So What If Sidwell's Elitist?
A graduate of the Obama girls’ new school defends its hallowed halls.
It’s not easy being a graduate of Sidwell. Often, I avoid mentioning it. But people get it out of me somehow. It begins innocently with, “Where are you from?” I say, “Washington, D.C.” They think that’s interesting, then ask, “Really? Downtown D.C.?” I say, “Just outside.” They say, “Where?” I say, “Near Connecticut Avenue,” then finally am forced to say, “Chevy Chase.” Then, they get it. Along with my blonde hair and blue eyes and white skin, they have me all figured out.
If they want to know where I went to school, I can give a half truth and say, “Public school.” (I went to one for half my education). But they press me, and I am forced to admit I went to Sidwell Friends. That elitist private school. I can’t run forever from my labels. Or can I?
Not only is it private, it has wealthy kids and is a Quaker school. The Quaker part confuses people and they usually dismiss it as just another religion.
But it’s a weird religion. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not all about oatmeal, or about not using electricity or wearing plain, dark clothes. It’s not about that at all. It’s not a religion whose most famous member was Richard Nixon.
Quakers are odd because they don’t have sacraments and they sit in silence.
They are strange because they use words like “consensus,” “mediate,” “peace," and “tolerance.”
Located on the edge of town, situated between city and suburb, Sidwell is racially diverse and has been for years. I attended in the ‘60s, and it is where I first learned about skin color—I lived a sheltered life in the suburbs where all the white people lived. People called neighborhoods like mine “vanilla suburbs,” and downtown Washington “chocolate city.”
In 1968, Washington experienced severe downtown riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination. We were in school when the riots broke out, and I was about to go home when I learned that a friend—an African American girl—could not go home because of the curfews from the riots.
She could not go home. She was black, I was white. I was safe, she was not.
It’s a different world now. I have changed, race relations have changed. Sidwell’s elitism is of a certain type—in the shelter of its walls, I learned to see race and respect what it means. It also taught me about privilege. That one can have it and use it, for better or worse. The Obama girls will benefit from the privilege, and thanks to their father, we will also benefit. From a new world.
So when I hear that presidents are sending their children to Sidwell, I cringe because I have to deal with it. I am forced to deal with my past again: am I elitist, as the media says? Why don’t the Obamas send their daughters to public school so I don’t have to deal with my inner elitist demons? Frankly, because despite the label elitist, my old school teaches kids.
It taught me about tolerance, about peace, about how to be friends with people of different backgrounds and skin color. It taught me how to treat everyone the same way: blondes, blacks, browns, smart, dumb, indifferent, elitist, populist, Marxist, capitalist. Even daughters of presidents.
Liza Donnelly has contributed cartoons to The New Yorker for 20 years. Her new book, A CARTOON MARRIAGE: Adventures in Love and Matrimony, which she created with her husband Michael Maslin, also a longtime New Yorker cartoonist, will be published next month by Random House on Valentine’s Day.