Friday, February 03, 2006

The Spellings Report: The Secretary Unplugged

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, also known as Earth Mother, and The Queen of All Testing, seems to have a human side after-all:
Margaret Spellings is the U.S. secretary of education, the former West Wing domestic policy adviser, the political protege of Karl Rove and the Texan friend of the president.

But to her teenage daughters, she is also something else -- "an anal-retentive chowderhead."

"Clean up the dishes, blah, blah, blah," Grace, 13, mimicked her mother in a sing-song voice.

"All you do is trash your room. Trash, trash, trash," sang Mary, 18, snapping her fingers.

Spellings, 48, the first mother of school-age children to be education secretary, comes home at night to Alexandria. "She's not the secretary at Bowling Drive," said Robert, 64, her lawyer husband.

Spellings's lesson plan: Educate America. Her homework is her home work.

On this evening, the Spellings family walked into the Carl Sandburg Middle School for a student concert. Grace would sing in the chorus, and Mary, on break from college, would play the flute. Parents and children streamed into the auditorium. The air was humid and filled with screeches.

"This is like going to the zoo," Spellings said, taking a seat near the rear. "Seventh- and eighth-graders are wild animals."

Spellings is blunter than you might expect, vivid and bigger, as if her photo had been cropped and enlarged. She is a tall woman swinging an iguana-green purse, wearing edgy rectangular glasses and chewing gum. (She spits it into the garbage when you arrive, as if you were the teacher.) Spellings scanned the crowd: "Colin's the little hottie of the school."

She had her babies without pain medication. She's a tough enough manager to be called a "bulldog on details" by Rove; strong enough to raise her girls as a single mom when her first marriage ended; brave enough to admit that she dreams of being a torch singer draped over a piano; Texan enough to live by the motto (on her notepad) "Put on your big girl panties and deal with it."

"Your favorite song is 'Clean Your Room, Mary,' " teased Mary as they watched the first chorus line up.

"Whoo!" cheered the seventh-graders.

"This whoopin' and hollerin' drives me crazy," Spellings said, running fingers through her thick blond hair. "Where are your manners?"

Middle school is tricky, Spellings said -- too many hormones and too loose a curriculum. When boys in white shirts and ties shuffled onstage, Spellings said, "They're so awkward, it cracks me up." Her own experience in seventh grade was "the low point of my life," she said. ". . . There's a lot of mush going on in middle school -- one of the nuts we haven't cracked in public education policy."

At home, Spellings counters mush with discipline. When Grace brought home "not so great" midterm grades, Spellings had her daughter write up a plan that hangs on the refrigerator: *Stay organized *Pay attention in class by not talking or passing notes *Listen to my tutor. On it, Spellings wrote: Grace -- Excellent plan! Love, Mom.

Beneath that, Grace drew a cartoon of her mother saying: I am the most Diva-fabulous princess of them all! Bow down to me fools! I am soon to be queen!
Heh. With self-proclaimed intestinal fortitude like that, maybe the secretary might actually try getting in front of a classroom full of kids and make an attempt at a little teaching sometime. A few hours with some actual school children and she might begin to understand some of the challenges that America's public school teachers confront every day.

Mortarboard Tip: Joanne Jacobs
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