Story of Prominent Private School, Sidwell
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For more than a century, Sidwell Friends School has nurtured the offspring of Washington politicians, philanthropists, ambassadors, and prominent journalists. As to why the Quaker institution has had such a strong pull for the local power crowd, those who know it best—alums, parents, educators—usually cite the school's high academic standards and the diversity of the student body. But also, perhaps most intriguingly, they talk about the power of silence.
As in, no "O" word.
No one within the Sidwell community talks about President Obama's daughters being students at the school (much less about his coaching Sasha's basketball team). Such pedestrian gossip would, as several people put it, "be un-Quakerly."
In 2008, when the White House announced that Malia and Sasha would be enrolling at Sidwell (joining three of Vice President Biden's grandchildren), The New York Times called it the Harvard of Washington's private schools. Forbes referred to Sidwell as "the latest distinguished darling for political parents."
But long before the Obama girls, or even Chelsea Clinton and Albert Gore III, Sidwell boasted first-family headliners such as Julie and Tricia Nixon; Archie Roosevelt, son of Teddy Roosevelt; William Henry Harrison, descendant of two presidents; and Herbert Hoover's son Allan. (Even Nancy Reagan attended lower school there.)
And while JFK's children were schooled at the White House, their older cousins attended the school. Catherine O'Neill Grace, a Sidwell student at the time, recalls how on the day of Kennedy's assassination, Ethel Kennedy came to get her sons Robert Jr. and Joe out of assembly, and how the middle school principal asked parents in the carpool pickup line to turn off their radios until the Kennedy boys could hear the news from a family member.
Name-dropping is hard to avoid at this school, since so many parents are A-listers; in short, everybody is somebody at Sidwell. But regardless of prominence, globe-hopping schedules, or security details, all Sidwell parents are expected to take an active role in their children's school experience. The Obamas may be the most recognizable faces in the bleachers, but they are just part of Washington's most plugged-in PTA.
Natalie Wexler, an author whose daughter graduated from Sidwell in 2009, wrote a novel called The Mother Daughter Show, published last year, that skewered some of the parental clique-chic jostling. The book revolves around a long-time Sidwell tradition, now ended, in which all the mothers of senior girls wrote and performed a musical show about their daughters' experiences. Like one of her characters, Wexler was first tasked with writing the show; although most her script survived, many of her songs were cut (she "recycled" a few of them for the book). In Wexler's novel, there is a presidential daughter named Marina Miyama. Her father is the first Asian-American president, liberal and glamorous. When one mother writes a song about Miyama to the tune of "Maria" from West Side Story, she is slammed by more PC parents. "While some mothers had good experiences working on the show, I know that over the years there have been many who did not," says Wexler (who also says she was assured by the school that it had decided to jettison the show before the book came out). "One woman told me she would routinely come home in tears after the planning meetings, and others who were involved in the show decades ago still find their memories of it painful."
PHOTOGRAPHY BY GETTY IMAGES (nixons; clintons)
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.