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In Search of The Real Michelle Rhee

Her image is of a tough-talking schools chief who's out to sack every last veteran teacher in D.C.'s failing system. The reality is not so simple.

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But the Rhees did not completely reject their traditions. After Michelle finished sixth grade, her parents sent her from Toledo to Korea for a year to live with an aunt and learn the language. "All of a sudden, after being the only Korean kid forever, I looked like everyone else. I really liked that," she says.

The Rhees raised their daughter to work hard, trust herself and speak the truth. "I often told Michelle that no matter what she does, you're not going to be liked by everybody," says her father, a physician who specialized in managing pain before he and his wife retired to Colorado.

Rhee attributes her directness to her roots. "Korean people are not the most tactful," she says. "I grew up with Korean ladies who'd say, 'Gee, you've put on some weight.' It has for as long as I can remember driven me crazy when people beat around the bush instead of saying, 'Look, I need you to do this.' "

Growing up in Toledo, Rhee attended Maumee Valley Country Day School, an elite private school with just 55 students in the graduating class. She "did not hang out with the kind of people you're supposed to hang out with, the people who look, sound and act as you do," says Patrick Day, who has been close to her since sixth grade and now works as a vice chancellor at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. "Michelle could speak the languages of many different people; she would go to any neighborhood in the city."

For a Korean kid to cross racial and socioeconomic boundaries was not easy, but Rhee's signature tough talk and blunt style -- a hand-me-down inherited from her mother, by all accounts -- served her well, Day says.

Rhee was struck by the contrasts between her life at school and what she saw when she would go with her boyfriend's mother, a teacher, to visit her inner-city classroom. Even as a teenager, she noted that every single member of her prep school class went to college, "even though some of them were jokers -- they didn't do anything," while kids in the downtown public school who were at least as deserving did not. Years later, the contrast is still disturbing: "You know if they were in that circle, they'd be in college, too."

It was at Cornell, in what she later came to refer to as her "angry person of color phase," that Rhee fell in with a group of radicalized students who pushed her to reject her suburban assumptions about life. Rhee came to believe that black kids growing up in poverty were being sentenced to diminished lives because too many people assumed they could not learn.

Later, at Harvard, where she studied public policy at the Kennedy School of Government, Rhee worked on marrying her tough persona with her growing sense of outrage about inequalities in American life. In their first weeks on campus, fellow student Layla Avila was shopping around for a study group and heard great things about the group Rhee was in. But when Avila, who is Hispanic, asked to join, several members started making noises about the group being full.

Appalled by her fellow students' exclusionary instinct, Rhee said, "Well, if you don't have room for Layla, maybe I should just leave and start a group with her."

"The others knew Michelle was a smartie, and they were loath to lose her," Avila says now. "So they let me in. Michelle didn't know who I was; she didn't know anything about me."

In Baltimore, where Rhee tested out her idealism in the Teach for America program, she lived in a rowhouse for two years with three other new teachers, who were initially taken aback by Michelle's frank approach to everything from race relations to love affairs. They soon grew to appreciate that Rhee would stick by them no matter what.

Karla Oakley, who worked for Rhee at the New Teacher Project, which Rhee founded in 1997 in New York to train teachers for inner-city schools, got the full Michelle treatment when she confided in her boss about her doubts and hopes regarding a new boyfriend. Rhee's face instantly gave away her misgivings and Oakley didn't have to wait long before Rhee told her straight out: Get rid of the guy.


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