When Malia Obama, then 12, and her sister Sasha, then 7, started school January 5, 2009, at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., all eyes in the country were on that particular Quaker school, chosen over many illustrious vying institutions.
The news media pointed out that Chelsea Clinton had graduated from Sidwell, as well as the Biden grandchildren and some Al Gore progeny. Not only that, but I found out Vice-President Joe Biden had sent his children to Wilmington Friends School in northern Delaware, and that his enthusiasm for Quaker schools may have contributed to the Obamas choosing Sidwell.
I wondered: What is it that attracts the rich and famous to Quaker institutions of learning?
The website for Sidwell states, "The Quaker Belief that there is ‘that of God in each of us’ shapes everything we do at Sidwell Friends School. It inspires us to show kindness and respect toward one another. It motivates us to recognize and nurture each person’s unique gifts. It teaches us to apply our talents in service to others and to work courageously for peace."
The school’s web brochure says the school stresses a cooperative, rather than competitive, search for knowledge and believes that diverse perspectives and meaningful inquiry fuel academic excellence and promote personal growth. Each of its three divisions (lower, middle, and upper) stresses empathy, equity, and social justice in age-appropriate ways. Its unique diversity structure infuses equity and mulitculturalism into classroom practice, and stimulates creative inquiry, intellectual achievement, and independent thinking.
But I suspected the answer went deeper.
This past September, when I visited my longtime friend Violet Richman, she made the comment, "I’m so glad I finally get the chance to vote for Joe Biden!" As a Pennsylvania resident, she could not vote in a Delaware election, but now she could vote for him in the upcoming Presidential contest.
Violet had taught music at Wilmington Friends School for 27 years, retiring in 1991. So I called her and asked her about the Bidens. "Vice-President Biden’s brother, Frank, was a member of the class of ’72 at Wilmington Friends School," she replied. "His son, Beau, was in the lower school. His sister, Valerie Biden Owens, was a colleague. She taught social studies. Valerie was Joe’s campaign manager for his successful run for the Senate and continued for all the following years.
"Joe Biden spoke with classes frequently and with large gatherings of students and faculty even more frequently. He was always loquacious, engaging, colorful, energetic, generous, and patient, particularly during the question-and-answer times. He was a favorite guest speaker, a great storyteller. I believe he would have recommended Sidwell Friends to the Obamas."
My sister, Valerie Walker Peery, remembers Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of President Dwight Eisenhower, when they both were at Westtown Friends School. Susan was in the class of 1970, the class behind my sister’s. Valerie spoke to me about Susan in a recent phone interview.
"I talked with her on Alumni Day about some mutual interests we’d developed since graduation. I remember how the political science teacher held a mock election, and Susan took the Republican side, for Nixon. At Westtown, of course, the Democrats and Hubert Humphrey won in a landslide. But when Nixon won, she got leave to go to his inaugural. I was impressed that she made no excuses for having conservative or moderate opinions in a liberal school. It took a lot of character."
A highlight of my sister’s Westtown experience was when former President Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie, visited the school from where they lived in Gettysburg, landing by helicopter on one of the athletic fields. He addressed the school and shook students’ hands. "I was impressed that he talked to me and answered my question," she said, laughing. "I don’t remember what it was, now. And Susan’s brother, David Eisenhower, when he was engaged to Julie Nixon, visited Susan at Westtown and came with lots of Secret Service agents to our movie night."
Peter Lane, a retired Quaker teacher, counselor, recruiter, and coach at Westtown for 39 years, said in a telephone interview, "I had the pleasure of being Susan Eisenhower’s advisor when she was a junior. She seemed just like a normal, adolescent child. Her sister, Mary, was in the lower school. Eisenhower came with Mamie in 1967 for a day. He gave a wonderful speech. Coretta King’s sister, Edythe Bagley, who taught at Cheyney—her son Arturo was a student at Westtown. Herbert Hoover, who was a Quaker—his granddaughter Peg Brigham went to Westtown. Her husband is involved in Birmingham Meeting and they still live on Meetinghouse Lane [where the meeting is located]. Four of their children also went to Westtown. The Concept School on Route 926 was founded by Peg Brigham."
When asked what the attraction was for famous children, he answered, "We just didn’t make a fuss over them. They were kids just like others in the classes. The diverse student body makes a difference, too, in that we have many colors, creeds, and multinationals. We taught that everything both teachers and students said was worth listening to. When I coached soccer, we would impress on the players that team play, not crushing the opponent, was everything. Our team was a community and the other team was part of that community. We never countenanced knocking people down."
Lane continued, "We had a work program in the school and everyone had to do jobs. The very poor and the very wealthy all had to set tables, clean tables, etc., and the boarding students had to keep their areas neat. There also was dorm government, and students were on discipline committees and councils. And there was always that Quaker bit about respecting adults and students no matter what their background."
Rich Aldred, who lived at George School and who now works at Haverford College’s library, commented, "I guess my initial reaction is that they know quality when they see it; emphasis on character building; internationalism; a caring, quality faculty; with excellent academics and sports. The teachers I knew at George School who wrestled with the ethics of catering to the elite realized that they had a chance to positively influence future power brokers."
My own personal thought on the subject is that early on, back in the 1600s, Quakers renounced titles of all kinds and resolved not to be swayed or impressed by titles or lands, privilege or bloodlines. My ancestors, the Walkers, renounced their titles before joining the Religious Society of Friends, determined to consider the individual character of a person, not his or her outward trappings.
The colonies eventually saw as desirable an egalitarian society that the Quakers had long practiced. And though people in the United States idolize premier athletes, actors, singers, politicians, and the rich, and even though they may look longingly at British royalty, they still see "normalcy" as idyllic and essential in a healthy upbringing for their children. The Obamas want this normalcy for Malia and Sasha more than they want them to be idolized and their every move watched and every stitch of clothing copied by millions of girls nationwide.
I believe "that of God" in Malia and Sasha will be treasured and kept safe at Sidwell Friends, as many graduates of Friends schools can attest. Even Charlie Gibson, the network anchor who was reporting on the Sidwell Friends media story, said he was a graduate of Sidwell Friends and counted it as a great experience. As for myself, I attended Westtown and Friends World College, and my standout take-away experience is that of the overwhelming and awesome, non-judgmental acceptance youngsters feel in the open arms of loving Friends, teachers, and students.