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Margaret Spellings: In Her Own Class

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.

"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!

In Spellings's world, activities fall into two categories: "must-to-do's" and "nice-to-do's." You must make your bed, before you can e-mail friends. (Mary said she is the only student in her dorm who makes her bed. "I'm so proud, Mary. That makes me so happy," Spellings said, her voice soaring.)

She uses the same management tools at the Education Department. In school districts that rate "need improvement" under the No Child Left Behind Act, "it's like with Grace: You're not going to play soccer till you clean your damn room. With these chief education officers, I've let them go to the movies; now I better see a clean room."

And they clean it, Spellings said: "Bribery is the cornerstone of good parenting. And good management."

If home life has helped her manage work, work life has helped her at home. When Mary and Grace moved to Washington, they missed their friends and their father in Texas. Mary told her mother she had ruined Mary's life.

That's when the president sat down with Mary and Grace. According to the girls, Bush said: "It's really important that you stay here, girls. I need your mother." Mary and Grace said it wasn't fair; the son of senior adviser Karen Hughes moved back to Texas. The president said, "Well, he's whinier than you."

Spellings, meanwhile, struggled with her own doubts, and her daughters helped her. "She would say, 'What am I doing here? I'm in the freakin' White House!'" Mary said. Grace added: "She would say, 'I don't have a PhD, and there are all these people who went to Ivy League college for nine years working under me.' " Spellings still carries a note from Grace from inauguration night: Mom, I am so proud of you!! Thank you for letting me go the ball, but I'm going to sleep cause I feel like crap . . .

At the Carl Sandburg auditorium, it was time for Grace's chorus to sing. Grace wouldn't tell her mother where she was going to stand. "Mom's always, like, blowing kisses and waving," explained Mary, who was testing her flute.

The next minute Mary was onstage, playing in the spotlight. Grace sang, chin up, her brown hair gleaming. And for a moment, Spellings, who shuns all corn and sap, put her hand on her heart. Her babies -- whom she'd nursed for a year, and fed hand-mashed carrots instead of jarred food -- were flying.

Then the family got in the car and drove home.

"You say things that aren't cool, like 'We'll cross that bridge when you get to it, Grace,' " Grace said to her mother from the back seat.

"It drives me crazy -- you get so into 'American Idol,' " Mary added.

They were just outside their front door, when Mary stopped: "Mom, do you see that little bird?"

A gray bird sat shivering against a pillar. "I think he's sick," said Grace.

The girls looked at the bird's unblinking eyes and then at their mother.

"Mom," said Mary, sounding younger than 18. "Mom, give him a hug."

Off Camera is a monthly column featuring Washington's top decision makers in their off hours -- outside the office and inside their lives. A photo gallery featuring Margaret Spellings is at www.washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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