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June 02, 2007

Barack's Mom and Mercer Island High

Barack Obama occasionally throws out the line that his mother went to Mercer Island High School when he is in Seattle.  An industrious reporter from Chicago, Tim Jones, took that time to come to town and interview former classmates and teachers.  The resulting article is one of the most interesting and balanced political pieces I've read.  The portrait of Stanley Ann Durham, Barack's mother, is fascinating.  She is drawn as a young woman of pronounced independent thought.  Much of that appears to have come from her father, the elder Stanley, who clearly had wanted a son. 

But much of Obama's Mom's curiousity and openness to the world came from a unique set of teachers who emphasized critical thinking and independent thought.  During those years, Mercer Island High School had one of the best sets of teachers in the country.

Here is some of what her old classmates from her years at Mercer Island said of her, from the Chicago Tribune article:

"She was not a standard-issue girl of her times. ... She wasn't part of the matched-sweater-set crowd," said Wall, a classmate and retired philosophy teacher who used to make after-school runs to Seattle with Dunham to sit and talk -- for hours and hours -- in coffee shops.

"She touted herself as an atheist, and it was something she'd read about and could argue," said Maxine Box, who was Dunham's best friend in high school. "She was always challenging and arguing and comparing. She was already thinking about things that the rest of us hadn't."

I venture to say that without that grounding in thinking for herself, she may well not have married an articulate, brilliant black man from Kenya and given birth to a baby boy whom she then raised mostly by herself. 

Her philosophy teacher at Mercer Island (and later, mine), Jim Wichterman, remembers her as someone who talked "from the shoulder" as he thinks Barack does as well.  He said that the teachers sometimes called her "Stanley Steamer".  (And, if you know someone who attended Mercer Island High during the sixties, send them the link to this article.  They will love the video of Wichterman, a teacher that all of us who went to Mercer Island High remember as a tremendous influence on our lives.)

So yes, I lived on Mercer Island all my growing up years, back when lower middle class families could afford to live there, and had the benefit of one of the best school systems in the country.

Which brings me to the point of this piece.  Wouldn't it be nice if this country prepared all our students with the kind of quality education that Barack's mother and those of us who went to Mercer Island High received?  Wouldn't it be nice if families from all classes consistently had access to excellent teachers as we did?  Wouldn't it be nice if we could rebalance the priorities of this country so that we put money into education and quality teachers, and good transportation and universal healthcare and . . . rather than on interfering in the internal politics of countries half way across the globe at tremendous cost to our military, our reputation and the people we interfer with?

Posted by Lynn Allen on June 2, 2007 at 08:46 AM in Candidate Races, Policy | Permalink


I'd settle for treating minds like Stanley Ann Durham's as hers was - as the precious thing they are. I recently had an unsettling conversation with my sister about what my nieces have been learning. They are going through the same school system we did many years ago. It was, at least in our day, considered a good school district. It used to have an "honors" program for exceptional students that made sure they learned basic science, mathematics, and social sciences before they graduated. Much of what I learned in my first year of college was a repeat of what I'd learned in high school.

This program no longer exists.

As in many schools, they've done away with the idea of trying to teach the exceptional minds as much as they can handle, and instead tuned the cirriculum to the least common denominator. Even though, if anything, my nieces need to learn more than we did a generation ago, they are being taught less. Considerably less, I'd say, at least when it comes to mathematics and science.

I grew up on the East Coast, not out here. I've heard variations of Lynn's tale and my sister's from a variety of people and places in this country. To an outside observer, it certainly appears that we've decided that everyone will learn the same thing in public schools, and what they learn will be what the middle of the pack can learn comfortably. I was bored even in our school's honors program; I can only imagine what my nieces are going through.

I agree wholeheartedly that we should try to make the most of every mind that enters public school, but part of the process of doing that is to recognize that not all minds are the same. Differences in intelligence, ambition, and attention span make for different learning challenges. What works for Einstein isn't going to work for Larry the Cable Guy (the character, not the actor who plays him), or for John Elway (who strikes me as very bright but not terribly intellectual). But I think the saddest thing about what's happened in the last thirty years is that we've abandoned the brightest minds in our society to either the sort of stultifying environment they'll find in most public schools, or to private schools that are often run by churches for their own purposes. Very few people can afford to send their children to the sorts of "academies" that will make the most of their ability to learn. Those minds are the most precious resource we have. We need to make the most of them.

Posted by: Cujo359 | Jun 2, 2007 11:01:53 AM

Well said, Cujo. That approximates my public high school experience [too many] years ago. Result: a H.S. valedictorian who almost flunked out of grad school for lack of study habits I didn't need to develop in H.S. I wonder how much more I might have contributed to the world if I had been challenged early? Multiplied by how many more bright kids? What a waste of human potential.

Posted by: op99 | Jun 3, 2007 12:22:51 PM

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