18 January 2009

DC, Then & Now

In his column in today’s New York Times, Frank Rich looks back to his childhood in Washington, DC, and even mentions his attendance at Woodrow Wilson High School, which was also my high school. But Rich describes an environment that was the opposite (and precursor) to the one I knew: in my time—after desegregation, and in the era of Marion Berry—white (to say nothing of Jewish) kids were the minority population at Wilson.

I cannot speak to what Wilson is like these days; I’m too far removed. I can say that the new schools chancellor in Washington, Michelle Rhee, would certainly have been welcome when I was growing up. While Wilson was generally well-run (under the firm hand of then-principal Michael Durso), the impact of the mess within the broader school system was evident. One year, our English teacher missed about a quarter of the school year—but no amount of action by motivated parents (some of whom were lawyers) could dislodge her from her post, in the face of the intransigent teachers union. So the teacher kept her job, and we the the students suffered. In my senior year of high school, our island of (relative) calm was shattered by the first shooting of its kind to come across the transom. That seemed to me the beginning of the end.

The DC that Frank Rich grew up in has changed, but many things remain. Rich describes a place that is now and was then very segregated, such that growing up in the northwest part of Washington was and is like living in a different place altogether.

Obama’s election and soon-to-be inauguration is stunning, nearly as thrilling for me imagine as it is for Rich. Whether Obama’s arrival in the White House can change the nature of the capital city is an interesting question indeed. Entrenched DC politics, and out-of-date mindsets, may prove harder to conquer than the current financial crisis, but one can hope.

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