Many of you have seen Michelle Rhee scowling on the cover of Time wielding a broom. Perhaps you saw her snapping at teachers' union president Randi Weingarten after a preview showing of "Waiting for Superman." Maybe you remember Oprah declaring Rhee a "woman warrior."
All that makes Rhee sound very serious. Severe, even. That's what I expected to find when I started researching a book on Rhee nearly a year ago. However, what I found was something different: Sure, she's severe, but she's also possibly the nation's most interesting lunch companion.
Most likely you've never run across Rhee "lunching": a charitable term for her passionate embrace of all kinds of junk food. You've probably never witnessed her school-girlish attempts to cut back on the use of the words "crazy" and "like."
I'm not saying that Rhee can't be intense. She can. But ignoring the broader personality of the decade's most compelling school reformer would miss the most interesting part of Michelle Rhee.
Three early influences shaped Rhee's life, starting with her very intense mother -- Inza -- who raised her "Tiger Mom" style, unabashedly holding Michelle to stricter rules than her two brothers. Once, Inza grounded Michelle because her younger brother wasn't doing well in school. The next life marker arrived in sixth grade, when Michelle was sent to Korea to live with relatives and attend a Korean school -- a place where nobody knew English and Michelle was on her own -- forcing her to hone her inner resources. As Inza says, "She returned a different person."
A high school boyfriend led Rhee to her first work at an inner-city school. The boyfriend's mother worked at a school in urban Toledo, Ohio. Rhee visited the classroom once with him and then kept returning on her own to volunteer. Years later, when Rhee saw a PBS special on Teach for America, it all came together: This is what I want to do with my life, she decided.
Michelle's childhood experiences made her fiercely determined -- but determination is just one facet of her character. She also has a free-wheeling, try-anything personality, funny and fearless. One hot day back in 1992, in her first year with Teach for America at Baltimore's Harlem Park Elementary, things were not going well. Really not going well. Nobody was behaving or paying attention to her math lesson. When Rhee decided to crack a window to let in some fresh air, in flew a bumblebee. At the time, it didn't seem as if class decorum could decline further, but it did --considerably -- with students running around and screaming "a bee, a bee."
Unsure how to react, Rhee saw that the bee had landed momentarily by the air vent. She smacked it with her lesson plan, scooped it up and, without thinking, popped it into her mouth... and swallowed. The kids drew silent in amazement. Maybe this insane lady was someone worthy of respect.
Rhee doesn't care about doing something "crazy" (OK, I've started using her favorite word), as long as she gets the job done. One of my favorite memories of interviewing Rhee arises from that side of her personality. Early in the process of researching "The Bee Eater" -- my new book about her -- my access to Rhee came mainly from accompanying her on weekly school visits for after-hours meetings with teachers to talk about anything that was on their minds.
One time I was advised to show up early and (almost literally) ran into Rhee as she was coming off the elevator headed to the SUV, hangered bag in hand. "We need to stop at the tailor's," she told me. "Come along." As it turned out, Rhee was getting fitted for a gown to wear to the upcoming White House Correspondents Dinner. Upon arriving at the tailor's, I offered to stay in the car; she refused. "Come with me, we can talk." So there I was, trailing her through the crowds, trying to keep my digital recorder somewhere near her lips. Once in the tiny tailor's shop, equipped only with a flimsy, very public bamboo screen for changing, I tried to give Rhee some privacy. She would have none of it and insisted that I keep the interview going as she changed. So there I was, sticking my recorder between slats, asking about childhood stories. The seamstress, who had been chatting with Rhee in Korean, thought it was hilarious. As did I.
Rhee is relentless and high-energy, but also friendly and fun. It's a combination of skills that made her a great waitress as a teenager, back when she worked at a sandwich shop called Grumpy's. To Rhee, waitressing skills are precursors to life skills, even for those who move in the very fast lanes of life. Waitresses must be highly-organized, consistently diplomatic and capable of selling the daily special. Sounds like a Steve Jobs press conference.
The best waitressing story about Rhee happened long after her waitressing days were over, when Rhee was married to Kevin Huffman and living in Toledo with two small daughters. One special place to go out for a meal was the Original Pancake House. It was always crowded and on the evening they arrived there was a 45-minute wait. "They were taking names," says Huffman, "but all the people working there were kind of milling around and there were open tables. All the other customers were complaining. At first, Michelle goes over and peeks over the podium to look at the wait list. Then she's sort of looking everything over and wandering around the restaurant. Then she takes over the podium and says to the staff there, 'You, take this family and put them at the four-top there. You, take these guys to the two-top.'" Within five minutes, she'd cleaned out the backlog. And the staff didn't object, said Huffman. "They were like, 'Now here's someone with a plan.'" A little crazy, but it got the job done.
At times, Rhee's determination blinds her to the obvious. Up until mayoral primary day -- Sept. 14, 2010 -- Rhee truly believed, despite the polls clearly indicating otherwise, that D.C. voters would return Mayor Adrian Fenty to office. She was stunned that he lost and quickly realized that his controversial education reforms were at the root of his loss. At that point, it was only a matter of time before she stepped down.
Where she stepped next, however, is revealing. Almost immediately, Rhee decided to take the D.C. fight nationally with StudentsFirst, a group that she wants to counter all the forces she sees as only pretending to put the interest of students first. Her goal: Sign up 1 million members and raise $1 billion in the first year, all while parachuting into school reform battles around the country.
Crazy, perhaps, but so was swallowing that bee.