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I bought my house by fax. Never saw it. I bought it because of Anne Gay.

Gay is the principal of Janney, a District elementary school right next to the Tenleytown Metro station in Ward 3. But “principal” doesn’t really capture it. She is czarina, den mother, fascist, and ruler of the Janney kingdom. Every parent at the school—doctor, lawyer, journalist, thief—bows to Gay. She owns our children’s destiny, so she owns us.

Or did. Last week, Gay was tapped to become the District’s first director of special education. The phone tree of Janney parents was crackling with angst when calls were made to notify people that the following morning’s Washington Post would announce Gay’s departure after a decade of running our neighborhood school.

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That the phone tree is so massive and attuned says something about Janney. There are elementary schools in the District with higher standardized test scores—Murch, Lafayette—but nowhere do the parents drink the Kool-Aid more deeply than at Janney.

Personally, I’m not a joiner. Sure, I drive that same SUV they apparently issue at the borders of Ward 3, but mine has a Clash disc in it. That makes me different—a rugged individualist fighting the bourgeois conventions of Upper Northwest D.C. Unless I happen to be within a block of my kids’ school. As Janney looms, I stub out my ciggie, turn down “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.,” and prepare to step out and make small talk about the upcoming science fair.

I had a few teachers like Gay when I was a kid—adults who by their very gaze made me want to be something better than I was. Gay has the same effect on everyone regardless of grade. Even disagreeable dogs tend to curb their more noisome aspects in her presence.

When I was moving here a little over four years ago, I kept bumping into the cult of Janney, a sect that held up Gay as its central religious icon. I decided to convert and look only within the boundaries of the Janney Elementary drawing area. The houses were mostly out of my reach, but one day my friend Steve called and said that he had found my new place. That’s great, I said, I just put down thousands of dollars to rent out another one. He suggested that I stop payment on the check and fax a bid and a promissory note to the realtor. I mentioned that I hadn’t seen the house. “It won’t last,” he cautioned. “Do as I say.”

And that’s how my twins became Janney students—and I became a Janney parent—a fact that is now the primary source of my identity. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.