Chapter 3: The Interview

That summer, in August, in fact, having gone for a shockingly long period without job interviews, I found I had gotten a form email from the placing agency I used for private school job searches, notifying me that a school called The Latin School – it was something called a “charter school” – was interested in interviewing me. I didn’t know what a charter school was. Perhaps it was like a charter fishing boat – something one could sign up for, for weeks at a time, put in one’s piece, and then count the number of minds educated on deck and be off with a thousand dollars to spend at the port bars. I liked the prospect of commissions, and I liked the ocean. I did know that this school’s form letter had appeared on the same screen that had seen the most prestigious private schools in the area, and that it must have a similar cache, but beyond that, I was wholly ignorant. (Oh, of so many things!)

Yet I’d seen these form messages before, and was used to hearing nothing back after my initial inquiry. So I was surprised when not ten minutes after reading this email message and barely mulling it over, my phone rang and a loud, jovial voice sang into my ear:

“Good morning, is this Mr. Joseph Savino? Mr. Savino! I am R.J. Peterson, head master of the Latin School. Yes. We have received your name as a candidate for an English position for which we have been conducting a search – a national search,” he quickly added. “We would like for you to come interview for a position!”

“Okay,” I said. “When?”

“What about one week from now, down here in our corporate – in our schoolhouse, that is. What about that? How about 11:30 next Tuesday? Now, our schoolhouse is located at 4200 Massachusetts Avenue, in the Cathedral Heights neighborhood. That’s just down the street from St. Albans!”

I confess I did not know where this was, but from the march and pomp of his tone, it was surely some grand, flag-lined avenue, although a schoolhouse seemed to promise something penned and irregular, like a one-room school house with eight or nine grades of students. I could only guess as to what I might find.

I drove down from my parents’ house later in the week and stayed with a friend who was already installed at a school in DC as part of Teach For America.

“You wouldn’t believe how poorly this place is run. It’s a slum,” he said. “So where are you interviewing again?”

“The Latin School,” I said.

“Ooh,” he said.

“So you’ve heard of it?”

“That’s right up there on the list,” he said. “One of the best. I’ve heard a little bit about it already. Good luck tomorrow. That could be a pretty interesting place to work. It’s not far from here, actually. It’s on the west side.”

The next morning I drove into DC. As usual, I disliked going into the crowded city, though this school was located down leafy streets not far from where my friend lived. Still – DC! What could be interesting about a four mile radius of concrete and blacktop, even if the country were governed therein? There was nothing of significance in the land, other than Barack Obama strolling therein; the land itself did not rise or fall so much as did its leaders; there was no resolution to the place itself; it stayed low at depths, altogether low-lying. Humanity swam in a sea of houses and neighborhoods with no natural divisions, like an endless sheet of music. It did not make sense to me. These kids I’d teach growing up there, to what would they attach significance? It wasn’t some great hill on which the girl they had a crush on lived in a mysterious house on a road they’d never dare drive, it would instead be just some beige building she lived in, with a thousand other people. It was a mark against this school that it should be in DC, though the streets as I drew closer were long and cool. The houses rose to prominence, and near the school I passed a breathtakingly large synagogue: certainly a good sign.

Yet it was another house of worship into whose lot I parted from traffic at the insistence of my directions. I slowly rolled into the lot, on the grass next to which a big sign read “St. Christian Church,” and only on close inspection was a smaller, though perfectly ornate and regal sign, visible, alerting one to the heart of the matter:

The Latin School
Headmaster R.J. Peterson

Thinking back on it, did not this small sign in itself propose the rewards of esoteric study and close reading, values of the ancients, which The Founder himself did espouse? Did he have it all envisioned? Or could it be said that the sign itself was a poor fit for such a grand, consequential self-regard, that it was pretentious in its presumption of modesty – that he was trying to make the school exclusive? Either way, I did conclude that using initials like this for one’s first name was deeply affected, yet I held out for a centered man.

I parked and leapt from the car. My suit swished as I passed a lake blue Jaguar whose license plate read “Harvard.” The church stood right by in reflected glory. The lobby’s tranquil glass glistened from eave to concrete.

I swung open a door and a man at a makeshift desk inside looked startled from his perch. He wore a garish red blazer, and quickly stood as though wishing to appear alert. I told him my business and he bid me upstairs in the church, along a hallway with boxes, and into an office far in the back that was noticeably cooler than the lobby, thanks to a running air conditioner. There were two secretaries in the office and one bid me have a seat and took my information.

“Just a moment and Mr. Peterson will be right with you.”

