Margaret Spellings: In Her Own Class

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings with daughter Grace at a student concert at Carl Sandburg Middle School in Alexandria.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings with daughter Grace at a student concert at Carl Sandburg Middle School in Alexandria. (Jahi Chikwendiu - Twp)

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By Laura Blumenfeld
Thursday, January 26, 2006

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.


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