Condoleezza Rice was Secretary of State from 2005-2009 under president George W. Bush and is currently a professor of political science at Stanford and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. Her 2010 memoir, Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family,is a fine account of her life, including lots of great information about her childhood in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1950s and 60s, especially (for us) her year as a homeschooler.
It happened like this. When Rice was almost five her parents decided she was ready for kindergarten. She clearly was. Rice was an only child, born to two very well-educated members of Birmingham’s Black middle class, both teachers themselves and deeply committed to the notion that education was the best way a Black person could earn respect in the segregated South. Rice was born in November of 1954, and her parents
plunged into parenthood with a vengeance. Early on they sought to build a good learning environment for me, reading stories to me every night until I was able to read myself. My mother was as determined to raise a musician as my father was to cultivate a sports fan. She bought my first piano when I was three months old, and I learned later that we would ‘play’ songs together, Mother moving my fingers along the little keyboard…. Daddy wanted me to really understand football and would analyze the plays, explaining what the defense was doing to counter the offense and vice versa. (p. 33-34, 44)
By age four Rice was able to read music and play hymns well enough that her parents broke down and got her a real piano, which she played for hours at a time. Her mother also brought home records, “which we would listen to together. One day, when I was about five years old, she brought home Aida, the Guiseppe Verdi opera. My little eyes were as big as saucers as I listened to the ‘Triumphal March’ for the first time, and I played the record over and over. And on Saturdays we listened to radio broadcasts of the New York Metropolitan Opera…” (p.43)
Given an upbringing like this, it is not surprising that Rice was ready for kindergarten at age five. She went to one started by her father that stressed reading, writing, and arithmetic. After it was over she was ready for first grade, but according to state law she was too young. October 31 was the cut-off date, and Rice was born on November 14. Rather than lose an entire year of school, Rice’s mother convinced local authorities to allow her daughter to test the following year for second grade. It would be Mrs. Rice’s job to get young Condoleezza ready for this test. Here’s how Rice describes her year at home with her mother:
My mother decided to take a year’s leave from teaching to coach me in preparation for the exam. Years later when the home-schooling movement became more visible, I belatedly realized that I had been a part of it, if only in an ad hoc way. Mother was very systematic about my school day. We’d get up and see Daddy off to work and then start ‘school.’ She ordered the first-and second-grade texts in math, science, and reading and took me through them in a very rigorous fashion. I’d take tests every week to chart our progress. This flexible schedule also allowed time to practice piano, and as a result, I advanced significantly during this time…
I didn’t mind having my mother teach me at home, except for one thing: I wanted to be like the other kids who would go to school every morning and come home at the end of the day. I felt so different and I hated it…. ‘Next year,’ I proclaimed, ‘I will be in second grade!’ I was very proud when I passed the test, scoring at a third-grade level of competency in arithmetic and a fifth-grade level in reading. I entered Lane Elementary School as a six-year-old second grader. (p.52-53)
There’s much else in this book of educational interest, not least Rice’s evocation of the sunnier side of segregation that obtained at some of the excellent Black schools in Alabama, and the respect the Black community had for the teachers and administrators of those schools. Much fine educational historiography has been written about the powerful education provided in some of these segregated schools and the devastating effect on Black professionals and the Black community that school integration produced–thousands of Black professionals lost their jobs as segregated schools were closed, and Black children increasingly were taught by White teachers who did not particularly relish the task. Rice’s memoir gives moving testimony to the strength of the Black community of families and professionals that nurtured her despite the brutal oppression of Birmingham’s White ruling class.
Finally, the early chapters of her book give us fascinating detail into the considerable educational attainments of her extended family going back to a great-grandmother who had learned to read as a slave. There’s also of course a whole lot that will be interesting to those looking for insight into Rice’s political and foreign policy career. For our purposes, though, it serves as a winsome example of how many Americans even before the modern “homeschooling” movement used the home to educate their children, often with remarkable results.