuff," said Olivia's father, Phil.

"I didn't have that much homework load, but I'm probably not as bright as my daughter," he said.

Phil said he and his wife still have frequent conversations about how to raise and develop their bright children — Olivia's younger brother, Paul, is following her in the highly gifted program at Romig Middle School.

Phil owns a business that works with young people with behavioral problems. Cristina is an attorney. She asks Olivia to read her appeal briefs for feedback.

Neither takes credit for their daughter's accomplishments. Olivia's interests and political views are her own, based on her extensive reading.

She had Brian Goudreau as a biology teacher at West. He uses discussion and individual exploration to develop a holistic view of science. Now Olivia wants to be a scientist.

She also had Adam Johnson at Romig. He taught her to write an essay. Ben Walker inspired her at Romig, too.

She learned about the immigrant experience from her Ecuadorian grandmother. Her award-winning short story — done for Biddle's class in sixth grade — shows that empathy.

Her award-winning persuasive essay shows her reasoning and research skill.

"She was like, 'I don't have that much homework right now, so I thought I might as well do the essay,'" recalls her father. "Which is not what I would have thought of when I was a kid."

The gifts this child received only began with her genes. Great teachers and thoughtful parents helped her get here, feeling comfortable with her own ideas and potential and eager to learn.

She can do a lot of good in her life.

"I definitely think I have a lot of options," she said. "I've got time to figure things out."

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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