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.

Constructively Engaging Chester

You see, Rennie’s dad, Chester Crocker was the principal architect of the Reagan administration’s “constructive engagement”  policy toward South Africa at the height of the anti-apartheid movement. It essentially went against the tide of public opinion and what we would consider basic morality in what has been termed a “fearlessly soft attitude…towards apartheid.” The idea was to stop pressuring South Africa on its intensifying oppression of its majority black population and gently nudge them through incentives rather than sanctions toward a better tomorrow.

Sidwell is a Quaker school. The “Friends” have as part of their religion certain primary values. Among those are justice, equality, tolerance, world peace and nonviolence. So you can see how Crocker’s policy would have hit at the very flashpoint of Quaker beliefs. It also happened to be extremely offensive to Mr. E. The African-American middle and upper classes traditionally have been supportive of the South Africans’ fight for equality and freedom given its similarities to our own struggle against Jim Crow and segregation in the United States.

Mr. E conceived of a Team 4 learning segment and associated field trip. Kids learn about current affairs starting in Lower School (elementary) so most kids had some awareness of South Africa’s political situation. Mr. E took us on a deep dive into South Africa’s socio-political dynamics and America’s role. We held discussions where we debated the pros and cons of apartheid for the citizens there. We came to our own conclusions that apartheid was very wrong. Mr. E told us about the history of the struggle against apartheid. We were informed that we would be protesting in front of the embassy as a school trip to our great delight. Permission slips and waivers were sent home. My parents, former civil rights activists themselves and educators, were so proud — baby’s first protest! There was a growing spirit of purpose and excitement for all of us in class save one person — Rennie Crocker.

Rennie was a sweet, soft-spoken, shy, studious and popular girl. This process slowly became exquisitely painful for her in the way that only sticking out can be when you’re 13. As we excitedly made posters and signs for our protest, thinking up snappy anti-apartheid, anti-U.S. government-position-on-apartheid slogans, Rennie became increasingly moody and withdrawn. When we all came to school waving our permission slips proudly in the air, Rennie murmured quietly that she wouldn’t be able to join us, “Because, you know, of my dad.” Rolled eyes, heavy sigh…sad, sad shoulder shrug. Reaction from us kids: sympathy that she was missing out mixed with “Sucks to be you! Laterz!”

On the day of the protest, we took about a half day of school and with our signs was driven in a Sidwell school bus down to protest. It was so incredibly fun. We had a great time and got lots of encouraging honks and cheers from passing cars. Local TV news covered it (I think) though I’m not sure about the papers. It got boring after a spell though and secretly we longed for a reaction from the Embassy — shamed that a group of determined children was chiding them on their inhumanity and injustice toward others. Mainly what we experienced was that we were not allowed to protest directly in front of the Embassy — a privilege that the South African gov’t had won from the Reagan administration for all protests.

During our fall adventure in global socio-politics and direct action, one girl sat alone in a classroom while her peers enjoyed the unforgettable experience of a lifetime. Rennie. While us kids were convinced that this exercise was all about learning and ethics and history and justice (which it was), I see now that Mr. E was leading the school in leveraging the presence of Chester Crocker’s daughter in his class to place direct pressure on the man and his now-discredited policies in the way that only a man’s daughter can. He was forced to explain in detail, unconvincingly apparently, why his position was correct and why her teacher, her school and all of her friends were somehow wrong in their assumptions and beliefs that apartheid was intolerable. He was forced to defend his lack of moral spine to one of the people who mattered most to him.

Of course we weren’t wrong. History has proven that we were right and Crocker was dead wrong. Only strict economic sanctions and diplomatic scorn would work against South African apartheid. Rennie, it should be noted on her permanent record (if I recall correctly), never spoke in defense of “constructive engagement” in class neither during nor after the protest. Her shame was palpable.

Yet, Crocker did not withdraw his daughter from Sidwell. She graduated with us. The academic reputation and sheer prestige of the school is so strong, no doubt he felt lucky his daughter hadn’t actually been thrown out. She’d also been at the school her entire life — to leave would have only highlighted the incident further in the public eye and would have only added trauma for his daughter.

