D.C. Scholars Program Gives Students Unique Access to the Halls of Power
Sunday, August 9, 2009
In one of the countless wood-paneled offices in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which exudes both the formality and the tedium of the federal government, nine recent high school graduates sit around a polished oak table, as big as a skating rink, waiting for Valerie Jarrett.
The special adviser and longtime friend to the president is due to arrive at any moment -- just to chat and to absorb a bit of the optimism of youth. The students -- summer interns -- are not what one might typically expect of White House go-fers, blog-minders and letter-openers. They did not spend their entire high school careers running for class president.
Make no mistake, though, these are good students -- the kind who work hard and are dutiful. They just aren't the sort whose parents send them to Guatemala for the summer to burnish the community-service portion of college applications.
For the most part, these kids come from District schools that are regularly held up as examples of how not all big-city public schools are foundering, places such as the School Without Walls and Washington Mathematics Science Technology Public Charter High School, where the first lady delivered this year's commencement address. One of the seniors there, Jasmine Williams, wrote a letter to Michelle Obama imploring her to speak to her class and now Williams is one of these interns, working in the office of correspondence, where she reads and sorts letters just like the hopeful one she sent.
These are the types of kids whom Obama has often mentioned in her visits around the city -- young folks who live ever so close to the center of power but never get a peek inside it. For eight weeks this summer, however, they are in the thick of it. And for one of them, Clayton Armstrong, the journey might have been modest in miles, but it was an enormous psychic leap.
Of all the students, he is a minority among minorities. He is one of only two young men, and he has come from a school that is not a shining example of public education.
Armstrong, 18, just graduated from Frank W. Ballou Senior High School. This is the school made famous by Ron Suskind's 1998 book, "A Hope in the Unseen," which chronicled the journey of a young man with a troubled personal history and a deficient school environment as he traveled from Ballou to the Ivy League. Armstrong does not shy away from describing his life at Ballou as difficult, stressful and disadvantaged. "It was tough, but I handled it pretty well," he says. "There were fights every day and people have gotten stabbed. People have gotten shot. There's constantly people being knuckleheads and trying to be the class clown.
"But I'm big on self-motivation."
The two young men and seven women are the first class of D.C. Scholars -- students chosen based on their academic record and on personal interviews, and installed in various offices in the White House and the EEOB. The work is not glamorous, nor is it meant to be. The idea is to reveal to these students the simple, sometimes mundane, often maddening truth of what goes on in these grand offices behind secure doors.
When Jarrett, dressed in khaki trousers, a white shirt and impractical heels, strides into the room, the students sit up straighter and give her the look of shy familiarity that emerges when folks first confront a face they've seen in the media but have never met. Jarrett slides into a chair at the head of the table, her back to a formal portrait of George Washington. "We are so happy to have you in this new program," she says in a voice that is all treble notes and no bass. The program is all part of the administration's goal to "integrate the White House into the community. To take young folks with an initial interest in public service and give you a taste of what you'll do."
"We want you to enjoy this experience and to think about coming back," she says.
And then she gives them the Cliffs Notes version of the story of her life -- a story that has appeared in countless publications. Born in Iran. Moved to Chicago as a child. She begins the chapter on her professional life with Harold Washington, the first black mayor of Chicago. "Have you heard of Harold Washington?" Jarrett asks. Nine blank faces stare back. She winces in that oh-you-make-me-feel-so-old way. She forges ahead, talking about her role in helping to shape the city of Chicago. Then she looks around the table and asks the students to introduce themselves one by one. And she is met with silence. Jarrett gently but firmly makes it clear that silence is not an acceptable answer. Like a law professor using the Socratic method, or the president himself, she threatens to interrogate someone.