Photo by Beverlie Lord/Satsun Photography

Peggy O'Brien

Peggy O’Brien has lived on Capitol Hill, within a three-block radius of where she lives today, since coming to Washington to attend Trinity College in 1965.

Since arriving in Washington, she has taught in public schools, worked in media and education policy, and has been employed by the Folger Shakespeare Library.  She describes her many roles in education, and explains what has been termed the “Folger Method” of teaching students about Shakespeare. While she is best known for her contributions to education and for bringing Shakespeare alive for students and teachers, she was also a singer in The Jaynettes, an all-woman group that performed on Capitol Hill for more than two decades.  They were known, Peggy notes, as “vintage women singing vintage songs.”

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Interview Date
September 9, 2023
Randy Norton
David MacKinnon
Kathleen O'Leary

Full Directory

Interview with Peggy O’Brien
Interview Date: September 9, 2023
Interviewer: Randy Norton
Transcriber: David MacKinnon
Editor: Kathleen O’Leary

photo by Beverlie Lord/Satsun Photography

This interview transcript is the property of the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project.
Not to be reproduced without permission.

NORTON: This is Randy Norton. I am interviewing Peggy O’Brien at her home [at] 12 Seventh Street SE, Washington DC. It is the 9th of September 2023. Good morning.
O’BRIEN: Good morning.
NORTON: Where are you originally from?
O’BRIEN: I am from a little town outside of Boston, Massachusetts. Winchester, Massachusetts.
NORTON: How long did you live there?
NORTON: Actually, both my parents were from an adjacent little town in Boston and so I grew up mainly around there and had a little sojourn in Chicago when my father got transferred. So, from the time I was in the first grade to halfway through the sixth grade, I lived in a suburb of Chicago and then came back to Boston and then came to college in Washington and never left.
NORTON: Where did you go to college?
O’BRIEN: I went to Trinity College the oldest Catholic women’s college in the country, in northeast DC.
NORTON: Where did you go to high school?
O’BRIEN: Went to Winchester Hight School, public high school. Actually, I went to Matignon High School [closed in June 2023], a Catholic high school for ninth grade. My mother was very big on Catholic schools. It turned out to be not the right school for me. It also turned out that I was not the right student for it.  And so, then I transferred to Winchester High School, which is just my local public high school, which was a great school.
NORTON: You went to a Catholic college?
O’BRIEN: College, yeah, I did. I wanted to go to a school in Washington because my sister had gone to Georgetown [University] and loved it. I came and visited her a lot and I thought, “This is the spot.” So, Trinity was; that was a place I could go to college in Washington. I really liked it.
NORTON: You liked being at Trinity?
O’BRIEN: I did. I loved going to a women’s college. As I have grown older, a lot older, I totally appreciated the fact that I went a women’s college.
NORTON: Why’s that?
O’BRIEN: I don’t know.  I started in 1965. I graduated in 1969. Most of our teachers were women. Many of them were nuns. We never thought there wasn’t anything that we couldn’t do or that we couldn’t strive for. Even though there were lots of things [we couldn’t do]. In my graduating class there was one woman who went to law school. There were two women who went to med school and that was astonishing that there were two of them.
NORTON: That was astonishing just in general at that time to have women go to law school and med school in ’65.
O’BRIEN: No, exactly. Even though there were real limitations about what women could do, I don’t know, we all thought we were destined to do something useful in the world and that kind of stuff. That turned out to be a good way to have gone to college. A lot of us have stayed friends with each other all this time, many years later.
NORTON: Your fellow students. Your classmates at Trinity.
O’BRIEN: Yeah.
NORTON: What did you major in?
O’BRIEN: I majored in English. I did not want to be a teacher. So, here’s the thing. When I was in college and growing up, the things that women could do, they were teachers, we were teachers, we were nurses. We were secretaries or we got married when we got out of college. Those were kind of the choices that people had. Most of us were like, “No, none of that seems right.” Though some of us did all those things. I never wanted to be a teacher because of that reason. But I was in college in Washington in 1967 and 1968 when there were a million things happening. Civil rights movement, women’s movement, anti-war movement.
NORTON: The riots.
O’BRIEN: Oh, my god, the riots in ’68. I stood on the top of my dorm and watched H Street [NE] burn. Then I started to think that connecting people or trying to connect people with the power of their own brains was a really important kind of social activism, so that’s why I decided to become a teacher.
NORTON: Had you decided to become a teacher before you graduated?
O’BRIEN: Yeah, yeah. I graduated and I applied for the Urban Teacher Corps which was kind of a precursor of something that was called the National Teacher Corps. It was set up by DC Public Schools. It was a fantastic program. There were 200 of us in this program from all over the country. We went to school in the summer, in the elementary school that was on the campus of Catholic University. We sat in these little tiny chairs in the first grade, second grade classrooms. We had fabulous classes. We had all kinds of speakers from the city and then we agreed to teach for at least two years in a DC public school.
NORTON: That was sort of your teacher training, going in the little elementary school there in the summer.
O’BRIEN: Yeah, absolutely. My parents, not my mother really, but my father [was] not happy that I wasn’t coming back to Boston. Not happy that I wanted to teach in a big urban high school with mostly people who didn’t look like me. He was not happy about that except I knew that was exactly what I should be doing. I thought I had a ton to learn and I did. I learned a lot.
NORTON: Where were you living when you were in school?
O’BRIEN: In school I lived in a dorm.
NORTON: Then when you got out where did you live?
O’BRIEN: When I got out, I had to find a place to live right away, because we started in the summer. There were some Trinity women who were a year ahead of me who lived at 1120 East Capitol Street. Right on Lincoln Park. One of them was leaving for the summer, so I rented her room for the summer. That’s where I saw on this little tiny TV, I saw Neil Armstrong land on the moon that summer. I started living on Capitol Hill like right when I got out of dorm. That was the first place I ever lived in Washington. Capitol Hill was really different then, but I loved it. I thought, “This is the thing,” I grew up in this sleepy little suburb. I thought, “This is really, this is it.” I lived there that summer and then I lived in a house with three other women the next school year. They were very nervous about living on Capitol Hill.
NORTON: Where was that?
O’BRIEN: We lived on Woodley Place. We lived up near the intersection of Connecticut and Calvert [Streets NW]. That’s when I started teaching my full year, first full year. Teaching was at [Theodore] Roosevelt High School [13th Street NW between Upshur and Allison Streets].
NORTON: The second year you taught you were actually living up in northwest.
O’BRIEN: Yeah, because I couldn’t talk my housemates into living on the Hill. Then after that year, Ed O’Brien and I got married and we lived at 605 Constitution Avenue. Since then, I have lived probably in a three-block radius of where I live right now.
NORTON: Why don’t I just go through where else have you lived on the Hill?
O’BRIEN: I lived at 605 Constitution Avenue.
NORTON: Til when?
O’BRIEN: Until, from 1970 to 1971. From 1971 to 1975, I lived at 118 Seventh Street, SE, one block from here. Then he and I bought this house, which is 12 Seventh Street SE.
NORTON: That’s you and Ed O’Brien?
O’BRIEN: Me and Ed O’Brien. Then when me and Ed O’Brien split up, I moved to 615 A Street SE for four years, maybe five years, I can’t remember. Then ultimately, I moved back into this house. After that, Michael Tolaydo, my second and terminal and fabulous husband. Then he moved into this house too.
NORTON: When was that? When did you marry Michael?
O’BRIEN: Married Michael in; actually, Michael and I lived in sin for a slight amount of time. We got married in 1991.
NORTON: I use that term as well. A lot of people don’t anymore.
O’BRIEN: This is an old lady who was brought up a Catholic.
NORTON: I was so amused by your answer. When was that?
O’BRIEN: We got married in 1991. In this house.
NORTON: The house we’re sitting in, 12 Seventh Street?
O’BRIEN: Yep, yep.
NORTON: How long were you married to Ed?
O’BRIEN: From 1970 to ... We split up, we separated and then didn’t get divorced for five years after that. We separated I think in ’84 maybe. Yeah. That sounds right.
NORTON: How long were you teaching school?
O’BRIEN: I taught school in DC Public Schools until 1973 or ‘74. Then I had a baby. I had John O’Brien in 1973. I couldn’t keep teaching in DC. If I taught physics or if I taught Russian, I could have had a part-time job. But they were loaded with English teachers. So, I couldn’t get a full-time job or even a part-time job teaching English. I wanted to stay home with him part time. I had lost a baby at six months, a six-months pregnancy. It was so hard.
NORTON: This was before John was born.
O’BRIEN: Yeah, before John. The pregnancy was totally unexpected and losing that guy was also totally unexpected. When I had John I thought, “Ah, you know, I want to stay home part of the time.” So, I couldn’t keep teaching in DC schools which was my first love. So, I taught at a place called the Forum School, which was called an alternative school, which now would be called a charter school, except it didn’t get any city funding or anything. It was started by a guy that I was in the Teacher Corps with. It was a school for kids that had been pitched out of public school, or kids whose parents wanted them to have a little more of maybe a hippy dippy experience in school.
NORTON: Where was the Forum School?
O’BRIEN: It was on Ontario Road, in a house on Ontario Road.
NORTON: In northwest.
O’BRIEN: Yeah. Forty kids. It was really interesting experience.
NORTON: Let me back up just a little bit because you taught at Roosevelt High. How long did you teach there.
O’BRIEN: I taught there for a year. Then I taught at Eastern [High School on Capitol Hill].
NORTON: English?
O’BRIEN: English.
NORTON: Both times?
O’BRIEN: You got it.
NORTON: You already told me about how you were inspired to help mold minds and all that sort of thing. What was it like teaching at Roosevelt and Eastern?
O’BRIEN: It was great. I hope people learned something from me. It was great because ... When you’re a new teacher you think ... we had this great training. At Roosevelt we were with a whole Teacher Corps team. We had a mentor teacher. We had a ton of support. We taught two classes a day. We watched everybody else teach. We watched all these other great teachers teach. It was just a fabulous way to learn this stuff. I just learned a ton. I learned about kids’ families. I learned about how much parents care about kids. I learned something about teaching and how to make things plain. How to not dumb things down but how to set things up so kids can discover it and make it their own. Schools were not a scary place then. People didn’t have guns then, right.
NORTON: Some people did.
O’BRIEN: Well, some people [did], but not as many, right. It was a great community.  At Eastern, Bill Saunders was the principal. He was fantastic. There were a few young white teachers there, and there were fabulous teachers who were just wonderful, more experienced teachers who were wonderful to us. But, he said, “You guys are really important,” because all the kids were African American and he said, “You have a chance to show these kids a different version of a white person.” He said, “For many of these kids the white person was like the cop, or the person who ran the corner store who charged high interest rates if you ran a tab, or a social worker who was not great to them. They have examples in their lives more than likely of white people who have not been terrific.”
And he said, “You need to have high standards about their learning and all that kind of stuff, but you have a chance to show them something really different.” That is something that was a real visionary statement for a whole lot of us. We were tough. When my grades first came out at first advisory, they were like, “Hey, wait a minute.” I said, “Here, let me show you my grade book. Remember how I said you needed that, and you owed me this and this and this.” Then they figured out.
NORTON: Ah, so that; yes, you were one of those tough teachers.
O’BRIEN: Yeah, oh sure. Then they needed to step it up. In the meantime, I learned a ton and I met lots of kids’ families and ended up taking kids to the theater. It was fun.
NORTON: I’ve read stuff about you and you are now known as an internationally acclaimed expert on teaching Shakespeare. Did you teach Shakespeare?
