Street Talk: From K Street to School Corridors
Last week, John Scheibel listened carefully as a House Judiciary Committee aide and seven pint-sized lobbyists bantered about tax policy, the criminal justice system and a bill to boost public recreation centers.
It could have passed for another of the countless meetings Scheibel convened with Members of Congress and high-ranking officials while he was a K Streeter.
But this was a once-a-year visit to the Hill for the former lobbyist and Congressional staff director who opened and led Yahoo’s government affairs shop. Six years ago, he resigned from that job and made a curious career move, becoming a middle-school teacher.
The little lobbyists who accompanied Scheibel to the Rayburn House Office Building were his students, who were on a field trip last week to advocate for a mock piece of legislation. Their annual lobbying day included a tour of the Capitol, mentoring sessions with members of the American League of Lobbyists and motivational speakers.
“You hear stories about disaffected lawyers,” Scheibel said. “I wasn’t one of those people. I loved my job at Yahoo. I loved working on the Hill all those years.”
But coaching his then-5-year-old son’s Little League Baseball team helped Scheibel discover a completely different calling. It led him to swap the swanky office space of a tech company and the trappings of a top-paying K Street gig for a no-frills classroom bedecked with handmade posters that read “respect,” “responsibility” and the word “can’t” with a line through it.
That classroom is at Washington Jesuit Academy, a private Northeast D.C. middle school that educates boys from disadvantaged homes.
“It was a process for me, but I really decided at some point that I wanted to make a difference in the lives of young men from low-income areas,” Scheibel said.
To make the move, he enrolled in a yearlong program at Johns Hopkins School of Education in Columbia, Md. Only a weekend separated his departure from his lobby job from his arrival as a newly minted teacher-in-training.
“I won’t tell you it wasn’t culture shock to walk out of Yahoo on a Friday and walk in with textbooks the next week,” he said.
While he was wrapping up his teaching degree, Scheibel learned about Washington Jesuit Academy from a parent at one of his son’s hockey games. He met with WJA President Bill Whitaker, who said he was struck by the applicant’s out-of-the-ordinary background and his passion and hired him.
“I was amazed at his ability to transition from flying coast to coast, running up and down the Hill, sitting in meetings that were business-changing,” Whitaker said in his office across the parking lot from Providence Hospital. “He’s just made us so much better.”
Head of the Class
Anyone who thinks a teaching job is cushier than one on K Street has never observed Scheibel in front of a dozen preteen boys. His quietly firm, calm style along with a constant flow of dialogue, positive feedback and, yes, even magic tricks keeps “the guys,” as he calls them, engaged.
“It’s a grind,” said Scheibel, who also coaches the school’s baseball team. “You are the only adult in the room. It’s very intense.”
The students spend 12 hours a day at the school, eat three meals in the cafeteria and have a study hall after dinner to complete their homework. A four-inch-thick binder holds the lesson plans for one semester of one class.
But Scheibel says he loves it.
“The fact is the kids inspire me,” he said. “So many of the kids show courage on a daily basis, and it makes me want to get better as a teacher. They are often hysterically funny. They make me laugh every day.”
Earlier this month, in the second week of the new school year, Scheibel assigned his sixth-grade social studies students a one-page autobiography. The next day, he invited them to read their handwritten papers to the class. “It’s totally voluntary,” he told them.
At first, few hands went up, but by the end, with time running out in the period, the students vied for the chance to make presentations. Perhaps it was because Scheibel focused on what each of the students did well and invited the other students to offer their thoughts, too.
“He expressed himself,” explained one student. “He made eye contact with the audience,” offered another.
In their essays, the kids dished about their favorite sports teams and the types of food they didn’t like, mostly vegetables. They also revealed intimate details about their family structures and the hardships they’ve experienced. One lives with his grandmother, another with an aunt and uncle. Some were the children of single parents. One boy talked about his dad, who had been in prison four times.
It was, in part, a way for Scheibel to get to know his students. But he had a bigger purpose for assigning the autobiographies early on in the school year.
“Each one of you has a story,” Scheibel said, noting that history can be broken down into two words: “his story.” He pulled out a deck of cards, captivated them with a magic trick, then quickly showed them what he had done.
The point: “The conclusion you draw may depend on how you look at it,” he said.
Geoff Gonella, president of Cornerstone Government Affairs, said Scheibel has an amazing ability to relate to the students, to communicate on terms they understand. Gonella should know: He has sat in on Scheibel’s classes because he and his wife are helping sponsor a student at the school.
“It turns out he’s just spectacular at it,” said Gonella, who is on the WJA board. “It could be that, as we all know, one of the skills that effective lobbyists and advocates have is an ability to take a complex set of issues and convey them in a way that different audiences can understand.”
In addition to helping with the $18,000 yearly tuition for a student to attend the school, Gonella said he drops by for lunch sometimes and joins Thanksgiving and graduation celebrations.
K Street Connections
Scheibel’s K Street connections have come in handy for those graduations. In 2010, for example, he helped recruit Attorney General Eric Holder as commencement speaker.
But his past life really made a difference on the Hill last week, as he helped his students navigate meetings in the Rayburn and Longworth House office buildings.
The students were pressing for a mock bill that would extend funding for public recreation centers. They argued that more rec centers would help keep kids and adults out of trouble and create jobs. “Less money you have to spend on jails,” one student said.
Then another student asked: “Can we get your boss to support our bill?”
“You guys are very convincing,” said one of the Congressional aides they met with. It was a white Republican woman who turned out to have something in common with the students, all African-Americans. Her family had experienced hard economic times, she told them, and she went to college on a basketball scholarship. The kids peppered her with questions about being a student athlete, juggling homework and practice.
Scheibel smiled. His two worlds connected, if only briefly, in an ornate hearing room under a sprawling chandelier in Longworth.
Earlier, Scheibel said he has no regrets about his peculiar path. “Next question, do I miss lobbying?” he said in an interview. “The answer would be yes.”