My seat afforded me a direct view of a poster on the wall. It was here that I saw the lavish poster and emblazoned at the bottom the admonition to keep alive the celestial fire. And it was just later, as I have noted, that the musical voice did cry out above the glint of celestial fire that emanated from his grand cufflinks.

“Welcome, Mr. Savino. I am RJ Peterson!”

I turned the corner and looked in the door of the inner office and there I beheld him. He had the shine of corporate governance. He wore a blue blazer and a blue tie, well chosen. His hair had been cut by someone who’d been well compensated, unlike my own, and he wore rounded, avuncular reading glasses. With his slicked back hair and subtly vacant smile, he reminded me of one trying to dress the part of Ronald Reagan. I found myself scanning the office for the inevitable diploma, which, though there were many fine things there which will be described shortly, was notably absent.

“Well, thank you for coming down on such short notice,” he said. “I think I mentioned on the phone that I find myself with a bit of a last minute problem. I find myself at this late hour without a Form II master in English!”

“But let me tell you first about our school,” he said. I nodded generous and my eye began to rove the room. Many people would later talk about RJ as being intensely charismatic, but it wasn’t quite that way. Instead, I got the feeling as he started talking that he was one who aspired, with nearly every ounce of him, to appear to have breeding. I felt at home with these types of men somehow. I could tell from the book lined shelves, the decidedly artistic looking photos well chosen and displayed – including a black and white wedding photo, and from the old world feel of the place, including the throwback maxims from George Washington, that he would make a patrician appeal to me. My ease with these types of men – older, academic, perhaps formidable – goes back to the ease I felt talking to my grandfather, whom many others saw as formidable, but with whom I’d always felt comfortable. It was a feeling I was to lose at some point over the next few months at the point of various really interrogators, and would be gone forever shortly. Yet at the time, it was very much in place, though things quickly went differently than I expected.

“We are the first classical charter school in the city,” he said. “Our models are Boston Latin in New England and Stuyvesant in New York. Our program is based on the Great Books program, and in fact on the University of Chicago in the 1950s. We are the top-rated charter school in the District. In fact, on the DC-CAS tests from last year, which was our first year in existence, by the way, we scored highest of any school – public or private – in the District. A bit of a left-handed compliment, I know!

“But! My goal in founding this school was to allow students from all eight wards access to a private-school quality classical education. I have always operated by the maxim that, as Robert Maynard Hutchins, who was dean of the University of Chicago, as he once wrote, ‘The best education for the best is the best education for all.’ So we are very much based on the University of Chicago as our model, from the 1950s, and their Great Books Program.”

At this I broke in:

“Excellent, you know, I like that model very much. My personal statement on my resume, as you may have seen, has a quote from Leo Strauss.” I could see it all, where his philosophy came from. I understood this man.

But I remember that at this RJ looked a little bit put off for some reason and said,

“Well, I’ll, uh, have to, uh, read your, uh, personal statement.” He looked curiously ill at ease, and I wondered if he – surely he must have remembered who Leo Strauss was? I continued further, trying to break the sudden tension, but genuinely moved still.

“And I see you have a copy of “The Closing of the American Mind.” I am very familiar with that book! I read it during college for a poly sci class. It’s very intriguing. Did you go to the University of Chicago?”

He seemed to treat this intrusion of words on my part as something which he did not have the nerve to head off. There was an awkward pause, though he seemed still to be smiling. He picked up again with unchanged face, almost as if I hadn’t said anything.

“Our approach here in our English program is based not only on the Great Books model, but on the Andover approach, from Phillips Andover Academy,”

“Oh!” I said ruefully. “That place is no good!” I smiled.

He stared at me, blankly.

“They were our big rivals in soccer. I went to Exeter,” I said, with an explanatory gesture of my hand. He looked at me with an awkward smile, looking slightly confused – not that he wouldn’t have understood the simple joke, but that I would have made the joke at all. It was strange, because it was lighthearted and friendly on my part. Somehow, he didn’t seem to be a natural conversationalist.

“Yes, well, the Harkness Program – Harkness tables, actually, was invented at Andover and –“

“Oh, you’re talking about the way students sit at the table, sure. I had that myself in high school English.” This was going to be easy money.

Or was it? He again, looked at me, seeming blank and smiling. He did not seem to understand normal give-and-take of conversation.

“Yes, the round tables, with students seated around and one master at the table, just like the students. So we have a very rigorous curriculum, the most rigorous in the city, actually. In fact,” he told me proudly, “The Latin School is the only high school in the country with an actual written policy on religious expression!”

“We are looking for a master for form II, that’s eighth grade, for English. Now I did look at your college – excuse me, at your resume, and – that’s a, uh, a very prestigious college. Very well known for its English program. I am, well those who know me know that I am an unashamed Francophile – and my own French tutor when I was a youngster, she, uh, uh, attended your college and, uh acquired French literature there.”