O’BRIEN: Sure.
NORTON: How did you do it?
O’BRIEN: Early on there were experienced teachers who said to me, “You know Peggy, these kids are probably not going to get it about Shakespeare.” Meanwhile I was not like a Shakespeare aficionado necessarily. They said, “They’re not going to get it and so you can like skip over that.” I thought, “What do you mean they’re not going to get it? That’s crazy. I don’t know. Let’s see if that’s an assumption or what that is, right.” The other thing that was interesting is these kids were all African American. The only thing they had to read that was written by anybody else who was an African American was a tiny, like two paragraphs of Fredrick Douglas’ narrative. That was it. So, I’m on a mimeograph machine. I’m typing up poems by Nikki Giovanni and all kinds of stuff and handing all this stuff out because they never had seen any of this stuff, because I’m old, right and this is like early days.
NORTON: Right. If you talk about mimeograph machine you know you’re old. [Laughs.]
O’BRIEN: I’m like 100 years old. Shakespeare, I was like, “Let’s do it.” My first year at Eastern I had a class of kids. Tracking had been outlawed in the DC public schools by then.
NORTON: Hobson vs. Hansen. [Washington DC’s rigid system that assigned students to ability groups or “tracking” was found to be unconstitutional because it discriminated against low-income and black students.]
O’BRIEN: Absolutely, absolutely. But I had this class of really, really bright kids. They were great readers. They were seniors and they had great aspirations to go to college. They all got great, they went great places. I said to them, “We can do the Shakespeare play in the book, or we could do the big one.”
NORTON: What was the play in the book?
O’BRIEN: The play in the book was Macbeth.
NORTON: That’s not a bad play.
O’BRIEN: At the time I was like 22, right. I thought the big one was Hamlet. I no longer think the big one is Hamlet. I said, “We could do the big one.” They were like, “Yeah. That’s what we want to do.” We figured out how to pull some books together and stuff. So, we started on Hamlet. I started teaching this play the way I had been taught Hamlet, or I had been taught Shakespeare, which is like you read up and down the rows and everybody takes a part and that stuff. The first scene in Hamlet is actually a pretty good scene. There are lots first scenes in Shakespeare plays that are terrible. You feel like he knew that people were probably still finding their place and buying a beer or something.
NORTON: Finding their seat.
O’BRIEN: This is a pretty good scene, so we’re like partway through the scene and I’m like, “Hey you guys, so what do you think, like what do you think, Shakespeare?” “What is this?” They said, “This is terrible, like what is this?” This is the great thing about kids, like they tell you what they think. The great and frustrating thing. I was like, “Whoa, what do you mean?” And they said, “Who are these guys and what are they talking about?” I thought, “Wow, here are kids who are really motivated, they’re really good readers, I mean they’re dying to read; they were like, “Yeah, we want to read the big one, right.” On the other hand, here’s this guy, this playwright who wrote a long time ago but who has had something to say to all kinds of people for all this time. That’s when it really hit me about what the role of a teacher is. I thought, “Okay, I’ve got to figure out how to do this.” It was a Friday.
NORTON: Was this at Eastern?
O’BRIEN: This is Eastern. It was a Friday. I said, “You all I’ve got to think about this a little bit.” I went home and I thought, “Oh my god, like what am I, you know I’ve got to make this come out right.” I knew nothing about theater, zero. But, I thought, “Well, I clearly don’t know how to teach this stuff yet, but he knew how to write plays, so let’s do it that way.” So, I chunked this play up into scenes and we had kids on their feet doing stuff. That’s how they learned it. It was really successful. That’s the basis of what at the Folger is now called the Folger Method of learning literature.
NORTON: What are you talking about? Before you just had them sitting there and they were reading the lines. Now you’ve got them on their feet. What was different about that?
O’BRIEN: You get them on their feet and then people read a few lines and you say, “Okay, who do you think these guys are. What are these lines telling you? Don’t look at every note.” Shakespeare’s the only author that we give to kids that we feel we have to explain what every single word means. They can figure out a lot of stuff contextually and together. I say, “Well, what do you think?” And they’re like, “Okay these guys are on watch and it’s [night]?” I said, “How do you know it’s nighttime?” “Because it says, this line says.” Plus, there’s a whole thing about physical movement that just adds, well, you should come in from here and you should [go there]. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was moving and people were learning stuff. Yeah.
NORTON: So, you kept doing that.
NORTON: I kept doing that. When I left and I taught at the Forum School. After that I was at Bishop McNamara High School [Forestville, Maryland].
NORTON: Did you teach English at the Forum School?
O’BRIEN: At the Forum School there was a huge interest among almost all the kids in bikes. We had a bike repair business that we opened in this school. A lot of what people wanted to focus on were bike manuals and writing things. So, a lot of the kind of writing that the kids did and the kind of reading that they did was about bikes which was great. Start with what people are interested in, right. There was poetry and all that kind of stuff. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t teach a Shakespeare play.
NORTON: How long were you at the Forum?
O’BRIEN: Just a year. Then I went to McNamara, Bishop McNamara, after that.
NORTON: That’s the Roman Catholic school?
O’BRIEN: Yep. In PG [Prince George’s] County.
NORTON: How long did you teach there?
O’BRIEN: For a year. Only for a year because my parents, both my parents were … we didn’t know how long my mother, [she] had fought cancer for a long time. We didn’t know how long she was going to live. So, I thought I can’t. They lived in Boston. I thought, “I can’t. I’ve got to be able to go back and forth and do stuff for them.” They both died that summer.
NORTON: Both your parents?
O’BRIEN: They died in the same summer, 1975.
NORTON: While you were teaching at McNamara?
O’BRIEN: After that year. Then I called up McNamara and I said, “I can’t, I’ve got to stay in one place and I’ve got to work with my sister to figure out about all this stuff we have to figure out.”
NORTON: Was your sister living down here?
O’BRIEN: No, my sister lived in Boston too. I just had to pay attention to my life. So, that’s when I stopped teaching.
NORTON: Why did you leave DCPS to go to Forum School and then McNamara?
O’BRIEN: Because I couldn’t get a job. I wanted to work part time.
NORTON: You were living on the Hill, right?
O’BRIEN: Oh yeah.
NORTON: What was life like living on the Hill back in the era that you were teaching and then after you started having kids?
O’BRIEN: It was great. I really wanted to live on the Hill because it was just so much more interesting. There was so much going on in the city, right, than in this little suburb where I grew up. Also, when we started having kids I thought, “I want my kids to have a world view that is different than the pretty narrow Boston Irish-Catholic world view that I was brought up in.” That made a lot of sense. Then I did think, “Well, you know, when kids start school ...” You know, people would move off the Hill and move to a suburb. I thought, “Maybe we’d do that.” Then I realized that by the time it was time for John O’Brien to go to PreK, that there were lots of families who stayed, who were on the Hill and they were putting their kids into school. So, that’s what we did. John started at Peabody [Elementary School on Stanton Park]. Then Beth O’Brien, who came along in 1976 ... They both started PreK at Peabody.
People would say to me, “Why are you sending you kids to the public school? Why are you?” I said, “Why not, right?” I’m a public-school person. I said, “Our thing is, we’ll do this a year at a time. If it turns out not to be good, then we’ll do something else. This is how we would start.” I also thought, “If academics are the issue, we can do something about that.” As a family we could do something about that. A public school in this city, in this neighborhood, at that time would give my kids a sense of the world that we could not give them. That’s why those choices got made. So, they went all the way through the eighth grade. John was the first class; his eighth grade was the first year that Hobson Middle School moved to Stuart.
NORTON: Because for a while they were at the top floor of Watkins.
O’BRIEN: Right, exactly. They had great teachers. They had great teachers and they had a great education.
NORTON: Both of them?
O’BRIEN: Yeah. They did.
NORTON: Both of them went through the eighth grade?
O’BRIEN: They went through eighth grade. But then the boundary rules were really different for high schools then. Their high school choices would have been a lot more limited. John could have gone to Banneker where at the time, and maybe this is still true, no sports, no arts stuff. Just plain academics. He might not have gotten in. That or Eastern or Wilson had an international program. But none of those things seemed right.
NORTON: The international studies program was sort of the wink, wink way you got your kid into Wilson. That’s sort of the route we took.
O’BRIEN: That’s interesting. There weren’t any charter schools, right? Both my kids went to private, independent high schools. When they talk about what they learned where ... I think the reason both of them got into some good colleges is because their college essays––and they’re four years apart, so they weren’t looking at each other’s essays––were about stuff that happened in their elementary and middle school. That was a great move. So, your kids are in school, so then you meet all these families and you get plugged into all kinds of stuff that going on for them. In the time when they had just started school, when John had just started school, when I took a couple of years off after my parents died, when we started the Man in the Green Hat.
NORTON: I want to ask about that. You and Ed, right?
O’BRIEN: Uh huh.
NORTON: What was involved about that? I actually went there. It was kind of a cool restaurant.
O’BRIEN: It was a joint. Ed O’Brien grew up in Queens, New York, and he had always wanted to own a bar. When he was in law school at Georgetown ... I met him when I was an undergraduate at Trinity and he was a Georgetown law student. In 1967, all the graduate deferments were canceled because of the Vietnam War. Guys either enlisted or they did something else. He taught school in Baltimore. He was trying to dodge the draft, which he did. During that time, he and a guy that he went to high school with made plans. They opened a bar. They rented a space on N Street [NW] right off Connecticut Avenue, right by Dupont Circle. They rented this space from the Archdiocese, the Catholic Archdiocese, and they opened this bar called the Rogue and Jar, which I had not hardly had anything…
NORTON: Rogue and Jar.
O’BRIEN: The Rogue and Jar. I had hardly anything to do with that. They had that for a few years, then they sold it.
NORTON: Were you married then when he had the Rogue and Jar?
O’BRIEN: Yeah. We got married during the time that he had that. Then several years later he and I were at my tenth high school reunion in Winchester, Massachusetts [and saw] this guy that I [went] to high school with, who was a really good friend of mine in high school. He and his brother got into the restaurant business. They had just sold this restaurant in Massachusetts. He said, “Do you guys ever think of getting into the restaurant business?” Ed Obrien said, “Yes.” I said, “No.” This guy whose name was Kevin Conner, who’s a great guy, moved down here. He and his wife moved down here. So, we decided to open a restaurant. I was going to have nothing to do with it.
NORTON: This was while you were still teaching or was it...
O’BRIEN: No, no, no. This is in my interlude. The only restaurant on the Senate side of the Hill was the Gandy Dancer.
NORTON: Which was kind of a neat restaurant.
O’BRIEN: It was totally a neat place. So, we thought, “Well, I don’t know. This is kind of an entrepreneurial thing. What about a place on the Senate side? That was not fancy but had great food, that had a great, long bar and then had a kid’s menu and high chairs  ...” Because that’s what we needed and we thought there’s other families who need that too. We bought this building in 1976 and put together this…
NORTON: Just so we know, it’s the corner of Third and Massachusetts Avenue, NE, right?
O’BRIEN: That’s right. Third and Mass. It was a dry cleaner and a barber shop and two apartments. We found the people in the apartments other places to be. We had a bunch of stuff left at the dry cleaners for a long time. We opened it a year later. We put together a sort of a collaborative of construction folks, an architect and stuff. I was not going to have anything to do with this. I thought, “Oh no, I’m not interested in that at all.” Except that we had to raise money to open this place. A bank would not even look at us. So, I kept making soup and Irish soda bread and people would roll through here. Various people would talk to folks about investing. This is small-time investing. We said, “We don’t want your last five grand.” All together we raised probably $150,000 which is what we needed.
