A Plebeian Guilt Complex

December 4, 2008

Susan B. Anthony once said, “If all the rich and all of the church people should send their children to the public schools, they would feel bound to concentrate their money on improving these schools until they met the highest ideals.” Much like the famous suffragette, I used to be a public school diehard who believed that no thinking person could in good conscience attend or send his or her children to a private school, while pretending to care about the quality of public education.
Before college I was the product of public schooling through and through: first in D.C., where I attended Northwest’s Murch Elementary until fourth grade (fun fact: Everything Is Illuminated author Jonathan Safran Foer is an alum); then in Madison, Wisconsin, until I graduated from Madison West High School (fun fact: the video for Jimmy Eat World’s “Work” was filmed there), with a brief stint at Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California. My parents were (and still are) staunch supporters of public education, and I looked down on anyone who thought either that they were too good for public school, or that private schools were superior in quality.
So when Barack Obama was elected and local parents, columnists, and bloggers started speculating about where his two daughters, Malia and Sasha, would attend school in the District—the top contenders were Sidwell Friends, Maret, and Georgetown Day, and the Obamas have since settled on Sidwell—my initial reaction was to claim that it was hypocritical for the president-elect to push for stronger public education while sending his daughters to a prestigious private school. I resented the implicit suggestion that public school is only good enough for other people’s kids.
But since entering college I’ve been called out several times on the fact that I chose to come to Georgetown rather than attend my hometown institution of higher education, the University of Wisconsin. I still think the reasons for my choice were good ones: I wanted a smaller school in a bigger city with a more diverse student body, I needed to get out of Madison, Georgetown had strong programs in the subjects I wanted to study, and I’d be lying if I said name recognition didn’t matter at all.
But in trying to prove that my choice was the right one—either to other people or to myself—I had to acknowledge that parents who send their kids to private schools do so for many of the same reasons I gave for choosing Georgetown. It would be unfair to overlook the fact that I grew up in places where my neighborhood public school rivaled the local private options, because not everyone has that luxury. I’m in no position to judge parents’ decisions about what’s best for their children.
At the beginning of freshman year, a high school friend of mine who now goes to Stanford started a Facebook group called “We All Go To a Private School Now, Bitches!” (Description: “As the war between public and private school spirals on, this group understands the small irony of the fact that now we all go to a private school. Just knowing this fact makes us chuckle in the shower as we hum a melody accompanied by the lyrics, ‘We all go to a private school now, bitches!’”)
It’s a kind of irony that rings true in many aspects of our lives, whether you go to Stanford or Georgetown or University of Wisconsin or no university at all. It could be your college or your car or your coffee, but we all have something that just doesn’t stack up that well against our personal and political barometers of how things ought to be. Maybe our reasons are good ones (tougher classes), and maybe they aren’t (Starbucks just tastes better than fair trade). I still think that in an ideal world, our public school system would be able to provide the best possible education for all kids, but for right now, I’m willing to admit that making hard and fast rules about the right way to do things impedes rather than expedites progress.
Seriously, though. Sidwell?

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