“Interesting,” I said. “When was that? I didn’t know women were allowed there until only just about thirty years ago, now.”

“Well, uh, many years prior to – now, let me return to – I, uh, I would like to just frame one small question for our interview. Let me just ask – who, who is your favorite author?”

It was an awkward stop, but this was a question I liked to hear. “That was the only question he asked me,” I imagined myself saying one day of this man, who was so jovial that I could already imagine framing this legendary story to my grandchildren one day. “That was how things were back then with FM Muddleson,” I would reminisce, though by then I would remember his real name – no, would treasure it – “and then he sealed the deal with a handshake! None of this educational gobbledygook that there is now!” I made haste to make my answer:

“Well, I would have to say Marcel Proust,” I told him eagerly, and then added a few perfunctory reasons. His face, a mask of magnanimity, seemed not to have changed expressions. When I paused, he began again.

“We have a curriculum here that is designed to – well, it’s a classical curriculum, and one of my beliefs is, and I just believe this with all my soul, is that critical inquiry is a cornerstone of what we do here. You know, one of my upper school masters last year – the man loved James Joyce, and you know, somehow, and I just thought – well, we don’t see eye to eye, but somehow we have managed to, uh, uh, coexist (and he pronounced this word as though it were a euphemism) even though he happens to admire such a, uh, uh, depraved human being.”

I sat silent for one second. Did he just take some sort of Puritanical dig at James Joyce and Marcel Proust, I wondered?

“Well, I am, uh . . .” I stumbled. “I suppose I’m just a bit of a Francophile myself,” I joked, curling into a smile of my own. The man across from me merely looked at me, narrowing his eyes, as if he were confused – not as though he wouldn’t have understood the simple joke, but that I would have made it at all. Perhaps, I reflected, it was in poor taste.

“Now, let me describe to you what we do here, our sacred mission,” he began. “My goal in founding this school was to allow students from all eight wards access to a private-school quality classical education. People told me every step of the way, they told me, ‘RJ Peterson, you are crazy. Those bureaucrats will never let you get away with that.’ But you know what? We did! We proved them all wrong. Every last one of them!”

“Well, young man, you know, that I’ve always had the same hiring policy, and we always will. In my opinion, if a man likes literature, and he’s gone to a fine college, as you have, he is better, in my book, than some ‘certified teacher!’ Good teachers don’t need certification!” I nodded at this. As you can tell from what I’ve said, I agreed with him. “And good teachers certainly don’t need unions!” he said as we shook. “Do they?” At this I didn’t know how to react, though he bellowed jovially, and then seemed to gauge my reaction, as if wanting to be fondly remembered later on as having bellowed – and jovially.

“Yes. Well,” he continued, “As for the matter of, uh, uh, compensation, I can – I can offer you – how’s this? Now, we usually offer our employees in this, uh, position, a, uh, certain amount, but since you are, a, well, you’re a man after all, and a man should be making more than 32 . . . well, what about 44 a year? How’s that sound?” His voice was now smooth as oil.

“You’re talking about $44,000?”

“Yes,” he said. “44.”

“Okay,” I said cautiously. This all felt a little – informal, rushed. I was still reeling a bit from being hired after having been asked just one question. This was very different from my prior teaching interviews, which had seen me grilled about my credentials, my resume, my philosophy, in some cases forced to teach sample lessons for a whole classroom of skeptical administrators. And something about his manner made this all seem too easy. Suddenly I felt the need to make this all as official as possible. Bells were going off somewhere in my head.

“I guess that all sounds great,” I said. “Do you have some paperwork I should fill out or something like that? That’s a very generous offer though. Thank you.”

“Oh, you can come in here to the office to take care of the paperwork the first day of school,” he said with a dismissive wave. “In my day, a deal like this was sealed with a handshake and that was it.” He smiled widely and gave me a wink.

Just then, I felt a rousal of fear within me. For all of my youthful confidence, I suddenly felt as though I had pulled one over on him. I was not the most experienced. Suddenly, look at the walls around us, I realized that in less than a week, I would be teaching within them. This man did not seem to have vetted me whatsoever!

Quickly I spoke in plain frankness of my lack of experience, that I did hope there was some support, that I wouldn’t be able to plunk down a ready-made curriculum of devastating effectiveness in my classes until, perhaps, the second week at best. It felt strange that I had to bring this up, as though I were playing the grown-up, because in most interviews, my questionable background would have been the central concern! But when I mentioned it, RJ seemed to brush the question off to the side – and I think he literally waved his hand off to the side when he assured me there was a support program for teachers, as if he didn’t want to bother himself with trivialities.

