Vernell Garvin wasn’t surprised that President Barack Obama tapped Merrick Garland to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. She already knew the judge was among the smartest people in the country.

Garland is, after all, really good at algebra. He’s even pretty strong at language arts.

“When I have problems with my math homework, he’ll help me with that,” said Vernell, a fifth grader at J.O. Wilson Elementary School in Northeast D.C. “He’s a very good person. He never does anything wrong. He deserves the job.”

Garland has volunteered at this D.C. elementary school regularly for the past 18 years, and he has tutored Vernell for the past five years, arriving at the school every other Monday at 2:30 p.m. He started tutoring a second student last year, fifth-grader Jenifer Morales Garcia.

On Saturday, the White House released a video about Garland’s work at J.O. Wilson along with a statement from a teacher who has worked with him there for the past decade, a move that aims to promote the Supreme Court nominee as more than a jurist.

“For me, this is about so much more than tutoring,” Charlene Wilburn, a teacher at J.O. Wilson, said in a statement the White House released to The Washington Post on Saturday afternoon. “It’s about our children having another adult in their lives who encourages them when they need it, supports them when they falter, and tells them to never give up on their dreams.

“I’ll tell you what I appreciate most about this man: He never asks for recognition, or fanfare. He just does what he committed to do,” Wilburn said in the statement. “He even convinced some of his staff to volunteer too, so now we have a whole group of volunteers that come down from his office to help.”

In the video, Garland said that every year Wilburn finds him a student who she thinks he would fit best with and he stays with that student a couple of years, until they graduate. Then he works with another student.

“This is an opportunity to actually affect a child’s life,” Garland said in the video. “It’s an enormous thrill to see somebody move from being a hesitant reader to being a good reader, from being a hesitant person working with mathematics to being somebody who is reasonably confident about it, from being hesitant about writing to writing full paragraphs and complete stories.”

The school’s principal, Heidi Haggerty, said Garland prefers to build relationships with students, working closely with just one or two of them for many years. He once tutored a girl at J.O. Wilson throughout her time at the elementary school, then he continued working with her when she moved on to middle school.

The plan is for Garland to continue tutoring Vernell after she moves to middle school next year. But if he makes it through what promises to be an arduous Senate nomination process, it’s unclear if his schedule as a Supreme Court justice would allow him to continue.

“I think the message that he sends to his student is that you are valuable, you are important, you are worth it to me,” Haggerty said. “When he’s here, he’s like everyone else. He’s part of the community.”

Garland, 63, is from the Chicago suburbs, was valedictorian of his public high school and attended Harvard University for his undergraduate and law degrees. He was a prosecutor in the legendary D.C. case that landed Mayor Marion Barry in jail on drug charges and later oversaw the prosecution of the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995. He now serves as the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

In Obama’s announcement of Garland as a nominee, he praised Garland for his “civic mindedness, mentoring his clerks throughout their careers, urging them to use their legal training to serve their communities, setting his own example by tutoring a young student at Northeast D.C. elementary school each year for the past 18 years.”

Garland joins a list of Washington power players who have been involved in the local D.C. community, including the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who was a regular at Brent Elementary School in Capitol Hill, where he often brought his dogs and read to the children in the library.

But Garland also gets his staff involved. He requires the lawyers who clerk for him to tutor at the school, telling them that if he can make time for public service, so can they, Haggerty said.

The school — a largely African-American elementary in the D.C. Public School system — has a partnership with the D.C. Court of Appeals, with about four groups of lawyers tutoring the students each month. But no volunteer is as consistent in meeting with the children as Garland, according to school staff.

Garland even invited Wilburn to attend the president’s announcement of his nomination at the White House this week.

“At first I was so shocked, it didn’t make any sense. I felt so honored that he asked me to be there,” Wilburn said in an interview with The Post. “As a teacher, you can really see someone who wants to help the kids, and they make that connection. He does everything he can to motivate the kids.”

Vernell and Jenifer, both 11, described Garland as smart, funny and someone who “looks important.” They say he cracks jokes, chats about his two daughters and always brings a deck of cards with him in case they finish their homework and have time to play.

He asks them about their aspirations, and encourages them to work hard to reach their goals. Jenifer wants to be an artist, and Vernell wants to be a dancer. Now, the two students say, they are both considering becoming lawyers.

“He tells us to never give up on our dreams,” Vernell said. “He has a lot of inspiration in his heart and mind.”

Here’s the full statement the White House released Saturday, from Wilburn:

From: Charlene Wilburn
Subject: Why I’m so proud the President chose him
I’ve been a public elementary school teacher for 29 years. In all that time, I’ve never known a more dedicated volunteer than Judge Merrick Garland.
That’s why it was such a joy to see President Obama name him to serve on the Supreme Court.
Now, as a teacher, I come across a lot of people who talk about putting children first. But Judge Garland is someone who puts his words into action.
I met Judge Garland nearly 10 years ago when I started teaching at the same elementary school in D.C. where he volunteers. He wanted to find a way he could make the most impact on the lives of children in need, so he offered his time as a tutor.
He came down to our school every other week, working one-on-one with students for an hour during the day to help them with reading, math, or any other lesson. After doing this week after week for 10 years, he’s now the longest serving volunteer tutor I’ve seen at this school.
For me, this is about so much more than tutoring. It’s about our children having another adult in their lives who encourages them when they need it, supports them when they falter, and tells them to never give up on their dreams.
I’ll tell you what I appreciate most about this man: He never asks for recognition, or fanfare. He just does what he committed to do. He even convinced some of his staff to volunteer too, so now we have a whole group of volunteers that come down from his office to help.
Now that’s character. I think our world would be a much better place if we had more people as committed to the idea of service as Judge Garland.
Thank you for listening,
Charlene
Charlene Wilburn
Washington, D.C.


[This article has been updated to include the White House’s release and video.]