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Sam Smith: Flotsam & Jetsam

Sam Smith: Flotsam & Jetsam

Flotsam & Jetsam

By Editor Sam Smith

THOSE WHO WATCHED 'West Wing' this week will recall that President-Elect Santos and his wife are looking for a school for their children. They wisely passed on St. Albans - purveyor of three Bushes plus a Kerry and Gore - as too "stuffy." After a brief discussion about the weaknesses of the DC public school system, they decide to visit one its units. To your editor's pleasure, they picked John Eaton, attended by both his sons and of which he was once president of the parents' association.

The school was described as about 40% black and 20% latino. Back in the mid-1970s it was approximately 20% black and 20% latino in a predominately white neighborhood. The rest included children from 34 countries.

The curriculum at the school was colored by two impressive biases. One was a prejudice towards writing. The kids were always writing something: diaries, plays, stories, speeches, advertisements. The school clearly understood the shortest route to good writing: do it. The other emphasis was the arts, particularly drama and music. With excellent teachers and adequate time, the kids threw themselves into their projects as though Broadway, rather than high school, was the next step. The encouragement came right from the top - not only from the principal but from Mr. Urqhart, her administrative assistant, who - dressed in his most colorful suit - would sing a single applause-stirring number in his mellow bass voice in each of the big shows - the only adult permitted to thus intrude.

I became conscious of how serious the dramatic side of Eaton was one day as I was taking a group of 4th graders home from an event. One kid stepped carelessly into the street and a companion called her back, saying, "Be careful, you could ruin your whole life that way.' Another added, "yeah, or even your career." Once safely in the car, there commenced the sort of surreal debate that only the young can withstand. The topic (clearly involving the stage rather than lesser trades) was: what is more important - your life or your career?

By that time I was ready from anything from the kids. One boy had appeared on the McNeil Lehrer Show with his father to discuss child finances. I asked him afterwards how it went. He said, "Well, they seemed kind of nervous. I don't think they ever had a kid on the show before." He ended up in Hollywood.

Over the next twenty years, the number of children in DC would decline by over 100,000 or 45%, although the central school administration would almost double. It was the largest demographic shift in the city but passed virtually unnoticed. The impact, however, didn't. Where once the school board had been the minor league for major politics, now fewer even knew who was on it. The parent constituency dwindled and eventually DC would become a majority childless city. Without power or allies, the school system suffered badly.

But I still hear good things about John Eaton School and would recommend it to President-elect and Mrs. Santos. And there are precedents. Jimmy Carter sent his daughter to a DC public school and one of my predecessors as president of the parents' association was Joan Mondale, wife of the soon to be vice president.

Besides if you put some kids on the show, they might let you back for another season, as well they should. And the kids at John Eaton would undoubtedly be happy to help you out with the performance.




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