POLITICS NOVEMBER 25, 2008
Until this month, I never quite realized I had become a loyal alumnus. In the nearly two decades since I’d graduated from my private high school, I’d thought of the place often, and fondly--though usually with that embarrassed sort of affection that a certain class of liberals feel for those essentially inegalitarian institutions responsible for making us the worldly folks we are today.
Then a funny thing happened just after the election: The new First Family was looking for a school, and all of a sudden the chattering class was chattering about old alma mater. This was especially odd for someone who was a student at Georgetown Day School during the Reagan years, when my friends and I felt bonded to the place precisely because the pizza-strewn hallways and my Manic Panic-haired classmates made it seem like precisely the sort of place a president would want to avoid. Now old friends forwarded around breathless articles about the search--a Huffington Post page here, a New York Times column there. David Brooks called the school “posh” and “leftish,” the former term news to anyone who remembers the 1980s-vintage public-toilet exterior of the high school building, the latter nonetheless triggering a little jolt of belated pride.
And then it struck me, in all its absurdity: I was rooting for the most powerful man in the world to send his kids to my extraordinarily expensive private school. Not so leftish, as instincts go. But very loyal!
As it turned out, alums weren’t the only ones interested. According to a raft of news accounts, the decision was a matter of obsessive interest to the elite Washingtonians whose own kids might wind up being classmates with the first-daughters-elect, the prospect of rubbing elbows with the Obamas at parent-teacher conference night proving utterly intoxicating. “For a town that measures itself in increments of power,” the Washington Post’s report concluded, “such proximity is priceless.”
This logic, I think, gets it backwards. For denizens of D.C.’s private-school universe, the lingering fascination isn’t so much about what the new president can do for the school. Rather, it’s about what the choice of schools says about the new president. Within its own absurdly limited sphere, the costly collection of schools has a baroque sociological taxonomy. Ambitious Washingtonian careerism may be key to paying the bills, but where a Beltway blowhard’s kids go to school says something about that blowhard’s private values and ambitions. Same goes for the bright new couple from Chicago. Like learning about their favorite TV show or bedside reading library, it’s a chance for some insight on who they are.
For nerdy liberal types who’ve just shuddered through the Bush years, the desired answer, of course, is: A lot like me.
The initial reports held little surprise. The Obamas were said to favor coed schools, which eliminated sporty, country-clubby Maryland campuses like Holton-Arms, alma mater of Gerald Ford’s daughter, as well as most of the big D.C. Catholic schools, such as Gonzaga, the Jesuit boys’ school whose brawling alums include Pat Buchanan. It also meant a no to National Cathedral, sister school of Washington’s most famously elite private school duo, along with Saint Albans. Their parent politics are likely much more pro-Obama than at the other single-sex institutions, but the blazer-clad aesthetics decidedly are not.
There was talk, of course, that the couple would take a gander at the public schools, but even in the thinly-sourced reporting about the hunt, that seemed far-fetched--like circulating the name of some constituency-pleasing potential nominee that everyone knows will never be named to the Supreme Court. On the other hand, there was no need for even a courtesy-mention of Potomac, the bucolic Virginia private school reported to be a popular spot among wealthy Bush appointees who lived in McLean. The major Democrat associated with the place? Terry McAuliffe. ’Nuff said.
Thus the choice apparently came down to a handful of Northwest D.C. schools known for earnest politics, high SATs, and higher prices. Michelle Obama was rumored to have visited Maret, initially founded as a French school, but never had the buzz of to the two early favorites: Sidwell Friends, where Bill and Hillary Clinton sent their kid. And Georgetown Day, where my parents sent theirs. Objectively, the two schools have a great deal in common, right down to the parking lots full of Volvos adorned with Obama campaign stickers and Oberlin decals. But beneath the surface, in matters of style and aesthetics and the sorts of symbolism that are so silly that only devotees pay any attention, there are some pretty big differences. Not unlike a certain recently concluded Democratic primary battle.
And here my unexpected rush of boosterism kicked in, right alongside the vanity of small differences. In the analogy, my alma mater would have to be Obama to Sidwell’s Hillary Clinton. Race is at the center of the school’s identity: It was founded by New Deal liberals dismayed that the capital’s public and private schools were all segregated. The kids call their teachers by their first names. There’s no football team. There’s no dress code. It doesn’t, to coin a phrase, look like all those other Ivy-funneling private schools on a $20 bill. That a president would plunk his kids among its twitchy, blazer-free overachievers would represent change indeed--a countercultural revolution, or at least what passes for it in the $27,000-a-year tuition zone.
Sidwell, on the other hand, was the sort of place presidents already sent kids. It was founded by old Quakers, not New Dealers. They call teachers “Mister,” though the teachers are pedagogically up to date all the same. They have a football team, though not a famously fierce one. Surely, I reasoned, the Obamas would see it for what it was: Private-school triangulation! When I was growing up, self-styled campus activists at Georgetown Day would claim that any unpopular new school-administration policy was a sign of the leadership’s desire to transform our school into an ersatz Sidwell, all establishmentarian and proper. Obama, that great restorer of liberal confidence, wouldn’t follow in its Clintonian educational footsteps, would he?
In the real world, people--at least those folks with a choice--have all kinds of reasons for sending their kids to one school or another. Maybe the commute is easier. Maybe junior loves theater. Maybe mom always wanted her kids to study Russian. That’s especially true, I’d imagine, for presidents, who have security to think about, too. Outsiders may judge, but it’s never all about any one thing.
But of course, I would say that: My school lost. The news, not yet official, was reported last week, around the same time as the confirmations that Hillary Clinton would accept the job of Secretary of State. And in both cases, my first thoughts had little to do with either education or foreign policy. I was livid about the nomination of a woman still unapologetic about her Iraq war vote, and I veered into anxious thoughts about Obama abandoning the New Dealers and the integrators and the Democratic Wing of the city’s elite Democratic private schools. How could he?
So this is where school loyalty leads, at least on the level of political symbolism: You wind up feeling rejected because the President of the United States chose one powerhouse private-school over another. Better, I think, to revert to my old, vaguely embarrassed version of alumni affection. Here’s hoping Obama sees the differences between all the choices as less significant than a certain narrow stratum of D.C. natives does.
Michael Schaffer is the author of the upcoming One Nation Under Dog.