NORTON: With the soup and soda bread?
O’BRIEN: Exactly. At the Man in the Green Hat, we had fresh Irish soda bread made every day, though it wasn’t an Irish place. So, it opened. That was kind of an amazing experience, right?
NORTON: The Man in the Green Hat was what, the bootlegger for Congress or whatever?
O’BRIEN: Yeah. He was the bootlegger for Congress during prohibition. His real name was George Cassiday. We couldn’t find out if he was alive or dead when this place was going to open in 1977. We thought if we named it Cassiday’s, we thought, “Oh my god what if we did that and then the first day that we’re open there’s a man who comes in the front door and says, ‘I’m your new partner because you named your restaurant after us.’” [Laughter.] So, that’s why we called it the Man in the Green Hat. I managed it two nights a week. I learned a lot of things doing that.
NORTON: This was your “part-time job” in quotes?
O’BRIEN: That was my “part-time job.” Yeah. Sandy Wallace who lived on A Street NE, she would come. She was the baby sitter. She would come at four o’clock in the afternoon and I would go two nights, two days a week and I would go to work.
NORTON: You’d had both kids by then?
O’BRIEN: Uh huh, uh huh. We sold the business in 1984 and we sold the building I think in 1986, I can’t remember.
NORTON: Why’d you sell the business?
O’BRIEN: We sold the business because it just got harder to do. Also, our partner who was the full-time manager and stuff. He wanted to go on and do something else. So then we had another manager who ended up ... There started to be money missing, all that kind of stuff. We thought, “You know what, this is …” None of us had the interest in really pulling this out. So, we sold the business and then the building. Most people who had invested at least got their money back. Some people got more than their money back. It was a wild adventure. That was a whole other view of the Hill.
NORTON: What do you mean by that?
O’BRIEN: People would call and they would say, “The senator is coming with his staff.” Meanwhile it had a fifty-two-seat bar. I forget the number of seats we had at tables. But it wasn’t huge. They would say, “The senator’s coming and bringing his staff and they’ll be there in 30 minutes.” I would say, “We don’t have any…” First of all, we don’t know who the senator is. [Laughter.] There’s 50 of them.
NORTON: Well, there’s 100 actually.
O’BRIEN: Oh, exactly. Fifty times two. Also, the mayor. “The mayor’s coming.” There would be people who roll in and out of there and that was pretty fun.
NORTON: I remember seeing Mr. Moynihan, Senator Moynihan at the bar.
O’BRIEN: He would always stand; he would always stand behind the back bar. His chief of staff was Tim Russert. They would often come together. That was kind of interesting. You know who used to come there a lot for dinner, by himself, right before the kitchen closed because he lived across the street, was Bill Bradley when he was a senator. For all this stuff, we would never make a lot of fuss about who anybody was. We felt like they deserved their privacy. There were new members of Congress who felt like they invented the Hill. They would come in and they would say, “This is just the greatest neighborhood.” Like it was all in black and white before they got here and now it was in technicolor. We would say, “Yeah, you know there’s a lot of us who’ve been in this neighborhood for a long time.” It was totally kind of an out-of-box experience for somebody like me. I’m an English teacher.
NORTON: Let me just run through a little bit your kid’s education, through the Cluster and all that. There were some adventures. There was Veola Jackson from the beginning.
O’BRIEN: Oh man. Yup.
NORTON: What do you remember about her?
O’BRIEN: She was phenomenal. What a leader. It’s so different now though. The whole thing. I don’t know exactly what the parents’ scene is on the Hill these days. All of us knew, cared passionately about our kids. We wanted our kids to get a great education. We wanted all kids to get a great education, which is a little different than it might be now. None of us thought we could run a school, but we knew she knew how to run a school. She was the boss. She was the boss. The kind of, from where I sat, the kind of choices she made were really excellent.
NORTON: Like what?
O’BRIEN: I think the quality of teachers. My kids had really fantastic teachers, teachers who were really committed to what they were doing. They were really good at what they were doing. That’s a key. That’s totally a key thing. Then she kept annexing schools so that our kids would have another place to go. That their trajectory just wouldn’t end. I’m skipping ahead, but one thing that was really interesting to me is when I was the chief of family engagement at DC Public Schools, Family and Public Engagement. One of the things I was involved with the first summer I was there was ... We had 40 new principals. This is after we’d closed, Michelle [Rhee] had closed a million schools. We had 40 new principals and I was part of the team that put together this kind of orientation for them. We had a gathering. Actually, I had them all here for dinner I think one night. At the first gathering we had I realized there were two of these new principals who had been students at the Cluster. Part of the orientation was they went around and people said why they wanted, what kind or energy they had for being a principal and what they wanted to do. Both of them mentioned Veola Jackson.
NORTON: She was absolutely a leader. But she would get people to go to bat for her. I always remember she’d talk about downtown. They weren’t giving her what she wanted. She’d say, “You all go down there.”
O’BRIEN: No, she knew how to work it. One thing, Beth O’Brien repeated the first grade. We thought she should. Not that I knew a lot about that, but she was just working too hard. So frustrated. She was a late November birthday. So, I went and talked to her.
NORTON: Mrs. Jackson.
O’BRIEN: Mrs. Jackson. Before that I talked to the first-grade teacher. She said, “Peggy, but her grades are good” and all this stuff. I’m like, “Yeah, but really she’s so frustrated and she’s working so hard and really life takes a long time.” I said, “I’m going to talk to Mrs. Jackson.” She said, “Of course, go ahead.” So, I did. Mrs. Jackson said, “Peggy, she’s doing so well.” Mrs. Jackson was not for this initially. I said, “Okay. I’m a big believer in this school.” I kind of reminded her about how I ran the PTA potluck one year and how I worked on the race [Capitol Hill Classic] and all this stuff. She was like, “Okay, let’s try it.” It turned out to be a really good thing for Beth. There were two first grades, so she just went to the other first grade. It turned out to be a great thing for her. Also, I remember there was a celebration at the Children’s Museum [when it was located at Third and H Streets NE]. She was in a chair and she had oxygen.
NORTON: I remember talking to Sharon Raimo about that.
O’BRIEN: I feel like the Jaynettes sang that night. Because John was there also. John O’Brien was there, and he was in high school. That’s why I think it might have been the Jaynettes singing because he was our drummer. I said, “You have to go and say hi to Mrs. Jackson.” Oh, I’m going to start crying. He said, “Mom it’s so hard to see her like that and I’m kind of nervous and I don’t know.” I said, “I know, but you were all part of this together and this is what you need to do.” She said, “John.” She wanted to know where he was going to go to college. At that point he knew where he was going to college. He was totally thrilled about that. She said, “There were times when I thought this whole thing was not going to work.”
NORTON: This is Veola said that?
O’BRIEN: Veola Jackson said this to John. She said, “But you and Dexter Heard ...” Dexter Heard was a kid in his class. Dexter Heard is now an elementary school principal in North Carolina that I know from Facebook. But she said, “When you and Dexter Heard used to get on the piano and play Ebony and Ivory and sing it. Then I knew that it was going to be okay. That was a sign to me that it was going to be all right.” She was something.
NORTON: She was something but that’s kind of an amazing insight because the idea that she might have some doubts and stuff, she might be nervous about ... yes.
O’BRIEN: Never. Not ever.
NORTON: She wouldn’t let on.
O’BRIEN: No, no, no, no. I felt so fortunate that my kids got to go to those schools at the time when they did. Because that was the time.
NORTON: You had to get involved in all the activities. You talk about being involved in the potlucks. They were always having fundraisers. The race. The Capitol Hill Classic and all that stuff.
I’m going to get back to ... You’ve now had your time off and working sort of part time and then time off. When did you go back to work?
O’BRIEN: During the time that we still had the Green Hat and at that point we were opening another restaurant called Colonel Brooks Tavern that was in Brookland.
NORTON: Colonel Brooks Tavern?
O’BRIEN: I knew that restaurants were not my thing. The Folger, I learned from somebody who lived on this block, was looking for somebody to run their docent program. It was not a long-term thing, but I thought, “That’s interesting, I’d like to know what goes on there.”
NORTON: It was just down the street from you too.
O’BRIEN: Exactly. Beth was starting PreK then. So, I thought, “Yeah, let me just find out about that.” So, I applied for that job and I got it. That’s how I ended up at the Folger.
NORTON: So, you’re now supervising basically the tour guides at the Folger. That’s how you started, right?
O’BRIEN: I did, right. Oh my god, I mean, that was a whole scene. O.B. Hardison was the director of the Folger then. He was the guy who came. He was a professor at Chapel Hill [yes] or Duke [no]. I know that’s a real mistake so I forget which one. [Laughter.] I’m going to offend somebody right there. He and Marifrances, his wife, had six kids. They moved right into this house on Third Street [SE] right across from the library. When he came it was like 1970,’71 or ‘72. He was something. He started the Folger Theater Group. He started the poetry program at the Folger that’s now named for him. He started the Folger Consort which is music stuff. He started a lot of the public stuff there. So, people started to care about tours and visitors coming and all that stuff. That was part of what he said to me, “I want every tour bus in Washington to stop here.” I was like, “Okay. We don’t have a lot to show people.”
NORTON: Was there a director or supervisor of docents before you?
O’BRIEN: Yup, there had been somebody who was leaving and there were probably 16 docents. They also wanted to think about school programs. There was a volunteer there who turned out to be a wonderful friend of mine, but who brought kids together and they practiced scenes from Shakespeare and they would go up on stage,
NORTON: At the theater there at the Folger.
O’BRIEN: Yeah. That interested me a lot. I kept doing that. Actually, now I’m back doing a little of that. I started out working with the docents. Then with tours and all that stuff, but then started thinking about—I said to O.B. Hardison, “I’m a high school English teacher so I would just say that you really can’t get out of high school in this country without reading at least a couple of plays by this guy.” He said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Peggy, do you know how to raise money?” I said, “No, but I’m sure I could figure that out.” Cocky, early 30s, right, oh sure I could figure that out. But I did actually figure that out. So, that started.
NORTON: What did you figure out in terms of raising money?
O’BRIEN: In terms of raising money, it wasn’t so hard. Earlier I started doing a bunch of workshops for local teachers. Michael Tolaydo was part of those early workshops. He was great.
NORTON: Was that when you met him?
O’BRIEN: Yeah. With no thought of…
NORTON: Had you started working with the Folger or were you just doing workshops?
O’BRIEN: Oh, no, no. It was part of my work with the Folger. We had local teachers and we had DMV [District Maryland Virginia]. Teachers from the DMV would come for a day and we’d do general sessions and then split them up talking about how you teach this stuff to middle school kids or high school kids. It was really fun. I love teachers. I think they do the most important work. I do, I do. Not everybody has their hands and their hearts on minds everyday like teachers do. It’s also a huge honor for me to work with teachers. So, we did these programs with teachers. One workshop that I did was in a school somewhere. It was in DC. It was a school. There was somebody there who was kind of watching. I didn’t know who it was. Afterwards she he introduced herself. She said, “I’m from the National Endowment for the Humanities. We are starting this new initiative.” This was in the mid-80s. “We’re starting this new initiative where we put together, in the summer, put together middle school and high school teachers with scholars for them to have a really rich kind of intellectual experience for these teachers.” And they said, “We’re just starting this program, so we’re asking various people if they would think about applying for one of these.”
NORTON: You’d already been doing some of the seminars.