Takeaways for the Obamas

Where’s the lesson for the Obamas? While the school explicitly supported Mr. E, that kind of thing — targeting a powerful parent’s politics indirectly — was not common at all. That 2 new, less ideologically driven, less offensive administrations came not too long after this may have helped. Also, African-American culture tends to be somewhat direct & um, confrontational — I’m not sure that other teachers would have felt driven to go beyond the obvious “teaching moment”. Other teachers likely had offered nuanced, pointed critiques, but only Mr. E found a way to hit Crocker where it hurt most. There’s saying and then there’s doing — and Mr. E did (with the school’s help). He inspired a lucky set of kids for a lifetime. This blog probably exists in part because of him. I know I’ll never forget Mr. E’s courage and commitment. The older I get, the more I appreciate his example.

I can only imagine the kind of hell any kids with parents in the Bush administration caught who may have been responsible for policies on some of the issues Friends really care a lot about like torture, Darfur, habeas corpus, the environment, stuff like that. Part of the Friends teaching model certainly includes strong awareness of the world around you and the affairs of the moment — and the moral values underpinning those affairs. Sidwell has a well-earned reputation for being liberal though — teachers are as likely to be former hippies and civil rights activists as they are former CIA officers and attorneys. I doubt many of the truly hardcore neocons would send their kids there. The “indoctrination” is effective: I later became an officer of Sidwell’s anti-apartheid club in Upper School (high school) which was mostly white btw.

The Obamas need to know that their children will become probably a lot better educated about their father’s government, beliefs and policies than they ever have before through going to Sidwell. At a minimum, they should be prepared to answer some direct & specific questions that don’t involve dolls, High School Musical, Gossip Girls, puppies nor slumber parties. No matter what reassurances administrators may give, politics is pervasive at Sidwell and really everywhere else in DC. Especially when the powerful mix.

Also, there are a very few African-American teachers at Sidwell and the Obama girls will necessarily have a slightly different relationship and experience with them than they will with their other teachers — just as I did as a kid. It’s a strange phenomenon but sometimes black Sidwell graduates come back to teach there. Teachers with that profile have the potential to become powerful allies, mentors and confidantes for the Obama girls as adults who will be able to understand the way few others there will some of the feelings they will experience. Because what Malia and Sasha will experience won’t be exactly like Chelsea Clinton’s road through Sidwell. It would probably help to have someone older, a keen observer who looks like them, who can ask at the right time: “How you doin, lil mama? What’s going on?” and respond with what it was like for him or her at Sidwell.

Finally, they’ll have to beware of people — teachers, parents and kids encouraged by their parents — who will want to drive their agenda through Malia and Sasha. Mr. E wasn’t trying to be subtle. But other people will. The Obama girls haven’t even arrived in DC and apparently people at Sidwell are already using them for their own gain:

On Saturday, Maret’s basketball boys were leading Sidwell Friends on the road when the home crowd taunted the visitors with a chant ripped from the headlines:

“The Sidwell kids started yelling ‘O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!’ at us,” a Maret parent who attended the game tells me.

The First Family Elect’s first major post-election decision, of course, dealt with where to send daughters Malia and Sasha to school. Most reports had Maret and Sidwell as the finalists in the Obama sweepstakes.

After tours of both, Sidwell landed the kids for next year. So while Malia and Sasha aren’t even enrolled there yet, they’re already cheerleaders. And what the Sidwell fans were telling Maret with their “O-ba-ma!” chant was: “Even if you whup us at hoops, we still beat you in a bigger game!”

The Maret parent says Maret’s administrators looked confused, and Sidwell’s bemused, as “O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!” rained down from the grandstand.

Just words? Hardly.

Couldn’t have said it better myself. It’s hard to understate the fiercely hard-bitten, bloodsport spirit of competition in DC’s private schools – particularly when it comes to social prestige and academics.

In my next article, I’ll probably rap to you about what it’s like being a “poor” black kid on scholarship (I never felt poor though before I went to Sidwell) versus being a black kid from a wealthier and perhaps even well-known black family attending Sidwell. What I’ll have to say will probably surprise you.

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