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High School Monumental

How much education does $124 million buy?

Dec 26, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 15 • By ZACK MUNSON
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The principal was a 50-year-old white guy with an earring who insisted on being called Doctor, despite the fact that he could not prescribe the Xanax you would need after talking to him. His main duty, as far as the students could tell, was walking through the school without making eye contact with us, which did little to discourage the maelstrom of yelling and dancing and shoving and shouting that filled the halls.

You could, if you wanted to, get a good education and go on to a good college. And there was a handful of very good teachers. But the majority were an odd assortment of aging hippies, incompetents, and outright loons. An English teacher impressed students by showing off a stump where a finger used to be—which he proudly claimed to have chopped off to avoid going to Vietnam. A gym/health teacher led the students in a game called “STD Jeopardy,” and warned that, contrary to what you might see in Valtrex commercials, if you got a certain STD, you would not be riding around on a horse smiling. My younger sister had a teacher (well, a substitute, but still) who informed the class that he used to be white until he’d been injected with hormones by the CIA that rendered him “incognegro.”

When I was in 10th grade, a physics teacher punched a friend of mine in the face for no reason. This instructor spent much of our class time devising odd role-playing games that involved 12-sided dice and imaginary nuclear holocausts. And he, at that time, had the longest tenure of any teacher at the school. After clocking my friend, he was fired immediately. Oh .  .  . wait. No, he wasn’t. The school administration, ever vigilant, conducted a thorough investigation of the students. About a year later, the physics teacher finally “resigned.” But not before (unsuccessfully) suing my friend for $1 million for making him go temporarily deaf and blind and ruining his world-class fencing career (truly, the teacher was insane).

And this was, then as now, the best public high school in our nation’s capital.

So, $124 million later, when the school reopened this fall to much fanfare and excitement, I was curious enough to set foot inside Wilson for the first time in 10 years. Principal Cahall agreed to give me a tour on a Monday morning. Though some of the old building had been torn down and replaced, much of the shell was left intact and gutted—repurposed, as we like to say nowadays. The new entrance is situated next to the old entrance. It is a wide, semicircular wall of tall glass doors that lead into a large foyer (still crowded with X-ray machines and metal detectors). The foyer opens up into the Atrium, and .  .  . I am speechless. 

The old prison yard is gone. It is now .  .  . well .  .  . beautiful. The exposed red brick is still there, and the entire space is illuminated with natural light shining through a massive glass roof. It is dotted with fancy tables and benches of odd geometric design and a healthy supply of flat-screen TVs. Oh so many flat-screen TVs.

I find my way to the main office, and meet Mr. Cahall—relieved he is not Dr. Cahall. Like most educators, Cahall tends to speak in platitudes. He has “a deep conviction and belief that every kid can learn.” He walks around the school and sees kids “not being passive learners—they’re active learners.” The school is generally safe, but, you know, “kids are gonna be kids.” Cahall himself seems to be something of a platitude: the type of guy a Hollywood producer would tap to play the principal of an unwieldy city high school. He is the Stern-But-Caring Large Man. (Think Morgan Freeman in Lean on Me. Only white. And bald. And minus the baseball bat. You know what, don’t think Morgan Freeman.) 

Standing about 6 foot 3, with broad shoulders, a booming voice, and a Telly Savalas hairdo, he walks buoyantly through the school, gladhanding and kibitzing like the proprietor of a mid-1970s Miami Beach cocktail lounge. He seems to know every student’s name, and they seem genuinely glad to see him and chat. “Que pasa, Hector?” he shouts to one student (who I assume is named Hector). “You know you can’t play no volleyball,” he joshes another, as we walk through a gym class in progress. “Asalaam alaikum! How was your weekend?” he asks yet another, and seems actually interested in the reply. He stands at the entrance each morning and welcomes the students. He spends the lunch period picking up trash and collecting trays in the cafeteria. I’m not sure which part of the building fund went towards repurposing the burnt-out, hostile administrators of my day, but it was money well spent.

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