O’BRIEN: Local stuff, yeah. But this is different. It was just a whole different thing. It would be like scaling up enormously. It would be like skipping lots of steps. So, she said, “I want to take you to lunch.”  NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities] doesn’t take anybody to lunch now. I said, “Sure.” She told me about what they envisioned and these would be a month long and all this stuff. I went back and I talked to my boss at the Folger because education was not its own department then. It was part of the public programs department.
NORTON: You’re officially just the head of docents, right?
O’BRIEN: Uh huh. That’s exactly right. I thought to myself, “Wow, if you want to get busy in how to teach Shakespeare, this the way to do it. This program.” My boss said, “Peggy that would like triple the whole department’s budget.” I said, “Is there anything wrong with that? I don’t know.” So, the Folger started doing that. We got a lot of attention for doing that. We had articles in the New York Times.
NORTON: What was involved? This was still just having programs for teachers, right?
O’BRIEN: Yup. So, the NEH has this and they’re called Summer Institutes for K-12 teachers. Teachers apply to come. The ones who get accepted get a stipend from NEH that used to pay for their housing. It used to pay for all their travel. It used to pay them a salary.
NORTON: During the summer.
O’BRIEN: Un huh, because lots of teachers have to take a summer job. You know all about that. It’s a month-long program and we wanted the teachers to work with scholars like the best ones on earth and also actors. Some teachers who had more experience of teaching Shakespeare and then they would go to class and they would end up writing curriculum and they would end up performing. And they just had this wild packed month-long of stuff.
NORTON: How did you line up the scholars and the actors?
O’BRIEN: They said to me, “You need to get a scholar and you’re not a scholar.” I said, “Oh, I know that. I’m well aware of that.” A woman named Jeanne Roberts, who was a professor at American University, who was really fantastic, and I knew very slightly, cared a lot about the how of teaching. More and more scholars care about that now. Then, nobody cared about that. They were just like talking, right. She cared a lot about that. So, I said to her, “I hardly know you but what do you think about this idea about getting in cahoots with the Folger about this.” She said, “Oh, I’d love to do that.” So, she found the scholars. But people had said to her, “Oh, you can get all kinds of people because these are only high school teachers.” She was like, “No, we are going to get the best ones to come and be in residence here for this month.”
NORTON: Because officially it was K through 12, right?
O’BRIEN: Right, except we knew who’s teaching Shakespeare are middle school, then junior high school and high school [teachers]. She said, “These are people who deserve the best.” She got fantastic scholars. I had some ideas about some actors. The other great thing about the story is, the woman said to me, “Have you ever written a proposal to NEH before?” I said, “No.” The Folger didn’t have a development office then.
NORTON: Are we now going back? This is not the woman from AU [American University], this was…
O’BRIEN: No, no, no. This is the woman who said to me…
NORTON: Who took you to lunch.
O’BRIEN: Who took me to lunch. She said, “Have you ever written a proposal?” NEH proposals are really complex, they’re really intense. I said, “No.” She said, “Okay. Do a draft and then come down here and we’ll talk about it.” That’s what great program officers do, right, because they’re not making the decisions ultimately but they can help you shape something. So, I wrote this draft. Jeanne Roberts wrote part of it and I dropped it off down there and she called me up and she said, “This is just terrible.” I said, “Okay.” She said, “Come down here, at such and such a time and I’ll sit you down and I’m going to take you all through this.” Which was a gift.
NORTON: She was located in DC? What was her name again?
O’BRIEN: Her name was Carolynn Reid Wallace, an amazing woman. She said, “This is just awful and so I’m going to take you through where this is bad and where it needs work.” It was a tremendous gift because since then I have taught loads of people how to write an NEH proposal and it’s because somebody taught me. After she said, “Actors, we can’t have any, NEH doesn’t fund actors. You have to go the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] to get money for actors.” I said, “He wrote plays though and if you’re an actor and you’re in a Shakespeare play, you’ve got to get inside this stuff in a different way than scholars do. It’s in a different way than a high school teacher does, but it’s a really valid way.” She said, “Hmm. You decide whether you want to risk that or not.” I thought, “How can you not?” So, we put actors in our proposal.
NORTON: How did you find the actors?
O’BRIEN: We found the actors, three of them. One of them was a young guy, wonderful guy. who was in the current Folger production of Henry the Fifth, Craig Rowe. He was great. Then the other was a woman named Rosemary Walsh, who was a local actor here and also taught performance at AU, a professor. The other was Michael Tolaydo who the summer before had directed Romeo and Juliet at the Folger that then moved on to the Sylvan Theater [next to the Washington Monument].  He also had done these workshops for teachers. At one of them I asked him, I really didn’t know him at all, but I asked him if he would come and do a session with these teachers and maybe he would talk about directing Romeo and Juliet because so many teachers teach that.
NORTON: This was before you did the proposal, the NEH proposal?
O’BRIEN: Uh huh, yeah. It was before.
NORTON: You were doing the local folks at the time.
O’BRIEN: Yeah. Exactly, exactly. He talked about directing Romeo and Juliet. I thought, “Oh my god. This guy’s a fabulous teacher. He really knows how to do it.” It was great. I asked him if I could put him in this proposal. NEH takes forever to hear back from. Literally you apply a year and a half in advance for something. When we learned that we got the money and we were going to do it, he was in a play in Broadway. He was in Moon for the Misbegotten. He said, “I don’t know if it will close by the time this thing starts.” But it did. So, he was the third, he was the third actor. We had 50 teachers. We’ve never had that many. NEH never had that.
NORTON: Fifty teachers is sort of the students that are coming?
O’BRIEN: Who came from all over the country. All over the country. They lived in a dorm at AU. It was quite something.
NORTON: When you say you had 50. When you got this grant was this an ongoing grant or is this through this one year?
O’BRIEN: No, it was for one year, because they wanted to see how it was. Actually, we did them every year, because I had two different stints at the Folger, so in my first stint we did them every year because I thought, “Wow, this is great. Who doesn’t want to do this every year.”
NORTON: So, you had to get a new grant every year?
O’BRIEN: Uh huh, yup. The other thing was, which goes back to a previous question that you asked, is when we were applying for this money for NEH––when they asked us to apply for the money and we had this money––is when the Folger started thinking, “Well maybe we have an education department here.” So they started calling me the head of education. I still did the docent stuff, but then these programs, these local programs got to have, they were on sure footing.
NORTON: Let me ask you a little about the local programs because I know, at least my kids were involved in various schools, Hobson Middle School, and stuff. What was involved with the local programs? What did you do with them?
O’BRIEN: We did. So, we figured out it seemed pretty obvious that if you work with teachers, that we could work with teachers all over the country in the programs in the summer and when you get to a teacher then you get to all their students. But we couldn’t work with students all over the country. Even with the technology it would be crazy, right? So, we thought, “Okay we’ll work with teachers and students locally and we’ll work with teachers nationally.” Locally, we did a bunch of different kinds of stuff. We had festivals for middle school and high school kids. Also, we did festivals for little kids. Kids like fourth, fifth and sixth grade. They would work on a scene at school. This is actually for the younger kids. Because I’m a high school teacher, I thought, “What the heck, are fourth graders going to be able to [do this]?” Oh yeah, fourth graders are learning words really fast and they’re great. What a great introduction. They would work on a scene and then they would come and they’d perform for each other on stage at the Folger. But then on Capitol Hill there was something different, right?
NORTON: Why was that?
O’BRIEN: Because Annie Houston, the fabulous Annie Houston, was doing Shakespeare with kids at Capitol Hill Day School and Sarah Hill, the fabulous Sarah Hill, was doing Shakespeare with kids at Stuart Hobson. I thought, “Okay. What can I do to bring this all together?” So, we got, I feel like we got some money, I think it was before the Community Foundation [Capitol Hill Community Foundation] started even. So maybe it was from the DC Commission [DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities]. We got some money for somewhere. So, I said to Annie and to Sarah, “Will you do this?”  Because what we wanted was, we wanted these kids to have both great experiences in their own school, but we wanted them to meet each other, because these are different kinds of kids who were going to different kinds of schools.
NORTON: Private school, public school, yeah.
O’BRIEN: We wanted them to meet each other and I wanted their families to meet each other. Because I just am relentless about stuff like that, right? So, we had some workshops where during the school day both classes of kids came together and did some workshops and then they came to the Folger. One night they came to the Folger and they would each perform. Parents and families were invited. There’d be loads of people in the theater. Then we would have snacks and some kind of stuff to eat after that. People would mill around. We did that for a long time; I don’t know how long exactly; but we did that for a long time. I left. It kept on going. The schools kind of changed a little bit, and it was called the Capitol Hill Shakespeare Partnership or something like that.
NORTON: You left in ’94, right?
O’BRIEN: I did.
NORTON: Okay. You’re doing great.
O’BRIEN: I loved that. Everybody really liked that because Annie Houston is a drama teacher. Sarah Hill’s an English teacher. Both with great strengths, right? The idea of working all this stuff together and these kids getting a chance to meet each other and work together and then their families. Folger being the engine that pulled all these families and stuff together. I was really having a good day when that started to happen.
NORTON: Any other local students that you brought down, or was it pretty much just the Capitol Hill ones?
O’BRIEN: Oh, oh my gosh. There were kids who had come to our festivals. Kids from Eastern. There’d be definitely kids from Eastern, Wilson. We made a real point of looking for DC schools. There would also be independent schools. Sidwell [Friends], Maret. Then kids from other schools in the DMV. They would come to the Folger for a day. They would also work out a 20-minute scene. They would cram into that theater and they would perform their scene for these other seven schools were in the theater. We always made a point of trying to schedule schools so that the kids would meet each other that wouldn’t ordinarily meet each other.
NORTON: Same kind of thing you’re talking about at Capitol Hill.
O’BRIEN: Same idea because I think the world needs a lot more of that still. We would have commentators. We would have prizes. We would give prizes for all kinds of stuff. A total blast. Now all that has kind of [ended], because of our construction project at the Folger and because of the Pandemic. We’re going to start to ramp that stuff back up. There were lots of [kids]. You know, we’ve had kids from Brent [Elementary School, 301 North Carolina Ave. SE]; last year we did a partnership with Payne [Elementary School, 1445 C St. SE]. We wanted to try a different kind of partnership. The Folger’s always [got] its eye on the Hill. And I, of course, have always had my eye on the Hill.
NORTON: That’s pretty much what you did up until the time you left the Folger the first time, right?
O’BRIEN: Right, right.
NORTON: Why did you leave?
O’BRIEN: I left because I got bored and I thought, “I’m just doing the same thing.” And, I got offered a great job, like out of the blue.
NORTON: Where’d you get offered the job?
O’BRIEN: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
NORTON: How did that get offered out of the blue?
O’BRIEN: That got offered out of the blue because of Carolyn Reid Wallace, who had been my original program officer at NEH. She left NEH at some point and was the chancellor at CUNY.
NORTON: City University of New York.
O’BRIEN: City University of New York and then after that ... She was a Republican. She was an African American. She was a Republican. I said, “Carolyn, people like you will be meeting in a phone booth, right?” She said, “No, this is the party of Lincoln, freed the slaves.” She was then under George H.W. Bush. I don’t know what the right title is, but it’s Deputy Secretary, I think it’s Deputy Secretary for Education for higher ed [Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education]. She was in that administration. When he lost, she was named the Senior Vice President for Education at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting [CPB]. So, she called me up and said, “This is where I am now and I think public broadcasting needs to be doing a lot more for teachers and we’ve got all these local stations and we’ve got all this other stuff and so, come down here and talk to me about it.” I thought, “Wow.” That’s how that happened.
NORTON: Where was the Corporation for Public Broadcasting located? Where were their offices at that time? It was somewhere in town.
