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Unreal World

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By Pamela Toutant
Sunday, November 4, 2007

THE HUNCH THAT WE WERE RARE BIRDS IN OUR NEIGHBORHOOD WAS CONFIRMED FOR US ABOUT SIX YEARS AGO at a swanky holiday party thrown by one of our neighbors. Dressed in a black Chanel number, my grandmother's pearls and my Ferragamo shoes, I was doing my best that night to blend in with the flock when I wandered into the fringed and tasseled sitting room and began a conversation with a fellow Chevy Chase resident.

He was drinking from a heavy tumbler of dark amber scotch and was, by that point in the evening, red-faced and blustery. After some small talk regarding which house we lived in, what we did for a living and where we went to college, we moved on to the other favorite subject among parents: our children's schools.

With obvious pride, my neighbor announced the private schools his children attended, making sure to note their "selectivity" and sports "dominance," language I couldn't help but associate with Darwin. When I mentioned that our two children attended the public elementary school right down the street, my neighbor's face went blank as though struggling to remember an island on a map he hadn't looked at in years. Then he recoiled.

"I would never send my kids to that school!" he declared adamantly.

Although my initial reaction was to feel offended, I was also curious. Maybe he knew something I didn't? After he made what seemed to me an unconvincing argument that the public school wasn't as good academically as his kids' private schools, mainly because of class size, he got to what seemed to bother him the most.

"What I really object to," he said passionately, "is that they bus in all those black kids from Silver Spring. They bring them into this neighborhood, to see all of our big houses, exposing them to things they are never going to have. I just don't see the point." He was referring to a measure launched in the 1970s to achieve greater integration at our neighborhood elementary school and a nearby Silver Spring primary school. (And I am not making his comments up.)

Although I was more than a little taken aback by the nakedness of his remark, I naively viewed it as an opportunity to shift his worldview. Apart from the fact that my children had had many excellent teachers at their school for the last six years, had been challenged and had thrived academically, I explained, there were the social benefits of attending a school with economic and racial diversity. My husband, who grew up in New York City, knew about diverse schools firsthand. Sadly, I did not.

"I grew up in a completely white, middle-class town in the Midwest," I explained to my neighbor. "Until I went to college, I never met anyone of a different race or religion. At times, I still feel uneasy around people who are different from me. I don't want my children to go through life that way."

But, as I spoke, my neighbor shifted with boredom and soon excused himself, back-slapping his way over to the bartender for another drink. I stood there staring into my melting ice cubes, more of an outsider than I had imagined.

FOR MANY YEARS NOW, I HAVE LIVED WITH MY FAMILY ON A LONG, LEAFY STREET in the heart of this community where all of the children are far above average -- no matter how much money it takes. Even if you tried, as I have, it would be hard to escape the fact that just below the genteel surface of our town is a toiling place, where the herds of Volvos and SUVs boast education r¿sum¿s on their rear windows and people practically levitate from ambition. It is a place where neighbors dress their Halloween scarecrows in Harvard sweat shirts.

As education-obsessed as the next pair of Montgomery County parents, my husband and I have put in our fair share of hand-wringing about our two children's educations. Ultimately, given the context of our street, we have chosen to go counterculture: We send our children to the public schools.

I acknowledge that our choice was relatively easy, given that the public schools in our area are excellent. Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School (B-CC), where my daughter is a senior and my son a freshman, with its International Baccalaureate program and dizzying selection of Advanced Placement classes, is consistently ranked by Newsweek as one of the top 100 high schools in the country. Yet, with one exception, we are the only family on our three-block street whose children are enrolled there. Virtually all of the other children attend elite private schools -- Georgetown Day, Landon, National Cathedral, Sidwell Friends and so on -- which has led to a sort of neighborhood balkanization.


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