[from Jack and Jill Politics]
We’ve heard from a few readers wanting more about Jack’s and my experience as blacks attending Sidwell Friends. I don’t know about Jack, but for me, going back to that time of my life is not always easy. But it’s importance I understand: It’s a small, very very small group of people who can claim this distinction as African-American Sidwell graduates as part of our background. So perhaps we can provide a unique insight into what Malia and Sasha (and their parents) are about to experience.
That said, I am a generation removed from the Obama girls and attended under very different circumstances so some of my experiences won’t quite relate I’m sure. Still DC is a town that changes slowly. I’d like to talk in this segment about a particular incident in time. One which, looking back, might even qualify as a tiny footnote in history. Once to which, I recommend, the Obamas pay close attention.
As a rule, I plan to avoid using names in order to protect the innocent during this series of which, oh my goodness, there’s years of material to mine. This story is an exception however if only because without the names, the story won’t make any sense. It also involves another rare bird at Sidwell – the African-American teacher. It’s the story of a school-sanctioned protest in front of the South African Embassy and its targets, then-Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester A. Crocker and his daughter who happened to be in my class – Rennie. (Note: readers appear confused so let me clarify that the Crockers are white.)
I was a mostly normal middle class kid before I arrived at Sidwell, like most (but significantly: not all) black kids at the time – on a scholarship. That first year starting in seventh grade, I was exposed to a new world of wealth and power I had no earthly idea existed coming from a quiet average DC suburb. As an example, I remember asking one of my classmates what she was doing for Easter. She told me excitedly how her family was headed to the Italian Alps for the holiday. As she chirped merrily about the skiing and the hot cocoa, I could barely hear her since my brain had already put the brakes on. I had to deconstruct what I was hearing: a) I had no idea there were Alps in Italy – was this some sort of secret only rich people knew about? b) was her family actually traveling away from other family for the holiday? Was that even – legal? I was doing the same thing for Easter I’d done my entire life and what I was confident I’d be doing every year after that which was drive over to my grandparents’ house in Baltimore for some ham & collard greens c) Skiing? I’d heard of skiing; I’d seen it on TV; I just had never known anyone who’d actually done it before.
Sidwell’s Middle School (5th-8th Grades) is where the education is perennially “experimental” for some reason. Currently, the main experiment is the rebuilding of the Middle School as a green building with a wetlands and solar panels on the roof. There also appears to be some sort of tablet laptop experiment going on. During my time, the experiment for 7th and 8th grades involved a fairly rigid tracking system in which the kids were separated into Team 1-4 depending largely on academic prowess. One took most of one’s classes only with one’s assigned team but you were allowed to socialize with other team members during sports, lunch and free periods. I was placed in Team 4, the most challenging academically. Also, we were instructed to call our teachers by their first names which made me very uncomfortable at first.
One teacher in Team 4 who shared that discomfort was one of my very few black teachers at Sidwell who insisted on being called Mr. E. African-Americans prize respect for elders culturally and frankly I was relieved not to have to call him by his first name like we were pals or something. Mr. E taught us, among other subjects, history. On learning about Rennie’s father, he conceived a plan whose brilliant strategy I only fully appreciated years later.
To read the rest of this story, click here.