When a suburban Virginia schoolteacher, Judith Marie Garcia, was chosen the other day to be one of 10 finalists for the teacher-in-space program, one aspect of the national publicity upset Fairfax County education officials. Garcia was identified on network broadcasts and in newspaper accounts as a teacher at "the Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va."
Alexandria is the high school's mailing address. But the school is really in adjacent Fairfax County, in a community called Annandale.
"A misunderstanding," responded an official of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration -- and one that is all too common in the Washington area.
Post office delivery and telephone central office areas here simply do not coincide with political boundaries, if indeed political boundaries exist.
In the Maryland suburbs, Bethesda, Potomac, Silver Spring, Montpelier and Landover, for example, are unincorporated areas without boundaries -- although Silver Spring is sometimes called the state's second largest "city." Wheaton residents get mail addressed to nearby Rockville. Many areas, including Bethesda and Takoma Park, are served out of the Washington post office, although political pressure has eliminated their previous D.C. addresses and Zip codes.
In Virginia, the Alexandria post office serves a huge chunk of territory outside the city, including the eastern edge of Annandale and the entire Mount Vernon area of Fairfax County. The post office in the small city of Falls Church similarly covers a large area of Fairfax, including the very-Fairfax Baileys Crossroads area and, among other schools, Fairfax's George Marshall and J.E.B. Stuart High schools.
Checking out the difference between a postal address and a politically ordained location can be a time-consuming task, so the combination of an inexperienced reporter and an inattentive editor may come up with such anomalies as the Belle Haven Marina in Fairfax being moved in print into its phone-company location of Alexandria. This newspaper's obituary page sticks generally by the telephone listing for a deceased person's home, business location and church affiliation.
And if the truth be told, many residents don't know where they live. Every year, the Alexandria City Hall finds more than a trickle of Fairfax folk trying to buy city automobile license stickers.
Perhaps the Fairfax school officials and astronaut candidate Garcia can take solace in the comment of Saudi Arabian Prince Sultan Salman Saud, who made last month's space journey aboard the Discovery. From 220 miles above the earth, he observed in one broadcast, all politial boundaries are invisible -- including, one must presume, that between Alexandria and Fairfax.