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High School Forever

You’re smack in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime interview for your dream job. It’s going well. Your face relaxes, and that knot in your stomach begins to shrink. That’s when your potential future boss fires the question: “So, where did you go to high school?”


“No!” you silently scream. For half an hour, you’ve managed to hide your humble beginnings, making sure to keep the “Warsh” out of your college alma mater, “WASHington University.”

“Oops! Dropped my Montblanc!” you exclaim, scrambling for the pen whose sudden slipperiness you are counting on to save the day. “A present from my parents,” you explain, “for ... my acceptance into Mensa.”

Only in St. Louis would this question rear its head so often: in a job interview, at a party, even while chatting with the person whose car you just rear-ended. Here, “Where did you go to high school?” comes within seconds of “Nice to meet you” and at least four conversations before “What’s your sign?”

It’s all about getting the most information in the smallest amount of time—sort of a conversational CliffsNotes, according to Mike Wirtz, a 1986 graduate of St. John Vianney High School.

“It allows me to find out how much we might have in common,” says Wirtz. “I’ll make judgments on their religion, their income, their friends and the area they grew up in. I think we use that question to open up a conversation in the small world of St. Louis—you know, everyone jokes that everybody knows everyone here.”

Eavesdrop on a random conversation, Wirtz adds, and you’re apt to hear something like this:

“Where’d you go to high school?”

“Kirkwood.”

“What year did you graduate?”

“1983.”

“Oh my gosh, was so-and-so in your class?”

“No, but her sister was.”

“I know her sister! She was in one of the shows I was in, and I went to the dance with her best friend!”

St. Louisans are far from alone in having a shorthand method of securing personal information. Folklore has it that on the West Coast, they ask what kind of car you drive; in the East, they want to know where you went to college; and in the rest of the Midwest, they ask what you do for a living.

In football-frenzied Birmingham, Ala., it’s your college choice that forms the $60,000 question. “They want to know, ‘Are you an Alabama person or an Auburn person?’” says Melanie Goodson, who’s lived there most of her life. “Even people who move here from other states find themselves declaring their allegiance to one team or the other, just to fit in with the natives.”

Beth Plunkett, principal of Parkway West High School, grew up in Philadelphia. There, she says, everyone wants to know what parish you came from—even if you’re Jewish—because Catholicism is so pervasive that it’s become the way all natives divide their city.

“There is always a way to mark yourself,” says Plunkett, who has also lived in Boston and Hartford, Conn. “But St. Louis is the only city where high school is the piece. It’s that six degrees [of separation] idea. Who do we know in common? And as a non-St. Louisan, when I become identified with Parkway West, I have that sense of belonging.”

Even St. Louisans who moved here from other cities have a hard time escaping the habit of asking about high school origins. “I try not to,” says Plunkett, “but you know, I do. I interview a lot of people because I hire so many teachers, administrators, custodians—and it’s a way into a person’s life journey. We are looking to see where there are common threads.”

Julius Hunter (Sumner, Class of 1961) puts the question in historical context: “Even into the 20th century, kids in St. Louis dropped out of school at the sixth grade. All these beautiful schools, these castle-like buildings, were meant to attract students. High school was quite an accomplishment.”

St. Louis also has an unusually high proportion of students attending private and parochial schools. Those schools tend to have a more stable identity, full of rituals and traditions, and a culture shared across many generations.

Then there’s the sticking-around factor: 64 percent of Villa Duchesne alumnae still live in St. Louis, and for some schools, the percentage is even higher. St. Louisans often go “away” to college near home. “There’s also this bizarre phenomenon of people coming back to St. Louis in midlife,” points out Judith Newmark (University City, Class of 1968). “Those of us who remain are ground zero. When people come in, they call me.”

Renewing high school ties can be cozy and reassuring. But it doesn’t take a valedictorian to figure out that the high school litmus test relies heavily on labels and preconceived notions to keep it alive. A quick game of word association with Wirtz:

Clayton High? “Money!”

Parkway? “Good education.”

Fox? “Foreign—like another country.”

Hazelwood? “Move on!”

Roosevelt? “Isn’t that in the city?”

Dr. Sharon Lightfoot, a psychologist, says the high school question is “kind of classist or stereotypic,” but she emphasizes that the meaning behind the question depends on who’s asking it.

