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Arthur Delaney’s story in last week’s City Paper about the pluses and minuses of starting your own charter school in D.C. reminded me of novelist Porter Shreve, who’s finishing When the White House Was Ours, a novel about a startup school in the District. Shreve, a Cleveland Park native who now teaches creative writing at Purdue University, read an excerpt from the work-in-progress earlier this month at American University, at an event put together by the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, the same folks who just awarded Philip Roth its annual fiction award for Everyman. (Roth’s getting feted for one of his weaker novels, and Edward P. Jones got robbed, but I digress.)
The school in the novel, which is set during the Carter administration, is located on 16th Street across from Malcolm X Park. (“I didn’t think Cleveland Park was an interesting setting for the story,” he said.) Shreve’s mother taught at the National Cathedral School, and the novel was partly inspired by the “boisterous household” of boarders in the home the Shreve family rented through the NCS. Another inspiration was the alternative school that his father tried to launch in the early ’70s in Philadelphia—-a project that crashed and burned in 18 months. (A brief essay about the school is here.) “It had as many as 100 students,” he said. “But as happens with so many of these alternative schools and community learning centers…the funding was such that there was no way to survive.”
Shreve said he would have loved to have attended such a school himself, but he wound up at what is pretty much the exact opposite of an up-by-the-bootstraps startup: St. Albans. “My father was a scholarship kid, a golden boy at St. Albans, so I had an in there,” he said. “But I was a terrible student, and I’m sure they felt that it was a complete waste of their scholarship dollars….To be perfectly honest, I didn’t like the school. I learned a few things about language, but it’s not the kind of structure I wanted.”