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That high school question: Where did it come from, what's the real question, and does it even matter

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 19, 2011 - So, where did you go to high school?

That question seems to follow people here around like the neighborhood stray that nobody wants but everybody feeds. It's regarded both fondly, as a St. Louis thing, or as the seven words that sum up everything wrong with St. Louis.

Sometimes both.

It's seen as a way to connect, finding people who may have gone to the same school or know your cousin or teacher or coach, or it's seen as a way to separate.

Sometimes both.

The High School Question

Bob Kenney, Bishop DuBourg

I have been asked the question and I thought it was a common question to ask somebody you met ... I have asked the question. It told me their religion, their neighborhood, and the social status.

Patricia Bubash, Cleveland High School

It has taught me that people often want to have a perspective of your values ... before they invest in the relationship -- and, on a positive point, that people enjoy having a connection to initiate conversation.

Cheryl Laut, Roosevelt High School

I think the question to ”people of a certain age” is as much St. Louis as Ted Drewes, the Hill and the Cardinals. I don't know of anywhere else where this question is asked.

Robert Steinman, Dwight D. Eisenhower High School, (Decatur, Ill.)

The response provides a basis for understanding a person. It means less today because that person's post high school experiences have hopefully diluted the importance of the cliche or group dynamic.

Mike Dailey, Minden High School (Minden, La.)

On the one hand, there's a strong, proud sense of loyalty to and identification with St. Louis, no matter where a person lives in the metro area. On the other hand, people seem to feel a need for a more granular sense of place, as suggested by the amazing number of separate municipalities within St. Louis County. I think the question is basically used for profiling, or categorizing people based on assumed similar attributes. But it's also used as a start to probing for shared acquaintances, workplaces and other local institutions. I told someone here that the notion of "six degrees of separation" really works in St. Louis, but I was told in return that it's more like one or two degrees. St. Louis is like a very large small town. It's just part of the charm and friendliness of this place.

Angelia Bills, Jennings High School

It's a St. Louis thing. ... for some reason people in St. Louis like to play the game.

Scott Rhoades, Ft. Zumwalt South

I have lived in several cities and countries, and this is a question unique to St. Louis. For the most part, St. Louis is a tight-knit community and many people associate with people from various areas ... (when) people ask someone new that question, in all probability they will know someone else at that school that the individual also knows.


For people who aren't from St. Louis, it can be a local curiosity or the sign on the wall that tells them they'll never really belong here.

For natives, it can be the secret handshake of a greeting with others when you're out of town, or the question you avoid at all costs.

Reena Hajat Carroll, executive director of the Diversity Awareness Partnership, says that in about 40 percent of the meetings she attends, the question is either asked or critiqued.

"It's certainly still a part of our fabric," she says.

To Bob Archibald, president of the Missouri History Museum, several factors have made the question harmless over time. Now, he says, it's really just a cliche.

"It's like toasted ravioli," he says. "It's just one of those things that happens here."

It is, certainly, one of those things that happens here. But how did it start and why does it persist? Are people looking for ways to connect, ways to judge?

Or sometimes both?

Prom Magazine

Once a month from 1947 to 1973, "Prom" magazine arrived at local drugstores and newsstands, offering high schoolers of the day a glance inside other high schools around the city.

The magazine cost 10 cents and had two reporters at each school, says Johnny Rabbit, aka Ron Elz, long-time DJ and radio personality, now at KMOX.

"This connected a whole lot of people," says Elz, who has collected about 200 issues of "Prom."

Before Facebook, Twitter and e-mail, "Prom" offered a way to learn about other teenagers in the city.

"They were connected by 'Prom' magazine," says Elz, a graduate of the now closed Dodson School. "Otherwise, you probably wouldn't even know about these high schools."

To Elz and to Dan Dillon, "Prom" is where the "Where did you go to high school" question really gained its steam.

"That may have been the genesis for the popularity of the question," says Dillon, a writer and producer at KMOV and author of the book "So Where'd You Go To High School: The Baby Boomer Edition."

Each month, "Prom" offered features and photos on high schools in the area.

"Prom" reporters were invited to press conferences, Elz says, to meet with movie, TV, radio and stage stars of the time. They also got tickets to the opening nights at the Muny.

Content was fairly vanilla, dealing with social life and gossip and never got into hard-hitting issues like alcohol, teen sex or drugs until the very end, says Dillon, who graduated from St. Thomas Aquinas, which is also now closed.

But it did connect people.

"Prom gave you the chance to actually look at the pictures of the school, look at the kids and where they were, and I think everyone found out we're all pretty much alike," he says.

It also wasn't exclusively a white publication. The publisher, Julian Miller, was the son of a Jewish rabbi, Dillon said, and while he wasn't overt about it, did seem fair-minded about race relations.

"Prom" stopped publishing in 1973, but for many generations, it offered the face of their school and others, and, perhaps, gave people a little more background for the high school question.

Why Do You Ask?

That alikeness, that sense of a shared community, shared memories and experiences, might be one reason behind the high school question.

"I think it's a reflection of our Midwestern values and how we're friendly and wanting to make connections with people," Dillon says.

Elz agrees. "A lot of people think it's snobby," he says. "I just think it's a way to really know something about somebody."

Angelia Bills graduated from Jennings High School. To her, the question gives people an idea of where you grew up, but it doesn't tell people what you've done since then.

"Their snap judgments can be wrong," she says, "but for some reason, people in St. Louis like to play the game."

The question can help people find commonalities, like if they went to rival high schools or know similar people, she says. And that information might work for you, or against you.

"It does sort of peg you for anyone who's asking the question," says Dillon, "and that can be a good or bad thing."