O’BRIEN: Totally downtown. I’m forgetting where they ... oh my god, Randy, how can I forget this? I’m forgetting where they ... Oh, I know. They were always on Ninth Street, NW between Pennsylvania and D or E or somewhere. We started out on one side of the street and then we moved to the other side of the street, but the same street [now at 401 Ninth Street, NW].
NORTON: All this time you’re still living on the Hill, right?
O’BRIEN: Oh, yeah.
NORTON: You haven’t moved?
O’BRIEN: Nope, no.
NORTON: What did you do for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting?
O’BRIEN: I started out, I was the Director of Education Programs. It was like a three or four-person department. When I came to CPB they had also just gotten this big grant from the Department of Education. It was in the millions. It was more money than I’d ever heard of. It was probably nine or ten million dollars to create children’s programming that would teach kids how to read. It was called The Ready to Learn Program. In 2000 the governors had these goals about kids should all come to school ready to learn. Sesame Street was already doing a chunk of that. Ernest Boyer, who was a real magnificent thinker about this kind of stuff, thought that in families where kids were not being taught some of this stuff, that television could teach kids some stuff. Sesame Street was a great example of that.
NORTON: Ernest Boyer, what was his connection with CPB?
O’BRIEN: He was an education visionary. He didn’t have any connection with CPB except that there had been some studies and he felt like television could be a force in teaching kids. Sesame Street had only been around for a little bit. One thing that Sesame Street always did and still does is they do a ton of research on how to make sure they’re still being effective. We knew that, so we thought what else could people create? What other kind of programming could people create? So, I inherited running this program, this big program that had to do with producers and giving out money and all kinds of stuff. It was really interesting. Plus, I worked a lot with local stations. Here WETA does stuff with kids. Maryland Public Television does a lot of stuff with kids and they do a lot of stuff for teachers, too.  In some places the license, the public television license, is held by a school district. In Las Vegas and Los Angeles and some other places. It was a big, new world and pretty interesting. I did that and then I got a promotion and then I was the Vice President for Education. Then I was Vice President for Education and Programming.
NORTON: What kind of programming did you do or did the CPB do at the helm so to speak?
O’BRIEN: CPB is the entity that gets the appropriation from Congress and it’s $480,000,000 or something. It’s all laid out by formula. Every NPR [National Public Radio] station gets X amount. Every PBS station gets X amount. CPB gets X amount to distribute to producers who are going to produce radio programming and TV programming. Ready to Learn was separate but it had to produce stuff that was up to certain education standards. I did the Ready to Learn stuff but I also managed a process where decisions were made. We had all kinds of panels and all kinds of stuff. We certainly funded some Ken Burns stuff, some early Ken Burns. Not the earliest but some of the early Ken Burns stuff we funded. After we finish this interview, I’m going to think of a lot of great stuff that we did. We funded a documentary called Two Towns of Jasper.
NORTON: Two towns?
O’BRIEN: Two Towns of Jasper. Jasper, Texas was a town very divided racially, segregated. There was an incident that happened in this town where a black man was tied to the back of a truck and dragged through the town.
NORTON: There was an article about it in the paper just in the last couple of weeks or something. Yeah.
O’BRIEN: There were these two young film makers, one white, one of them black, who wanted to get into this town and interview a lot of people and shoot a lot of stuff and then make a documentary of about this town. So, we funded that. We funded a bunch of kid’s stuff. We funded Between the Lions which was a show that taught kids how to read.
NORTON: How? What was different about it?
O’BRIEN: They were very deliberate; also, it was hilariously funny. There was another show called Martha Speaks. There was a series of books that existed, Arthur. We funded some of those, the beginning of the Arthur shows. Martha Speaks is an easier example. It’s a series of books about a dog named Martha who eats vegetable soup and then she can talk because she’s eaten vegetable soup. It’s hilarious. The way they constructed those shows, these are 30-minute shows, they would have three words that they wanted kids to be able to know and be familiar with at the end of these shows. They would make sure, and not in any way that you would ever recognize, but they would make sure that these words were prominent and then they would use these words in sentences and different kinds of sentences so kids had a chance of really acquiring some vocabulary, some real vocabulary. That’s the whole thing about kids when they start pre-school, or when they start kindergarten, kids who have more words have a chance of doing way better in school and being much more comfortable in school. The idea is how could we use TV to help kids get up to speed, because of cultural stuff or the fact that people are working all the time. That can be any socio-economic class, people working all the time. People aren’t talking to kids. So, can television make up the difference for them? Yeah. We funded a lot. I thought, “Who would have ever thought I’d be doing this, right?” It was really fun.
NORTON: I always remember, I’m interjecting myself here, but I remember you did Wishbone.
O’BRIEN: Oh my god, I forgot about Wishbone.
NORTON: In fact, we were such big fans of Wishbone you got me an autographed paw print picture of wishbone.
O’BRIEN: Rick Duffield, oh he was fantastic. Wishbone was a great show. That was really early. I totally forgot about that. Yes, that was really fun. I went in and I met like, who gets to meet Mr. Rogers, right? What a guy. Mr. McFeely. The first conference that I was ever at for Public Broadcasting and there he was, this guy walked into the room. He was not in a costume or anything and I thought,” Oh my god, that’s Mr. McFeely.” I went to a pay phone. The biggest fan of the whole Mr. Rogers thing in my life was Betsy Barnett, my neighbor. I went to a pay phone and I dumped all my money in the pay phone and I said, “Oh my god, I’m in a room with the real Mr. McFeely, I’m kind of out of my mind.” It was fun.
NORTON: That was back when you had to use the pay phone.
O’BRIEN: Totally. That’s how long ago it was, yeah, yeah for sure.
NORTON: How long did you stay with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting?
O’BRIEN: Until 2000.
NORTON: Why did you leave there?
O’BRIEN: Because I think I got kind of bored there. Also, I got offered this great job.
NORTON: Doing what?
O’BRIEN: I’m really lucky. Working for a startup. Working for a in Southern California.
NORTON: But you stayed here?
O’BRIEN: I commuted from here to Southern California.
NORTON: What was that like?
O’BRIEN: By that time, I was married to Michael Tolaydo who was a saint and who said, “You should do it.” John was out of college and Beth was in college by then. No, Beth was out of college too by then. They were both in California. He said, “If you want do it you should totally do it.” He was fabulous.
NORTON: This would have been about 2000.
O’BRIEN: 2000. January of 2000. It was a company called KIKO. It stood for knowledge in knowledge out.
NORTON: It’s KIKO, right?
O’BRIEN: KIKO. They were in Long Beach, California. It was started by these two guys who worked for CISCO [Systems. Inc.]. They were salesmen for CISCO and they made a fortune. They decided that they had this great idea, this education idea. It was before its time. They wanted to do this startup. They called me up and they said, “We’ve heard about you. We’d love to show you what we’re doing. You’ve got a lot of great ideas about education and so, we’d love to show you what we’re doing. Let us fly you out here.” I was like, “Sure, that’d be great.” I was at CPB then and I thought, “How fun would that be.” Then I saw what they were doing, plus I’d met all of them and I thought, “Oh man, what a scene this is.” Then they said, “What do you think? What do you think? Come and work for us.” They had already raised a ton of venture capital. They left a lot of it on the table. They said, “Let us come back to you with a fully baked thing to these investors and then we’re going to ask for more than this.” Before they got to do that the NASDAQ tanked so, they wished they had kept on with their money. So, I spent a week in California and a week here. I would go back and forth.
NORTON: What were you doing? What were you doing for them?
O’BRIEN: I started off as the chief learning officer. I was helping them see [opportunities.] What was interesting about this company is that two guys who were head of the technology, one was an English major at Harvard and one was a poetry major at UCLA. These were the big technology guys. They were awesome technology guys. So. you think, “Wow.” And these young developers. I was employee 93 or something and there were 12 women that worked there and that was all. They had never met anybody like me. I mean, they didn’t know anybody like me. I didn’t really know anybody like them, right? It was really fun. I said, “Here’s some educational principles that undergird what you’re trying to do here, or here’s something that would really make a difference to a parent or here’s something that would really make a difference to a school.” So, I just had a lot of knowledge about the field that they were in. They had a lot great gut thinking. Then there were people I could connect them with who they should talk to and who could tell them more.
NORTON: From the education point of view?
O’BRIEN: Uh huh, yeah, oh yeah. Then I became the COO because it was clear that they, and this happened a lot in startups, they just needed some help in running stuff. Our burn rate was like a million something a month.
NORTON: This is how much you’re spending?
O’BRIEN: Yeah, yeah. I thought, “What are we thinking here?” I was helpful to them in that way. That’s how I learned how to fire people. I learned that there’s a very good helpful way to fire people and to help people get other jobs.
NORTON: Is that something you’re willing to share?
O’BRIEN: I just think, you know, there’s a transactional part of it but there’s an emotional part of it. You have to pay attention to both of those things because in startups people, oh my gosh, teams came and went. A lot of that could happen really fast.
NORTON: You say a team came and went. What do you mean a team?
O’BRIEN: They would hire like six people to focus on a particular aspect of something. When this company started it was all about how many members you have. They didn’t really care about income, but then they got to be caring about income. You hired a team to do something, but then the wind shifted and you didn’t really need that team to do that anymore. It was a really dynamic. That was the word they used. It was pretty dynamic. You know I’m an English teacher with gray hair.
NORTON: Running the place.
O’BRIEN: Not entirely. And going to these VC meetings, right?
NORTON: What’s VC?
O’BRIEN: Venture capital meetings. Potential funders. So, there’s nobody like me at those meetings. There’s no one like me. That was really interesting. People asked a lot of good, hard questions. That’s when I learned, and this is probably still the case, but when venture capitalists made an investment, they were investing in, not entirely in the idea you came with, but in how good they thought the team was. Because then if this idea doesn’t work, what’s your next idea? So, yeah, that was…
NORTON: How long did you stay at KIKO?
O’BRIEN: I stayed at KIKO until, like 18 months.
NORTON: Sometime mid-2001?
O’BRIEN: 2001, yeah. I thought, “I can’t do this anymore.”
NORTON: So, what did you do?
O’BRIEN: I forget exactly how this happened, but I decided that I needed to come home even though Michael Tolaydo never once said, “It’d be great if you came home and stopped commuting.” He never, ever said that but I just looked at his face and I thought, “What am I doing? Right, I need to come home.” Also, it seemed like they were not going to make it. The technology could make it as something else but they weren’t going to make it as an education company. So, that seemed like the right thing. I came home and somewhere around then I got a call from a headhunter about running the cable industry’s education foundation. I said, “I’m really not interested in that, because the work they do is not great. It’s pretty old school. Educationally it’s not ... The standards aren’t very high and it just doesn’t seem very good.” The headhunter said, “Well right, that’s why they’re looking for somebody to reinvent that.” Reinvent and invent ... I’m interested in those words. Those are pretty interesting. So, I went to work for them as the executive director of that foundation. They produced something called Cable in the Classroom for schools at that point.
NORTON: Which was what?
O’BRIEN: Cable companies would produce ... not like Comcast, people who made the content like Discovery, except that they would produce a 30-minute show and they would make it available to schools free. You know the History Channel did that. Lots and lots of cable producers did that. At the time that I went there I said to them, “People are not [interested], nobody wants a 30-minute show, you want like a clip that is like ten minutes and then that’s connected to some curriculum.”
NORTON: It’s part of what you are teaching the kids.
O’BRIEN: Exactly, exactly. It’s just like reframing all this content and what you guys want to do. They were great. But I had this board who––all these big dogs from the cable industry were on the board. It was like a whole other thing, right.