“There are people who are very insecure and only hang out with people who have qualities that make them feel better about themselves,” Lightfoot says. For others, she adds, “The question is about who you are, where did you come from—trying to understand who the other person is.”

And sometimes, it’s about being cautious.

“Some women, especially if they are dating or looking for someone to date, are trying to figure out if they feel safe,” Lightfoot says. “Do I know anyone who knows you, can I find out who you are, can I feel safe in your company alone?”

The question can also yield important clues about the person who’s doing the asking, notes Cathy Pollack (Belleville Township West, Class of 1978). “I don’t mind being asked, ‘Where did you go to high school?’ because I love watching people’s facial reactions when I reply, ‘Belleville West High School—just across the bridge in Illinois—but I was born in East St. Louis,’” she says. “If they’re nice people, they say, ‘Oh, OK,’ or ask where that is, and the conversation continues. If they’re local snobs, the interrogation stops, and those people move on pretty fast.”

The question, however, will return. In St. Louis, “Where did you go to high school?” is as inevitable as a plate of toasted ravioli, a keg of Budweiser and talk of the Cardinals. It just makes sense, says Wirtz, because no other question can foster such a close bond.

“The high school connection brings your childhoods together,” Wirtz says. “Once you find out you were in the same high school, you can find out you went to similar grade schools, and it connects everything—teachers, parents, friends, malls, playgrounds. I think people are looking for that. It’s like finding family.”

Reunited Again

Telling strangers about your high school is one thing; reliving it is something else altogether. Word of an impending high school reunion brings back all the anguished self-consciousness of that era. If you were class president, you wonder whether you’ve lived up to your own legend. If you once slunk down the school halls unnoticed, you worry that the reunion will unmask the bumbling adolescent beneath the CEO.

At 17, Wayne Brasler didn’t dare aspire to the Normandy High School homecoming court or the Who’s Who list, but at 62, he reigns as School King. A veteran of 10 high school reunions—five of his own and five of his friends’—the 1958 graduate was anointed Most Valuable Alumnus at the 2002 all-school reunion.

“After a lifetime of thinking I deserved ‘Nerd of the Year,’ I actually got crowned king of the school,” marvels Brasler, now a journalism professor at the University of Chicago. He promptly debuted the Alumni Courier, a publication for all Normandy grads.

Even worse than being remembered as a nerd is not being remembered at all. KYKY 98-FM morning show host Guy Phillips—voted “Class Clown” at Illinois’ Highland Park High School—had a rude awakening at his 30th reunion.

In high school, he’d discovered a pimple on his eyebrow one morning and hastily covered it with a Band-Aid to suggest a tragic wound. Then the cheerleader on whom he had a gigantic crush flounced into class and demanded, “Hey, are you covering a pimple?”

Fast-forward 30 years. Phillips sees her at their reunion and jokes, “Does anybody here have a first-aid kit?” Her blank look tells him she has no memory of the event that had haunted him for three decades.

Few at the 10th reunion of Rosary High’s Class of ’85 can forget Sue Orlando Bunkers’ appearance. Bunkers was still living the carefree single life, while most of her classmates had settled down to parenthood and peanut butter sandwiches. “There’s minivans in the parking lot and I pull up in my Miata,” she recalls. “It was like Sex and the City before Sex and the City. I dressed like I was going to the Oscars.”

As Bunkers approaches her 20th reunion, it’s a different story. She’s married, has two toddlers and runs her own public relations firm. “Let’s just say I don’t have the body I had at my 10-year,” she says ruefully.

Stacey Hudson Blair, a stay-at-home mom, approached her 20-year reunion (Roosevelt High, Class of ’84) utterly relaxed. “I’m me,” she says. “I’ve gained some weight; I’ve had a kid. We’re like, ‘Yeah, we all have, so don’t worry about it.’”

Two organizers of the Kirkwood class of ’94 reunion appreciated the simple joys of catching up with classmates. “I would talk to one person and think of third grade, getting in trouble for laughing during class or playing footsie under the desk with a boy,” Lara Ratican Prestipino remembers. Co-organizer Beth Meier “loved watching who was talking to whom throughout the evening. People who rarely talked in high school all of a sudden found they had things in common. And the dancing! Older with babies? Didn’t matter—our class can still seriously work that dance floor.”