Pat Bubash, a Cleveland High School grad, raised her family in Jefferson County. One of her daughters hates the high school question, she says. Answering that she's from Jefferson County is a deficit for her daughter, Bubash thinks. It's college where you form where your life is headed, her daughter tells her. High school isn't all that relevant.

Hajat Carroll, who's from Chicago, hadn't encountered the high school question since she left high school. Then she moved to St. Louis. She thinks one reason people ask the question is because it's a way for people to find connections.

"But then that connection is based in race and class, more specifically in class," she says.

Once when she was out, a male friend was asked the question by a woman. "CBC," her friend answered.

Hajat Carroll knew he'd graduated from Vashon. "For him," she says, "that was gonna be a selling point with a girl."

Sense of Otherness

You either loved or hated high school, Dillon says.

"But you still love to talk about it because it was the last time in most of our lives that you had no responsibilities."

High school holds special significance in people's memories, he says. And that might be especially true for a place where so many people either stay or return.

The closest we can get to knowing how many people in St. Louis are from St. Louis comes from the 2009 American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau, says John Posey, director of research with East-West Gateways Council of Governments. According to those numbers, 69.6 percent of people in the St. Louis Metropolitan Statistical Area were born in the state where they now live. That includes people who could have been born in Kansas City or other places around the state, he says, and excludes people who grew up in Missouri and moved to Illinois, but it's as close as it gets.

"People in St. Louis just tend to stay there," says Carolyn Cottrell, who first moved to St. Louis in 1963 to attend Washington University.

For 10 years, Cottrell lived in Ste. Genevieve, which was populated by people whose people had been there for generations. After 10 years, she says, she still felt like an outsider. When it was time for her children to go to school, her family moved to Kirkwood. There, she found more people whose people had pretty much always been there.

"St. Louis is a very insular place," she says.

The high school question might be seeking to make connections or to peg people, but for people not from here, it also can create a sense of otherness. Jason Vander Weele grew up in Wisconsin and came to St. Louis with Americorps. To him, the high school question shows how important roots are in St. Louis, but it also puts up a wall for him as an outsider

"It's really a question about figuring out people's pasts and where they came from," he says. "It doesn't really look forward. It looks for differences."

Peter T. Wilson, with Educational Equity Consultants, agrees. He's also not from here.

"It's part of the way of" making people the other, he says. "You can identify if they're from the right place or if they're not. I think that's a very big part of how we maintain privilege in our society."

St. Louis has some confusion about its identity, he says, being southern but not fully southern.

"It's a very different place than Kansas City, for instance."

Cottrell agrees. She lives there now and has never been asked the question.

It is actually asked in some other places, though, such as Hawaii, New Orleans and Chattanooga, Tenn., Dillon found in writing his book.

Randy Vines, co-founder of STL-Style, says he's also heard the question asked in places like Baltimore, Cincinnati and Cleveland. 

And Lisette Dennis, with the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission, says that other questions are asked to get the same kind of information, too. In New York City, she says, the question is your area code, which tells people where you live, which tells them how much money you have. (212 is the preferred area code.)

But mostly, Elz says, in all the places he's lived, "Where did you go to high school" doesn't come up.

It truly is a St. Louis thing. "If you're not from here," he says, "no, you're not from here. You're not part of the club."

Just Asking

While the high school question might anger, annoy or amuse people, it probably isn't used to hold them back, at least not like it once was, says Archibald with the Missouri History Museum.

"At one time, it was a way of distinguishing between class, ethnicity, race, but class really, and that different high schools would delineate what your family income was," he says.

One hundred years ago, immigrants lived in enclaves in the city, from German to Irish to Croatian and Serbian.

"The answer to the question 'where did you go to high school,' gave away a piece of information about where your people were."

Now, people from St. Louis might use the question to make stereotypes, but 100 years ago, St. Louis was much more stratified by class than it is now, he says, and class distinctions were used to advance or hold back a person. Where you went to school mattered, he says, because it basically showed people where you were headed.

Those boundaries aren't as clear anymore, Archibald says. People move up and down economically, and they also move around the region geographically. There aren't true neighborhood schools the way there once were, at least in the city, and he thinks that the decline of neighborhood schools is at root responsible for denying the high school question much of its meaning.

Now, if a person says they went to Clayton High School, they could live in Clayton or in the city.

Archibald thinks the question itself is harmless. "I don't think it gives very much information about people anymore."

What You Do With It

For a few moments one weekday afternoon, a group of St. Louis high schoolers sat in the cool auditorium at the Missouri History Museum to talk about their worlds.

They attend a handful to schools across town -- University City High School, Clayton High School, Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, Brentwood High School, Clyde Miller Career Academy, Soldan International Studies High School and Whitfield School.

And they all agree -- where you go to high school matters. At least, it seems to matter to other people.

Andrea Banks is a senior at Clayton High School.

"When I say I go to Clayton, everyone always thinks that I'm some stuck up black chick trying to be white," she says.

Alaina York, who is white, just graduated from U. City High. When she tells people that, they usually don't believe her or ask her why and want her to qualify that she lives in a nice neighborhood and give some other clue about who she is.

James Harrell graduated from VPA and previously went to Roosevelt High School. Before transferring, he thought his new school would be really different from his old one. But they were pretty much the same — still high school.

"For me, it doesn't really matter where I go," he says. "It all depends on where I want to go with my future."

Regardless of how it got started or why the high school question is really asked, where you go to high school still seems to matter, the group all agrees, at least to other people.

"It's human nature to try and put people in a box," York says. "And for St. Louis, the easiest way to do that is 'Where do you live?' and the easiest way to do that is 'Where did you go to high school?'"

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