NORTON: That was locally here though, right?
O’BRIEN: Uh huh.
NORTON: You were working here.
O’BRIEN: Yup. The NCTA which now stands for the National Cable Telecommunications [Television] Association. Now I feel like those letters stand for something else. Their offices were down on Massachusetts Avenue close to Dupont Circle. Cable in the Classroom’s offices were in Virginia just over the river. I worked there from the middle of 2001 until the end of 2004. In the middle of the time that I worked there they moved us. We moved into the NCTA headquarters which was great. It was right across from Brookings [Institute] on Massachusetts Avenue. We got the cable industry to think differently about how they should serve schools. The guy who was the head of NCTA was wonderful and a big believer in education. Some people wanted this to work just because it was cover for other stuff that the cable was producing that wasn’t so good. He really cared a lot about [education], and lots of the board members cared a lot about[it]. Lots of the board members cared a lot about the fact that we would do stuff that…
NORTON: What was his name?
O’BRIEN: Robert Sachs. He was completely fabulous, really one of my favorite people ever.
NORTON: Why did you leave the cable association?
O’BRIEN: I left there because I got this phone call from Kathleen Cox. Kathleen Cox was then, when she called me, the new CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. When I had worked there before she was the general counsel. She was great. She and I worked together really well and liked each other a lot. She was the first women CEO of CPB and she said, “You need to come back here.” I said, “I’m not going back there.” The whole culture at CPB was kind of whacky, right? Lots of different politics and all kinds of stuff. I thought, “Ah, you know, I don’t think so.” She said, “You know, let me take you to dinner.” I said, “Don’t take me to dinner. That’s not the right thing for me.” Then she said, “We haven’t funded any children’s programing since you left.” Maybe “new children’s programing since you left.” And I said, “Really.” She said, “Yeah.” That was the thing that got me. So, then I went back to CPB.
NORTON: What was your position with them?
O’BRIEN: I was a senior vice president for education and children’s services.
NORTON: What did you do?
O’BRIEN: We funded some new [programs]; you know, I have to think about this, because I haven’t thought about this in a long time.
NORTON: It’s not entirely critical.
O’BRIEN: No, no. We had a partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. That was one thing that we did. We each put in money and we put out a grant, put out an RFP [Request for Proposals] to fund projects that were partnerships between a library or a museum and an NPR or a PBS station. Then we learned after we put that out that people needed to learn something more about partnerships and what those were. So, then we had a whole kind of education thing around that. Then we learned that there were institutions that were literally like a stone’s throw from each other that didn’t know each other. An NPR station somewhere and a museum, like they had never had a conversation about anything. That turned out to be really exciting because these folks all got to know each other and they were like, “Wait, we could do this, we could do this.”
The Children’s Museum in Boston and Children’s Hospital in Boston and WGBH in Boston did a whole program about asthma that had stuff in schools and stuff in communities and stuff on the air. It was wonderful. There was a Vermont public––I forget whether it was radio or television, might have been both, and maybe the University of Vermont, but definitely a planetarium or something in Vermont. Did a whole thing about the Vermont sky. They were all very different, really exciting. That was really fun. We obviously funded some stuff that was on the air that was good too, but I can’t quite remember that.
NORTON: How long did you stay at CPB the second time?
O’BRIEN: I stayed at CPB until 2008.
NORTON: Then you went with DC Public Schools, right?
O’BRIEN: Yeah, yeah.
NORTON: So now we’re getting back to the local questions here. How did you get that job?
O’BRIEN: I got that job because I thought, I did not know Michelle Rhee at all. But when I read what she had to say about kids ... I was a big fan of Adrian Fenty because Adrian Fenty said, “This is the first thing I’m going to do. Do something about these schools. It’s not like these kids are not any smarter or not as smart. We’re not serving these children right so we’re going to do something about these schools.” So, I was a big fan of his and then he hired her.
When I read the kind of stuff that she said, I thought, “I’ve never heard anybody talk about kids like this or talk about what kids deserved like this.” She was going to bring Kaya Henderson. I didn’t know Kaya Henderson at all but we had a really good mutual friend who liked both of us who was a priest at Georgetown, Father Ray Kemp. He thought really highly of her. So, I sent them my resumé. I’d never done that. I sent them my resumé and I said, “I taught at these schools. My kids went to these schools. I feel like this is the shot to make these schools better. If you have some kind of way that I could be helpful, I’d love to do it.” I had to get old to have the nerve to do that.
NORTON: This is why. Nobody’s come in and pounding on your door and you’re saying you want the job?
O’BRIEN: Uh huh. Yeah, yeah. So Kaya called me up a couple weeks after that and said, “Let’s have dinner.” I said, “Okay.” That’s how I met her. She’s now like a totally good friend of ours. Yeah, so I started out doing some communications stuff. We kept kind of reorganizing ourselves. But, man, that was a train…
NORTON: Bet it was.
O’BRIEN: …to be on. I have never ... I mean Michelle is a whole other story. But I have never worked with people who were so dedicated and so smart and so totally devoid of office politics or any of that stuff. It was [all about] what you could do for these schools and what you could do for these kids and stuff. That was like the prevailing thing.
NORTON: You say Michelle was another story. What was the other story about Michelle?
O’BRIEN: I’m not going to tell the story about Michelle Rhee.
NORTON: That’s all right. That’s fine.
O’BRIEN: I’m not going to tell that story.
NORTON: That’s what my son the school teacher would love to hear.
O’BRIEN: Oh, I’ll tell him. I’ll tell him.
NORTON: All right, that’s fine.
O’BRIEN: I will totally tell him, yeah. I would say she was brilliant in that situation. She was totally brilliant about kids and what she fought for kids. I think her communications stuff wasn’t great and her people stuff wasn’t great.
NORTON: You ended up being sort of in some ways the spokesperson, right?
O’BRIEN: No. I was never the spokesperson.
NORTON: Okay, so what was your job with them?

O’BRIEN: I would say what Michelle put in place and that what Kaya took up and kept on with made a big difference in those schools. Now I kind of worry about what’s going on with those schools lately and it makes me sad in a way. I mean not in a way––it makes me sad.
NORTON: What way did it make a difference in the schools?
O’BRIEN: Because you just like threw everything that we could think of and not everything we did worked out, right? For example, Eastern High School. The idea was ... McKinley High School had done the same track a little bit before, but you didn’t take any more new ninth graders and you kept the kids at McKinley who were at McKinley so they could finish with the same principal. When they were occupying less space in the school, you started to redo the building. Then when the last class graduated you redid the rest of the building. But in the meantime, you would’ve hired a new principal, what we used to call a principal in waiting, and they had a year to figure out a whole new curriculum so that when McKinley reopened it had a completely rehabbed building but also it was like a new school, a fresh new school. That’s what we did with Eastern. Of course, I was particularly interested in Eastern because of Eastern, right? The kids finished, the kids who were there. We stopped taking ninth graders and parents had thought their kids would going to start the ninth grade. We talked to all of those families and we made sure that those kids got placed in other schools. Then we hired Rachael Skerritt. She was this, oh my god, Rachael Skerritt who’s just this brilliant woman and had been a principal. Had also been, I think she was a White House Fellow. She was chief of staff for Boston Public Schools. She had a lot of experience. She was great.
NORTON: So, you hired her for principal in waiting, is that right?
O’BRIEN: Yeah. But the hiring process expanded a lot because there were a lot of people in the community that were interested. So, we had a big team. Three of us managed that hiring process. We had a big team. We had lots of community meetings in the auditorium, in the old auditorium at Eastern. People talked about what kind of principal they wanted. This is before we even did a job description. Then we had a smaller team of those folks who were part of the interview process. That seemed really important. There were lots of Eastern alums who were all African American. There were also Eastern alums who were really old who were white.
NORTON: Yes. Back when it was segregated.
O’BRIEN: Totally. But these alums that came to the first meeting, they were sure that we were going to close the school. They said, “Just tell us. You’re going to close it.” We said, “We’re not going to close it. We want to like give it a whole reinvigorated thing.” So, we went through this extensive kind of hiring process. We had three finalists and lots of people from the community came and interviewed the finalists. We offered the job to the person everybody liked. She turned it down. Then we had Rachael Skerritt come for another interview. She was just phenomenal. Then we offered the job to her and she took it. She was the principal in waiting. Then she did a lot more community meetings, right? Because of all that, there’s an international baccalaureate program at Eastern. There are some academies. I don’t even know what’s at Eastern at this very moment.
NORTON: It was sort of health care or something wasn’t it?
O’BRIEN: That was one of the academies was that. There were others ones also.  I introduced her to Nicky Cymrot. I said, “These are some people you need to meet. There’re some Capitol Hill people.” I introduced her to Jason Gray, who was the principal at the Day School [Capitol Hill Day School]. So, they shared space at some point.  I don’t know. That was not part of my job necessarily but I thought, “I want this woman to get off to a great start.” She was terrific. She was the principal for maybe five years. Then she went downtown and was doing some work training other principals. Now she’s back in Boston with her mom and her son. That whole kind of rejuvenation of those schools, that was really important. That never got as much play as closing 36 schools at once, which was quite a thing. That was before I went there when they closed 36 schools.
NORTON: So, they had already had the first batch of the big closings, yeah. What was your job? What was your official title or what was your official job description?
O’BRIEN: My official job description kept floating a little bit. My official title was Chief of Community and Public Engagement. I worked a lot with parents. I sat with a lot of parent groups. We had three parent resource centers. One in Ward 7, one in Ward 8, one in Ward 5. Or maybe one in Ward 4. They had been established under some really bizarre rules [regarding] who thought who was supposed to run them. That was a struggle working with them a lot. I started a cabinet of parents that met. We had cabinet of high school kids that Michelle met with once a month.
NORTON: How did they get picked, the kids or the parents?
O’BRIEN: I don’t know how the high school kids got picked. I had met by then a bunch of parents because I had been to a bunch of parent meetings, a bunch of PTA meetings and ANC meetings. I think what I did was write a note to maybe 25 of them, from a broad range and said, “Would you be interested in just bringing up issues for the chancellor and stuff?”
NORTON: That was your job was just to be sort of a sounding board, bring up issues for the chancellor?
O’BRIEN: Yeah. Fifteen or sixteen of them said, “Yeah, we would be interested,” So, we started. It was incredible. They loved meeting with each other. They wanted to meet in different schools because people would be in Wards ... I don’t want to say they had never been in, but they hadn’t been in very much, right? It’s the whole thing about bringing people together. That’s something we did. We did a whole new website. The website, the DCPS website, when I got there was 18,000 PDFs.  That was it!  Part of the reorganization under the mayor was that all the building [was centralized]; the school department used to have their own group that did building modernizations and all that went right to the city. And Tangherlini [Dan Tangherlini] took that right over.
NORTON: That was all part sort of it all going under the mayor, right, yeah?
O’BRIEN: Absolutely. And the technology went right under the CTO, the technology officer for the city, and I think the city maybe had never had a chief technology officer until Adrian Fenty named one, I don’t know. The CTO sent us this team of developers.
NORTON: These are software developers, that kind of stuff?
O’BRIEN: Yeah. Absolutely. So, we got a lot of input about that. Tried to aim it so parents could get it, made it mobile friendly. Everybody had a phone. Not everybody had a computer. We also had these Ward fairs where all the schools that are in one ward would all come together and have tables and talk to parents so the parents could talk about what kind of middle school their kid could go to and stuff. Just trying to make connections. Then, people who succeeded me at that took that. The stuff that we did was earliest days, right? But they took that and really moved it along in a really great way. There’s a lot more stuff for parents. We did surveys. We surveyed parents and asked them what they thought of their kid’s school. We surveyed kids and asked them what they thought of their schools. Stuff that’s never been done before. It was important, I thought. But the communications stuff was a lot done by the mayor’s office.
