When is it a good time for a city official to scurry in a back door to avoid reporters?
We’re asking for a friend.
Not just to avoid them, but declining even to turn a head to acknowledge them standing a foot behind you, calling your name.
New D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson did that Friday morning at the Jefferson Academy, a public middle school in Southwest near Arena Stage. But the drama was on the school parking lot and 7th Street SW.
Wilson has been on the job just two weeks. His governing style and sensitivity to public relations remain unknown to the local media. But his cone-of-silence disappearing act was a surprise. Why he didn’t take a a brief moment to pause was mystifying.
In an interview Tuesday with NBC4, Wilson acknowledged ignoring the reporters, saying he was focused on going into the school. And surprisingly, he said he’s kind of shy.
“I am an introvert and so it doesn’t mean I don’t love interacting with people, I do,” he told us. “But I gain energy from being able to reflect.”
Being an introvert can risk the danger of seeming cold and uncaring. Wilson insists that doesn’t fit him. He misses his family, who won’t join him from Oakland, Calif., until June. In our interview, he revealed he has many heroes and mentors, but his father is not one of them.
“Well, my father wasn’t there. So my mother did a tremendous job of being a mother and a father in so many different ways,” he said. Wilson says his background helps him understand young people distracted by their family lives.
And last Friday, perhaps Wilson was distracted going into Jefferson because he was there to greet Betsy DeVos, the new U.S. education secretary, making her first public appearance after being narrowly confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Vice President Mike Pence had to cast a vote to break the 50-50 tie that nearly doomed her appointment. It was the first time a vice president has had to cast a vote for any cabinet nominee.
Besides the press, a noisy crowd of parents, retired teachers and union officials along 7th Street was “welcoming” DeVos. She has a history of favoring private and charter schools, making critics wonder what she’ll do for traditional public schools other than undermine them. Democratic senators said during hearings she showed no understanding of public school law or policy. Republicans said she’s perfect for shaking up federal education policies, challenging teachers’ unions and returning education issues to states — as well as possibly dismantling the federal agency.
The demonstrators blocked her from entering one Jefferson door, but she made it through another. After the demonstrators had left for their own jobs and family obligations, both DeVos and Wilson stepped outside and briefly spoke in generalities to the reporters still hanging around.
But the lesson for the day is not the national fight over DeVos, but the path ahead for Wilson. It’s good that he pledged to visit every school. On Friday he might have been yelled at by protesters had he stopped outside, but they weren’t there against him. He could have calmly said it’s important for the District to have contact with top federal officials, agree with the policies or not.
But the lesson of Friday was that Wilson avoided his own constituents to huddle with DeVos. The news of the day, and the TV video, was of a chancellor who ducked his school community and the media.
■ By the way. The DeVos visit — the part about her being blocked by demonstrators — made national news. So how did it even come about? The school system would not publicly comment, neither confirming the visit the night before nor publicly answering questions about it on Friday.
The media did learn that DeVos’ aides had called the chancellor’s office, inquiring about visiting a city school. The same sources say Wilson was already scheduled to visit Jefferson on Friday and DeVos was invited to join him. Again, the school system hasn’t officially commented, so we don’t know officially if that, in fact, is what happened. Fortunately, a spokesperson for the federal Education Department confirmed that agency initiated the contact. Openness is always better.
■ “Our kids are not ‘props.’” That’s what one of many signs read at Friday’s demonstration. Unfortunately, the students are props. Every White House occupant has rounded up D.C. schoolchildren for this or that publicity stunt. Mayor Muriel Bowser has her own problems with DeVos, but she told NBC4 the students do get exposure to the larger world of the White House through those events.
But what exposure would our children get if city officials, from the mayor and chancellor on down, took a stand? Our children, those officials might say, will be glad to stand behind you when you recognize them as real American citizens whose families deserve the right to be heard and represented in Congress. Those same children and families also would say they deserve to have Congress butt out of essentially local affairs in our city.
Now, that would be a real-life lesson.
Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.