September-October 2008

Class Act

In his 32 years as principal of Sidwell Friends Lower School in Bethesda, Richard Lodish has run the school with a simple philosophy.

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Getting sent “to the principal’s office” is seldom a happy moment. The phrase summons up stern lectures, angry parents and teary promises not to do “it” again, whatever “it” is. But a visit to Richard Lodish’s office is a very different experience. Principal of Sidwell Friends Lower School for 32 years, Lodish is a sprite-like character with a full gray beard and impish eyes—think of a cross between Santa and one of his elves. He believes that laughter is usually the best way to deal with kids between the ages of 5 and 10, and to make his point he proudly displays his own third grade report card, which reads in part: “How disappointed we are in Richard’s inability to mature. He not only spoils his own work but makes it hard for his friends to do their best.”

As Lodish explains: “When parents come in sometimes and their kids are having a hard time, I can say, ‘Look at me. I was the class clown for sure. I had fun in school.’ ”

He still does. Lodish tells the story of a student, Anna Schwartz, who asked her mother if the principal got paid less than the regular teachers. When her mother said no, Anna responded: “Well, my goodness, he should be paid less. After all, he walks around and tells jokes and acts like a child in his office.”

Sidwell’s main campus sits on Wisconsin Avenue in northwest Washington, D.C., but since 1963, the Lower School (pre-K through fourth grade) has occupied a 5-acre outpost (once the Longfellow School for Boys) on Edgemoor Lane in the heart of Bethesda. This is Lodish’s domain, a tightly bound community of children, parents and teachers, all with dreams and demands, talents and flaws, egos and insecurities. It’s his job to manage it all, to maintain a “balance”—one of his favorite words— between freedom and discipline, creativity and standards. Much of his work involves personal relationships, not math tests or reading assignments. He has presided over four Quaker funerals of students and school parents and counseled parents on how a divorce or a drinking problem can affect their children.

More than once, he has taken students home for dinner after a distracted caretaker forgot to pick them up. “Being a principal,” he says, “is like being a pastor, a policeman, a fireman, a psychiatrist— it’s all of those things put together.”

Growing up in a middle class, heavily-Jewish suburb east of Cleveland, Lodish followed two older brothers who excelled in school (one now teaches at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the other at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania), so he became the rebel, stealing cookies from Honey’s Bakery and earning a five-day suspension in seventh grade for decking a teacher. But his mother Sylvia, a third-grade teacher, and his grandmother Fanny provided wise and loving role models. One story illustrates their influence: “I was playing in the driveway with stones and stuff, and my mother thought I shouldn’t do that. But my grandmother said, ‘That’s the best playground for a kid. Let him do it, let him have free play.’ I remember that when I work with kids. Children find their own ways to have fun and learn.”

Lodish finally got serious after arriving at Washington & Jefferson College, a small, (at the time) all-male school not far from Pittsburgh, in the fall of 1964. Inspired by the civil rights movement, he started an after-school tutoring program in a black neighborhood: “It felt like something I was made to do, and it probably went back to my mother. This is what she did.” A draft notice interrupted plans for graduate school, and to stay out of the service he joined the National Teacher Corps, which funneled young people into troubled city schools.

Returning to Cleveland, he taught disruptive students to read by using lyrics from popular songs. It was a tough time— he once beat up two teenagers who were screaming “honky” at him through a classroom window. But he found a wife (Erica was a student teacher) and a calling, and after five years he left to earn a doctorate at Harvard.

As graduation approached, Lodish was talking to his advisor when her phone rang. It was the headmaster at Sidwell, looking for a new principal. Lodish was reluctant to consider a private school (“I didn’t like them, I thought they were elitist.”), but they offered to fly him to Washington, a city he had visited only once (for an anti-war march), and what he learned about Quaker schools intrigued him. “The values they had were not just similar,” he says, “they were identical” to his own—public service, social justice, egalitarianism. When he visited the campus, he recalls feeling “very comfortable. I had this leather briefcase I’d gotten, and I just put it down. I loosened my tie. These were people I could get along with really well.”

One of Lodish’s main missions has been to put those Quaker values into practice. Minorities now make up 40 percent of the students and faculty (the figure was below 10 percent when he arrived). For 30 years, the school has had a relationship with Martha’s Table, a program in downtown Washington dedicated to feeding needy families. Every Wednesday, Sidwell students bring in vegetables and chop them up for soup. Parents and kids make sandwiches together one Saturday each month. “You don’t want to put the burdens of the world on the shoulders of 6- and 7-year-olds,” Lodish says, “but you also want them to learn there are people in need.” Washington is fueled by powerful connections, and Sidwell’s roster of parents has always been filled with familiar names: Clinton and Nixon, Roosevelt and Rumsfeld, Rather and Mudd. Several of Hillary Clinton’s closest advisors are current Sidwell mothers.

Lodish quickly learned that Quaker values are not always compatible with Washington’s culture of influence and intrigue. On his first day at Sidwell, Lodish’s first call was from a petulant parent who demanded that his child be transferred to another teacher: “So I said, my policy is I’ve never made a change and I never will.” Of course, he’d never made a change because he’d never run a school before. “I made it up,” he recalls, “but it’s a great policy.” Just recently, he felt compelled to re-emphasize Sidwell’s “philosophy of Quaker values and simplicity,” writing an essay deploring a “growing sense of entitlement and cliquishness among several of our parents that make it difficult for ‘less connected’ parents” to feel comfortable at the school.

Lodish’s interests range far beyond Edgemoor Lane. During sabbaticals from the campus, he has helped start a bilingual school in China and a charter school in California. He shows off pictures of the rainbow trout he caught on a fly-fishing trip to Michigan. He has assembled a huge collection of 19th century school artifacts from around the country— pencil boxes and alphabet boards, desks and inkwells. Still, Bethesda has been home base since that day in 1976 when he took over the cramped office he still occupies. He and Erica raised their daughter Maya only a short bike ride from campus. Now Maya has returned to the area, working as a pediatric endocrinologist at the National Institutes of Health. Her baby, Isabelle, is in child care at Sidwell. Lodish often gets to feed his granddaughter during the day, and, at age 61, he has not lost his gleeful sense of fun. He loves to bounce around the school, filching food from his young charges. One day, he entered a kitchen where a pot was simmering on the stove. When he asked for a bite, the kids warned, “Don’t eat that.” But he insisted: “I want to taste it, I’m hungry.” So he gulped down their dish— a dog biscuit the kids were making to sell for charity.

Steve Roberts, who teaches journalism and political science at George Washington University, wrote about his own childhood in his latest book, My Fathers’ Houses.