NORTON: When you say the communications, the mouthpiece kind of stuff?
O’BRIEN: Yup. That all came from Fenty’s office. Well, and Michelle herself obviously. We were working more grass roots, which I feel like is very important.
NORTON: How long did you stay with the public schools?
O’BRIEN: I left in 2011. I feel I left at the end of the school year in 2011.So, there were 36 schools that closed before I even got there, or 30 maybe. Then there were some more schools that closed. I ended up telling a lot of parents about John, when he was going to be in the eighth grade at Stuart-Hobson Middle School. When Hobson Middle School moved in and became Stuart-Hobson Middle School with Stuart Junior High School and how nervous people were and how sure people were that it wasn’t going to be any good. And I was amazed that parents from all over the city found that really helpful to hear that story. I said, “There were parents that were really opposed to it and wrote letters that they should not have written. There were other people that were nervous.”
NORTON: Said things at PTA meetings they shouldn’t have said.
O’BRIEN: Terrible, just terrible. And there were kids who were nervous, right? Even my own kid. I got asked at the last minute to join this committee that had been in place for a couple years. I think I got asked at the last minute because I was a parent of the white kid who they figured was going to start in the eighth grade here.
NORTON: This was a committee at Stuart-Hobson?
O’BRIEN: At Stuart-Hobson, right. My kid was nervous because everybody was nervous and they were like, “Oh my god those kids at Stuart they’re like big and they’re like, whatever.” I said, “We’re going to just try. We’re really going to try a year at a time and we’ll see what happens.” It turned out to be something, that school. Parents were so moved by that. Probably just the emotional stuff about how you want the best for you kid and you’re nervous and you don’t know. Which I found really interesting that I’m on the street in front of Stevens Elementary School and I’m telling this story and somebody comes up and says, “Will you tell that again because it’s really good.” So, yeah.
NORTON: It’s almost like the parents need a support group.
O’BRIEN: Well, yeah. Also, the fact that my kids had gone to these schools and I taught in these schools. That gave me a lot of cred in places in the city that I was not expecting at all. I thought, “Oh my god they’re going to say, who’s this old lady, this old white lady. Where does she come from?” That didn’t happen. Of course, that always happens in some places, but I had had a lot of those shared experiences. That stood me in good stead. I kind of forgot about that until right now.
NORTON: Where did you go after?
O’BRIEN: I didn’t go anywhere. I left and my sister, who is my only sibling, who lives in Boston was having what we now know was the onset of dementia. That was tough. One of her kids was [helpful] but her other kids were not helpful at all. One of her kids was in deep trouble herself. Also, John O’Brien had just had twins. Had a 2 ? year old and had just had twins in California and I thought, “I need to just go home for a little bit.”  Also, because there were a bunch of people that left at the same time that I did.
NORTON: Left the public schools?
O’BRIEN: At the end of the school year. Just because it was like a startup and because people were just worn, people were just worn out. You were on 24/7. You could be getting emails from anywhere 24/7. I did some stuff tending to that stuff. I kept on with that and then I also got on a project with a woman who had been a public television producer. We were trying to make a movie. We wanted to make a film about teachers. We wanted to follow like a week in the life of because I think people don’t ever see that.
NORTON: Who was that?
O’BRIEN: Judy Stoia was this woman who was a producer. She used to produce great stuff for WGBH in Boston. But we couldn’t raise the money. We had a lot of interest but we couldn’t raise the money because a lot of foundations who would have funded something like that in the past were then newly committed to funding only projects that had a direct effect on student achievement. They realized that they could have a lot of influence on what happened in education. Foundations like Hewlett, or Broad, or Gates.
Actually, Gates talked to us for a long time. Ultimately, they wanted us to make a film [that] was not the film we wanted to make. We were working on that and trying to do that. Then I met Michael Witmore who was the newish director at the Folger. He’d been at the Folger for about a year. Meanwhile, there were these Shakespeare people who would call me all this time. They would call me and ask me to do a Shakespeare thing. I was doing a project for the Royal Shakespeare Company on the side. That was fun, right?
NORTON: I guess your relationship with Michael [Tolaydo] kept you right there with Shakespeare too.
O’BRIEN: Well, yeah. He was playing a lot of rabbis by that time, right? He kept on teaching at all the Folger education programs because he was fabulous. I met Mike Witmore because somebody who was on the board, who I didn’t even know was on the board at the Folger, said to Mike, “You should talk to Peggy O’Brien.” He called me up and he said, “Do you want to have tea?” I said, “Sure.” He is great. He is one of my favorite people. He had a big vision for the Folger. He said, “I want to open this place up. This place is not a private club for scholars.” I said, “You need to be careful what room you say that in, right?” It was really fun to meet him. There was somebody already running education at the Folger, so. But it was just great. I thought, “Maybe I could do a little project for him, a little consulting project or something. That would be really fun.” He and I had lunch a couple of times. I was too dumb to get what he was doing. But it was really fun to talk to him. We were like, we finished each other’s sentences, like pretty soon. So, I sent him my resumé. I’ve only done that two times. I sent him my resumé and I said, “When you’re ready to do something, I would really like to talk about this.” That’s how I got to the Folger.
NORTON: What did he, he got back to you, huh?
O’BRIEN: Yup. He said, “The guy who had been in this position who was a great guy, was going to retire.” He’d already been a teacher. He’d retired from teaching and now he was retiring from this. So, Mike said, “You should apply for this. I’d like it if you’d apply for this.” I said to him, this is like so cheeky. I said to him, “Okay, okay. I’m just saying that I’ve been offered jobs before when I didn’t have to apply.” He said, “I got it.” But he said, “We’ve just put in place a whole new system for hiring senior people and you would be the first or second to go through the system.” I said, “Never mind, I got it, I got it.” So, I went there and had all my interviews and everything.
NORTON: What was different about going back this time?
O’BRIEN: What I said was, “I think there’s a way to build what the Folger’s doing nationally with teachers that has to do with technology and a bunch of other stuff that could be revenue-producing. I feel like that’s something you should pay attention to and just your whole idea of opening the place up. Then we’re talking about community. This is my community.” It was just really appealing. And I thought, “Well the traditional programs that we’ve always run, they’re still running, so, they’re good. They must be good.”
NORTON: These are the ones with the teachers and the students and all that stuff?
O’BRIEN: All that, all that stuff, yeah.
NORTON: The festivals.
O’BRIEN: All that stuff. So, I go back there and I realized that they had been running for a long time and people there felt very obligated to continue to run them the way they’d always been run. But this is like 20 years later, so like schools are different. Common Core [a set of uniform academic standards for K-12 math and English language arts] kids are different.
NORTON: Technology is different.
O’BRIEN: Everything’s different and the Folger had just kept on doing things the ways it had done. They said, “But you invented a lot of these programs.” I was like, yeah, but you know, we’ve got to always keep asking is there a better way. The sign of a good teacher is you’re always trying to find a better way to do it, right? So, then we did a lot of revamping of things, right?
NORTON: I have to ask you about the Folger Method. What was that? When did that start?
O’BRIEN: The Folger Method started at Eastern High School. It was about getting kids up on their feet and experiencing these things as plays and also having nothing to do with whether you’re a good actor or not. Just, you know, like not like words on the page. These are words like alive.
NORTON: Which is sort of what you had started doing. When did the Folger Method first ... I mean, you didn’t have to have a name, but when did it start?
O’BRIEN: It started actually when I was at the Folger the first time, the idea that we would do this actor stuff. Michael Tolaydo had a huge amount to do with that because he’s a brilliant teacher. He showed us in the first institute that we had with teachers from all over the place. I sat in the back of a room and I watched him. He had a group of 15 teachers and he had a scene from Midsummer Night’s Dream. No notes, no glosses [no footnotes, no vocabulary explanations], no nothing, just like what Shakespeare wrote.
He said, “We’re going to read this scene and then we’re going to get it up on its feet.” These teachers didn’t know this scene, so it was new to them. So, he had them read it in a lot of different ways. After he had them read it a few times he would say, “Now I’m going to ask you some really complicated questions. Who are these guys? How do you know?” So, they had to find in the text who they were. [Tolaydo continues] “Like, how do you know? Well, how do they feel about each other? How do you know?” Then they’d read it a few other times. Then he would say, “Do feel like you learned anything else?” “Well, yeah. When you look at this again you realize that this person and this person ...” Then he said, “Okay, so let’s get this up on its feet. If so and so’s going to do this ...”  
I’m making this up about the scene, but like, there’s a scene in Julius Caesar that I’ve done a lot with kids and stuff about this and so somebody’s going to Caesar’s funeral. I said, “So, where’s Caesar’s funeral?” “It’s that way.” “So, this character’s trying to move this way.”
He did this thing in 45 minutes or an hour. What you saw, he didn’t tell them anything, right. He didn’t tell them anything.
NORTON: Just asked questions.
O’BRIEN: And he gave them loads of chances to read it and you could see that it was kind of sinking in and sinking in. These were teachers and not kids, but still. Also, what he did had nothing to do with acting. So the teachers who were in this group thought, “Oh, my god. I can do that. Like, I can do that.”
That piece got to be known as 3D Shakespeare. Like you get Shakespeare off the page and you make it three dimensional. So, kids can figure out what’s going on in a scene from a play. Then you say to kids, “You just figured out all by yourselves without me telling you anything what’s going on.” Then kids think, “Oh man, this isn’t as complicated as I thought. Oh, I can figure that out.” The idea of the Folger Method is you go right for the language. You start right with Shakespeare’s language. You start putting Shakespeare’s language in kids mouths right away.
NORTON: Untranslated and everything.
O’BRIEN: None of that, none of that. No, and Shakespeare’s life, oh my god you can get that anywhere. That doesn’t help anybody learn anything about Shakespeare, except it gives teachers something to teach that they feel more confident about teaching. But it’s like, who gives a shit about that, no. You start with the language in kids’ mouths and you give them different ways to fiddle around with those words and then they think, “Well, dang, you know a lot of the stuff isn’t so complicated.” So, it’s a progression. Education people call that scaffolding. This also works with grownups. Grownups love this as well.
So, then you do a little scene, like Michael taught us how to do, and they’re like, “Wow.” Then you put a bunch of kids in a group around a table like this and you give them a hundred lines from anything and you say, “Okay you’re going to cut this down to fifty.” When you do that, you’ve got to know what’s being said. Then kids are arguing about what you should cut and what you have to keep. It’s just a way of giving a kid a way to navigate through a play, and at the same time you’re giving them a set of tools that they can use when they get to the next play the next year or when they’re reading anything. It’s just a way into literature. Teachers use it for everything but that’s what it is.
NORTON: You said the Folger Method started at Eastern. What do you mean by that?
O’BRIEN: Well just when my kids said to me, “OB, what is this crap that we’re supposed to be reading?” My class, you know. And I said, “Okay, we’re just going to do this like a play, because he knew how to write plays and I don’t know how to teach this stuff.” It’s an evolution of that.
NORTON: When did it get the name the Folger Method?
O’BRIEN: It got the name the Folger Method when I went back, ten years ago, when I went back to the Folger because we had been talking about it as being a performance-based way of learning. But really, when I came back, I had a fresh look at this stuff and I thought, it’s really language-based. It’s all about getting those words in your mouth and feeling like you, plus they feel great in your mouth, no kidding. But it’s also, you can figure out what they mean. The words that you don’t know what they mean, if you’re working together with a bunch of kids, you say, “What do you think he’s saying here because this here’s what happened before and after and all that?”