One thing I will say – he was easy enough to talk to. He was certainly not running me over in conversation, and indeed seemed to look on my effusive confessional with sidelong fear. Somehow his lack of apparent discernment made him less intimidating than a man like Ricardo Gomez, the head of the tutoring company I’d worked for, a shrewd suspicious man whom I knew had at once calculated precisely my professional shortcomings.

“Actually, there is one bit of paperwork we can take care of right now,” he said. He went to his desk, took a sheet of paper, and placed it on the desk in front of me, and bid me to look at it. The paper said “Employee Confidentiality Agreement.”

“This document is simply asking new employees to speak only about the school matters to others in the school, not to speak to members outside the immediate employ of the corporation regarding sensitive internal affairs. It’s not a big deal, but we, uh, want to make sure we have it on record.”

People asked me later why I signed. My answer is simple: I was 22. I was naïve. I’d only had summer jobs before, and my employers were regular people. They had my interests in mind. Jobs to me then were not things on which you staked your reputation, they were things that you were given almost to help you succeed, to improve your resume. They wanted people like me. So I signed it. I had no idea. Maybe there was something that had gone on before that required this. I couldn’t tell.

“So,” I asked, “do I need to show up with anything for the first day? I’ve got some ideas, of course, but – you know,” I said sheepishly, “as I said, it’s my first teaching job.”

He extended his hand and smiled widely.

“Just show up on Tuesday ready to go and Dean Merkin, who’s the head of our curriculum team, will fill you in on the specifics. Make sure to wear a suit again. Come down to the main office, which is on the other side of the building, and take care of the paper work the first day.”

When we’d finished shaking, he handed me a business card. It said:

“The Washington Latin School, RJ Peterson, Headmaster and Founder.”

I had mixed feelings on the drive back to my friend’s house. There was so much about it that I liked: the old-world feel of the poster, and the handshake deal between men. I’d loved the neoclassical curriculum, and been most moved by the mission of the school. I’d never been one for jargon, especially the educational jargon which I felt too many schools espoused, wrapped up in centuries of failed practices, of educational fads, and this man, Peterson, seemed to rise straight above it all.

I drove home quite excited and immediately did the requisite online search for background information. A prominent article in the Washington Post was the first artifact: “Local School Seeks to Relocate Amid Confusion.”

The Latin School in Northwest Washington achieved the city’s highest scores of any charter or public school on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment Standard examination last year. Latin placed first in both English and math among the city’s 51 charter schools and 76 public elementary and middle schools. Latin’s scores demonstrated remarkable academic growth over just one year, and favorably compare with top area private schools.

Unfortunately, The Latin School has been embroiled in controversy since the departure of Board President and former DC mayoral candidate Louis Grinson, in July. Head Master R.J. Peterson has come under criticism from parents for his attempts to relocate the school from its current location in Northwest Washington to an expensive property downtown on the National Mall.

Peterson, who describes himself as “stubborn,” has proven difficult to work with for a number of employees, including Grinson. “His paranoia got in the way of our working relationship,” wrote Grinson in a memorandum explaining his departure. Grinson also referenced a remark made by Peterson at a June Board meeting in which he explained how hard the staff was working, by allegedly saying, “I am working them like Georgia slaves.” Peterson himself has claimed he did not remember making such a remark.

At the time, I did not know what to make of all this. The notion of Peterson being “stubborn” didn’t seem to fit with whom I’d met in person, and frankly, the level of attention devoted in the article to what I knew as a genial, old man seemed incommensurate. I brushed it aside as merely something alarming, but which didn’t seem to have much to do with me. When you are going looking for a job right before the school year and realize you have few other options, you do not take the time to investigate things like this. If anything, this article only made me feel that Louis Grinson, whose name I recognized as a former professional basketball player, was not a reasonable man – in fact, he was probably part of the entrenched political system in the city that had for so long produced nothing but education mediocrity. And so I swam over these last paragraphs on the buoyancy of the first. This was the Washington Post, I told myself, a newspaper – or more likely, tract – who’d made a name by lowering accusation on the Law and Order Candidate. Perhaps they’d heard of posters being hung in their very city advising old-world decorum, and set about to undermine the campaign. And so when considering this embroiled institution, I did subvert apparent or generated controversy.

How lucky I’d become! I’d landed my first teaching job at what sounded like one of the best schools in the city. And all with a decent enough salary. Might I have greater effect now, I could not say, but I felt it to be true, and as the time drew close, I felt flush with exhilaration at the prospect of my first day of employment in the capital.