INDONESIA: Impish Obama couldn't sit still, says school pal

School that presidential hopeful attended refutes U.S. media reports that it is a madrassa

The Jakarta Post
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

By Prodita Sabarini

Jakarta --- During a short break between classes, boys were seen shooting a few hoops to limber up their stiff bodies after sitting, leaning forward all day at their desks.

Their faces glistening with sweat, the students were focused on developing their skills, unaware the school grounds had recently been in the international spotlight because a U.S. senator -- who has declared his intention to run for president -- was once enrolled there.

Even the teachers at State Elementary School (SDN) Menteng 01 had been oblivious to the fact that Barack Obama, the rising young star of the Democratic party, once studied there.

"Before the news surfaced just a month ago, I wasn't aware Obama was ever enrolled here," principal Kuswadijanto told The Jakarta Post on Friday.

Now, the one-story green school building on Jl. Besuki in Menteng, Central Jakarta -- an upscale residential area predominantly made up of leafy avenues -- has received visitors from the international media, as well U.S. Embassy officials.

"We've been kind of busy. People from CNN, the ABC and other media organizations have come here to interview us," he said last week.

The U.S.-based Insight Magazine generated some buzz when it reported on its website that associates of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton -- who is in competition against Obama for campaign dollars -- was educated in a radical Muslim school known as a madrassa.

But other media organizations and the school itself were quick to debunk the false report.

"We're not a madrassa. Students of various religions go here," Kuswadijanto said. He said that since the rumors started, his staff had been spending a great deal of time answering journalists' questions, "Not that we mind, of course".

Kuswadijanto said the prestigious school was founded in 1934 by the Dutch colonial administration and was exclusively for the children of the Dutch and Indonesian nobility.

Vice principal Achmad Solikhin said the Indonesian government took charge of the school in 1962. It was then run by the Raden Saleh Foundation under principal Samingatun Binti Hardjodarson, who was also known as Ibu S. Karim.

Obama was in the third grade at SDN Menteng 01 -- then named SDN Besuki -- in 1968 when Ibu Karim was principal.

Now, the school, which has 478 students, is one of the country's model schools and part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' coalition of model schools.

Solikhin said students from the school did well in outside competitions.

"Our basketball team won at provincial level, as did our percussion band and dance troupe."

The school has also been selected by prominent figures to educate their children or grandchildren.

Solikhin said the children of Bambang Trihatmodjo, the son of former president Soeharto, were enrolled there, as well as the grandchildren of former vice presidents Hamzah Haz and Tri Soetrisno.

Hawaii-born Obama enrolled at SD Besuki after moving to Indonesia at the age of six to live with his mother, Ann Dunham, and Indonesian stepfather Lolo Soetoro.

Prior to SD Besuki, he attended Catholic School Fransiskus Assisis.

Obama in his memoir Dreams from My Father said his family was not well off in those early years. He went to local Indonesian schools because his family did not have the money to send him to the international schools that most expatriate children attend.

He returned to Hawaii at the age 10 to live with his maternal grandparents.

Former student and Ibu Karim's grandson, Bandung Winardijanto, remembers Obama as a "hyperactive junior who was daring, impish and could not stand still."

"We called him curly eyelashes because he had long and curly eyelashes. He had a dark skin tone and his hair was curly but really soft."

Bandung said when Obama was made a senator last year he made the connection.

"We knew him not by the name of Barack Obama but as Barry Soetoro."

He said Barry had joined the Scouts and was known throughout the school.

"He stood out among the other children. We use to tie him to the flagpole because he couldn't stand still."

"He would be angry for a while, but not long after we'd untie him and he would laugh and run around as usual," he said.

Bandung said Barry had once broken the school fence.

"It was still made of wood not of concrete like today. He was running around and knocked down the fence. He got up and smiled and not long after started to run around again."

He said the next day Barry's stepfather turned up at the school with workmen.

"He watched the workmen fix the fence and we called him little controller."

Bandung said Barry's parents often came to the school.

"He used to take food from the vendors without paying. But, at the end of the week, his parents would come and pay for it."

Bandung said he had heard the rumor that Obama went to a radical Islamic school. He showed a picture of Obama with the Scout group.

"The girls wore miniskirts. There's no way miniskirts would be allowed at a madrassa," he said. Another photo of teachers at the school shows both males and females wearing Western-style clothing. The women are also wearing miniskirts.

Bandung said there was nothing to worry about in any case as Indonesian madrassa had been noted for teaching a moderate form of Islam.

"I think the Americans are being a bit paranoid this time."