So, then I thought we should call it something and we also have a set of principles. It’s a very inclusive way to teach. Any teacher can teach that way. So, we have principles and then there are these essential kind of practices  Actually, Michael’s influenced a ton of those. We have books and we do tons of professional development with teachers and a lot is based on that. It’s all experiential. A lot of this stuff, when the Folger reopens and we have all these new exhibits, people will see that a lot of that stuff in experiential.
NORTON: And you’re still there doing your thing?
O’BRIEN: I know. I’m trying to figure out when I can slide out of there. I wanted to stay. I want to stay until we reopen. But they were going to reopen earlier than we are, so, I don’t quite know what to do with that. I’m looking at that.
NORTON: I’ve got to shift gears now because I’ve got to ask you as an acclaimed expert on teaching Shakespeare, how did you get involved in the Jaynettes?
O’BRIEN: Oh god. Oh my god. Oh my god. I got involved in the Jaynettes because I am not a singer at all, right? In college I was in our a capella group because I have the bass line because I have a really, really low voice. I don’t know, my kids were little and stuff was going on at CHAW [Capitol Hill Arts Workshop]. I signed up for some kind of singing class at CHAW.
NORTON: I was in that class with you.
O’BRIEN: You were?
NORTON: Yes, we were doing shape notes, right?
NORTON: And you didn’t like that a bit. You wanted to sing rock and roll.
O’BRIEN: No, totally. Oh my god really, I totally forgot you were in then. I thought…
NORTON: I loved the shape notes, I mean hey.
O’BRIEN: Oh my god no. And I thought, “Peggy, you’re such a jerk that this class is too lofty for you and just want to sing rock and roll.”  I called up Parker Jane and I said, “I can’t do that class, but if anybody ever wants to sing rock and roll, I would love to sing rock and roll.” I meant like, sing rock and roll. I never thought about performing rock and roll ever, ever. Then months later, I get this phone call from maybe Adele Robey who said, “A bunch of us are going to sing rock and roll at Parker’s house..” I said, “Oh what a blast.” And they said, “Oh come at such and such a time.” So, I go there and there’s Parker. There’s Raye LeValley. There’s Linda Norton. There’s Adele Robey and there’s me and we’re singing, like making up all this stuff and singing all this stuff. They were like, “Yeah, great.” So, now there’s a revue at CHAW. I couldn’t wait.
NORTON: 1989.
O’BRIEN: I had no idea.
NORTON: The Silver Salute to the ‘60s.
O’BRIEN: No idea. It was completely crazy and I was so out of my league in every way. Those women, oh my god, and Parker, they were so nice to me. But really, I was like the runt of the litter in that crowd.
NORTON: Yeah, but you seemed to enjoy yourself.
O’BRIEN: I did, but I was nervous all the time. I was totally nervous because I’m not a performer and they’re all incredibly performers, right? They’re all, oh man. Oh my gosh. They were great. So, no. I was nervous all the time. It was a big stretch. You learn a lot from a big stretch.
NORTON: Right. So, you guys, because it was what, a couple of weekends or something, or maybe just a couple of shows that you guys put on. You sang girl group songs, right?
O’BRIEN: We sang girl group songs and we learned them from listening to them, right. One of us didn’t read music at all. Oh, but I was just like pitiful. I could read music but I was pitiful in so many other ways. Yeah. Then we just started doing it. This was at a time, a chunk of the Jaynettes stuff was at a time when I was in the middle of getting a divorce or was separated. It was just not easy. It was totally not easy. But I lived right around the corner from Adele Robey which was where would rehearse. Once a week I would just like waltz up there and we would just stand around and sing four-part harmony for like two hours. I feel like that saved my sanity. There’s all kinds of therapy. I’m a big believer in like psychotherapy for sure, but oh man, it was just so, ah it was wonderful.
NORTON: And then the Jaynettes decided that they were going ... Did you sing at various other events or something?
O’BRIEN: Yeah, we got asked to sing all kinds of places. John O’Brien was our drummer. I should have said that. John O’Brien was in high school and he was our first drummer. The fact that he was not embarrassed to sit behind his mother. Though, Parker, you know, had asked him before. Like, John played the tympani in Peter and the Wolf. He was in the band for Annie. He played drums for the Not So Plain Jane Trio for Parker.
NORTON: That was Debbie Edge and Bruce Robey.
O’BRIEN: Debbie Edge and Bruce Robey. I feel like he would have done anything Parker asked him to do. I think that was a part of it. Also, all these women had all known John O’Brien since he was in PreK practically, so.
NORTON: He of course had been the Artful Dodger in Oliver and all that, so, yes.
O’BRIEN: Oh my god, all that, all that, all that. Then people asked us to play at parties, birthday parties and then there was the article in the Washington Post.
NORTON: That was the one that the Jaynettes put on. I’ve still got the poster somewhere.
O’BRIEN: Oh, we put on our own party.
NORTON: It was your own party. It says, “We think we ought to have a party.” It was the middle of the summer and it was at Christ Church, right?
O’BRIEN: Right.
NORTON: Unairconditioned and all that.
O’BRIEN: Right. It was. This is all Adele and Linda, because Adele and Linda were producers, right? They were producing all kinds of stuff for CHAW at the same time.
NORTON: They were sort of learning the ropes of producing at that point too.
O’BRIEN: Listen, I thought they were empresarios. They were empresarios as far as I was concerned. So, they were like, “Yeah, let’s have a party.” I’m like, “Uh oh.” [Laughter.] My first reaction to everything was either, “Uh, okay” or “Like, what is that exactly?” I’m like so, “Gah.” But what we learned, we learned somewhere before the party, maybe because we had performed at a few birthday parties that had all ages there, that people loved it and people loved to be with their kids and they loved to dance and they…
NORTON: All the generations loved it.
O’BRIEN: Totally. Everybody loved it. That was something to me that was just amazing and wonderful. Yes, oh my god, I remember that party. But it was so much fun. When I think about the set list for that party, we sang like a million songs. We sang a million songs.
NORTON: And had different costumes and everything.
O’BRIEN: Oh, and so, my god the costumes. That’s Linda Norton of course, all the costumes. I’m like, “Really?” I knew nothing about stuff like that. I knew nothing about makeup. Oh, god. They were so incredibly kind to me and just fabulous women, just really fabulous women. It was a hoot. It was a total hoot. I never talked about this anywhere, right, anywhere. People who learned this about me. Oh, my god when the article was in the Washington Post.
NORTON: Which was based on that party that was at Christ Church.
O’BRIEN: Based on that party.
NORTON: July of ’91 I think or August of ‘91.
O’BRIEN: There was a picture of us in these silver dresses that I named our “baked potato dresses.”
NORTON: I think they all called them the baked potato dresses. [Laughs.]
O’BRIEN: People at the Folger Library, they were like, “Oh my god.” Like, oh my god. I was like, “Don’t talk to me about this.” I was like totally shy about all that.
NORTON: You were on the front page of the Metro section.
O’BRIEN: Don’t I know. I came to work and the security guard was like, “Come over here a little bit, I just want to ask you about this.” I was like, “Oh no.”
NORTON: The people at work, did they know anything that you were doing this as your sidelight?
O’BRIEN: Not at all.
NORTON: The rock and roll singer?
O’BRIEN: Not at all. My cousin from New Hampshire. My cousin and her friend came to visit one time. It was not that party but it was something else we were doing that was ... it might have been at the Day School auction. It was something where there were lots of ... no families are not at the Day School [auction]. It was something and there were lots of families there and I said, “Oh I have to go and do this thing.” So, they came. Michael was loyal. Michael came to everything. They came and stood in the back and my cousin said, “Oops.” Just like, “Oh my god this is just unbelievable.” She said, “All these people are having such a good time.”
O’BRIEN: You were certainly the toast of the Capitol Hill.
O’BRIEN: Oh, it was a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun.
NORTON: After the article, then your gigs started to expand.
O’BRIEN: Yeah. Then we had to figure out if we were going to go with expansion or not. I forget who exactly was for expansion. I, of course, was not for expansion because I just kept thinking how incredibly comfortable it was to like provide that music and that kind of fun for all kinds of people. I don’t know.
NORTON: And they were your people.
O’BRIEN: Totally, totally, exactly. We all knew everybody and all that stuff. That’s different than gigs where you’re supposed to be fancy and good all the time. Not that we weren’t fancy and good all the time. But it sort of was a different thing. It just felt like a lot of pressure. I forget exactly how that decision got made. I do forget exactly.
NORTON: What, the idea to go that way?
O’BRIEN: That we were not going to go big time. Because we did go big time once and it wasn’t great. That was one thing. We had one or two gigs that were big time. People didn’t think we were great.
NORTON: But you were also interviewed by the Voice of America and all that stuff.
O’BRIEN: Well, it was just kind of a wild hair thing that these moms would start doing this.
NORTON: You kept doing it for, I guess they all kept doing it. Raye moved to New Jersey, so.
O’BRIEN: I would say at least 25 years. Somewhere between 25 and 30. I was trying to figure out when the last performance was}. We kind of lost our heart at some point. And our voices started to change and stuff too. Oh, it was a total blast.
NORTON: What was the motto, ‘Vintage Music from Vintage Women’ or something like that?
O’BRIEN: Yeah.
NORTON: Adele said you were all in your 40s at the time.
O’BRIEN: We were 40 when we started and we called ourselves vintage women. Now we really are vintage women. [Laughter.]
NORTON: I have pretty much run out of things to ask you about. It’s certainly been fascinating. Anything else you what to add?
O’BRIEN: I don’t think so.
NORTON: Thank you very much.
O’BRIEN: Wait, I have one thing to add. I can’t imagine how lucky I have been to live on Capitol Hill all these years that I’ve lived here. I feel so lucky. I mean, I have the best friends I’ve ever had in my life here.
NORTON: Interesting people.
O’BRIEN: Oh, so interesting. Never ending interesting. Michael Tolaydo, the first time I ever laid eyes on him, which was light years before I ever had a thought about what kind of relationship we would end up in. I saw him on the stage at the Folger. I just feel incredibly lucky and blessed to be part of this community. And talking to you Randy is part of it.
NORTON: Well, alright. We’ll end it at that. Thank you very much. I really appreciate it.
Addendum by O’BRIEN:
[For more than ten years, I had the honor of serving on the board of St. Coletta Special Education Charter School, a school dedicated to the reality that people with intellectual disabilities should be recognized and accepted as valuable contributors to the world … a school that works every day to empower children with intellectual disabilities to discover their full potential.  The school is that gorgeous building designed by Michael Graves at the corner of 19th and Independence, SE.  About 250 students ages 3-22 attend school there.  The establishment and growth of St. Coletta has been a life project of Hill resident Sharon Raimo.  She and I went to college together so I knew well of her lifelong devotion to students with intellectual disabilities; when she asked me to get involved with St. Coletta, I was happy to do so.  It is an altogether amazing place.  I am particularly in awe of the parents and teaches – and of course the students!
Also, how could I ever have forgotten to mention that my life – and the lives of all of my family – has been and continues to be enormously enriched by the friendship of two great Capitol Hill women: Betsy Barnett and Barbara Keeling.  They are the kind of friends that you mainly dream you might have but you know that you probably won’t ever be that lucky.  I met them in the neighborhood when our kids were babies. They are my sisters, my children’s “other mothers” … and we are growing old together!]
Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project
Peggy O’Brien Interview, September 9, 2023

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