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Saturday, October 04, 2003
Story Time: How Margaret Thatcher Accidentally Triggered Regime Change at the American School in London, 1971

The American School in London (ASL) has served American (and some other) residents of London since the 1950s, with a curriculum designed to feed back into other American high schools and colleges. I was there, in 1970-3, for 7th through 9th grades; by all standards except numerically these years are the late 1960s. When my family arrived there, the school was moving all of its facilities from a smaller facility elsewhere to its new location, in the northwest London neighborhood called St. John's Wood, two blocks from the famous Abbey Road studios, where it remains to this day. As a sign of the times, the new school was built around an open classroom plan, using hexagon "pods", where each sixth of the hexagon was a classroom space, and the teachers' offices were in a central core of the pod. Like I say, it was the sixties.

By the fall of 1971, the new building was complete. There was to be a dedication ceremony, and the school invited the current Minster of Education, one Mrs. Margaret Thatcher. Mrs. Thatcher had recently made a controversial decision to drop the free milk program for young children in state schools (that is, public schools). Her tabloid name at that time was "Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher". A small faction of students -- I think 4 at most -- decided they were going to protest this cold-hearted financial decision at the dedication. The Director of the Upper School -- which at that time was ASL-speak for "Principal of the High School" -- was a man named Zan Smith. He was, despite the general Midwest-conservative tenor of the Board that oversaw the school, a relatively hip guy, popular with the students. The protest faction approached hip ol' Zan and laid it out for him: they were going to get up and make their protest when Mrs. Thatcher rose to speak at the ceremony, and then walk out. I can't say whether they were warning him out of respect, asking what would happen to them, or both. In any case, they were told that if they got up to speak, they would be suspended for three days.

"Sounds like a plan", they probably did not say, for it would have been an anachronism; but that was their take on it.

And so the day came, and the Milk Snatcher rose to speak, and the protestors did likewise; their leader made their statement in a not-very-loud voice, and they walked out in protest, and they were suspended for three days, as promised. But Zan had made a strategic error: the Board felt that Smith had allowed their guest, who was after all a cabinet Minister of their host country, to be embarrassed by this protest, and looking back I can't say they were wrong to feel that way. They overruled the old deal, and announced a new deal: the protesters were to be suspended not for three days, but indefinitely, and they furthermore were to be required to write letters of apology to Mrs. Thatcher. Smith refused to enforce this new deal, as he felt he made a bargain with the protestors, and would not go back on it. The Board, of course, was of the opinion that he had had no authority to make such a deal in the first place. And once all these positions were established, the inevitable end was the announcement that Zan Smith had been fired.

To the barricades! The students were up in arms, but to no avail. There was a closed-door meeting of the entire High School, which I, one year too young, was unable to infiltrate -- ok, honestly, that would have been beyond me, because I've never skulked well. Anyway, whatever happened, it wasn't enough, and Zan Smith was gone. He was succeeded by his second-in-command, William J. Moloney, who became a unfairly maligned symbol of evil. The next year, when I proudly made it into the Upper School, I joined the ranks of those who made it their business to have contempt for him. I do not say this with pride; I obviously had no real idea what was going on, and Mr. Moloney bore the vaguest resemblance to Richard Nixon, and it was by now 1972, so...well...that's how we acted. Moloney eventually became Commissioner of Education of the State of Colorado; his bio on that website gives the impression that he might indeed be a little on the Bill-Bennetty side, seeing as how he's written a book called The Content of America's Character, but since I just got done talking about how I jumped to conclusions about him 30 years ago, maybe I should suspend judgement now.

That Mrs. Thatcher, she did pretty well for herself later on, too. She's written books and everything.

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