Nearly five decades of curiosity about classmates finally got the better of St. Louis tax accountant Ray Duggins, Class of ’49 at Poplar Bluff High School in southern Missouri. He attended his first reunion 45 years after graduation. “I wanted to see who’s losing their hair,” he shrugs. “I was glad to see I wasn’t the only one.” Turning serious, Duggins admits that he cherishes the friendships that began or grew out of those high school connections. “These seem to be more lasting. People are just so damn busy nowadays, they don’t have time to talk.”

It Started with Prom

At last, someone has done the legwork for an anecdotal survey of the St. Louis high school phenomenon. That person is KMOV senior producer and director Dan Dillon, whose book—Where Did You Go To High School?—hits the shelves next month, packed with undiscovered trivia about secondary school subculture, vintage photos and such can’t-miss essays as “Nuns in St. Louis.”

So ... where did you go to high school?
To St. Thomas Aquinas (Class of 1972), which doesn’t even exist anymore.

Does that sadden you?
Yes. In a way you’re losing a part of your past. It’s disconcerting.

What is the big deal about where someone went to high school?
One theory [credits] the old PROM magazine. It was St. Louis’ own lifestyle magazine for teenagers, published once a month for something like 25 years and shut down in the early ’70s. In the back was a column written by teenagers from St. Louis high schools. You got to see your name in print, there were pictures in there and everyone in St. Louis got a flavor of what it was like to go to that school. It gave everyone a connection to these schools that they didn’t go to. And as it turned out, most of the other kids were just like you.

Where did you begin digging?
This book started as a book about PROM magazine, and that fell through the cracks. I decided to salvage the research on www.wherehigh.com, which provided the opportunity for people to e-mail memories.

Were you surprised by anything you found?
Every day I found some piece of trivia that was fascinating. Did you know that at Riverview Gardens High School there was a rocket ship on the grounds, or that Roosevelt was built on the site of an old cemetery and many swear the fourth floor is haunted? And fun facts pop up, like Augie Busch [III] went to Ladue Horton Watkins and was voted “Most Likely to Succeed.” Well, that’s not much of a stretch.

—Traci Angel

Where Did You Go to High School?

Julius Hunter
Vice president for community relations, Saint Louis University
Former KMOV-TV news anchor
Sumner High School, Class of January 1961

There were only two schools African Americans could comfortably go to, Sumner and Vashon. When I hear someone say they graduated from Beaumont or Soldan—or Roosevelt, McKinley or Central—I know they’re much younger than I am.

Before kids were bused all over creation, you could also have a general idea what neighborhood they grew up in. Although I lived two blocks east of Soldan, I flat out fibbed so I could go to Sumner!

I was president of my sophomore, junior and senior classes, the choir, the drama club and the Pan-American Society. On the other hand, I did not have an automobile, and I was not a good dancer. I dreaded sock hops.

Our class is still very much together. We have an annual picnic, a very classy Christmas brunch and a fall dance. Those are some of the strongest friendships—you are in a closer-knit environment than any college, and you see each other all the time.

“Here’s to our dear Alma Mater, the school of all schools, long may thy banner of loyalty and might rule in the sky.” Land? Sky? I don’t know. I have a yearbook here in the office, though. We could tear the roof off the building with that school song.

The Great High School Question

Is it a way to establish rapport or a sign of arrested development?

Pro

This will no doubt come as a shock to the development director, but I loved high school. Incarnate Word Academy was a nice, middling all-girls school, nothing elite about it, and we were all reasonably kind to one another. We certainly weren’t angling to display our charms. Drop-waist, pleated navy jumper, unzipped. Pilgrim-collar blouse worn defiantly backwards. Nubs sticking through navy knee socks; hair hidden by a bandanna. At Sophomore Dance, our dates thought us remarkably sweet to each other (“Susie! You look great!”) but what they were hearing was shock. Arms draped over their hunched shoulders, we’d wink at each other, our solidarity stronger than any crush. We knew we belonged. And we knew—“Praise be to the Incarnate Word, good morning Sr. Reparata”—that the place where we belonged stood for something more important than grades, boys, money or appearances. We were anchored and sheltered by its ideals, to whatever degree we chose to be, and we each ventured into the real world at our own pace.

I’ve learned not to confide my rosy gratitude to friends from other places, though. After Jennifer Silverberg, a photographer from New York, finished ranting about the St. Louis question, I dared ask where she went to high school.

“In Hartsdale, but that won’t have any meaning for anyone here,” she retorted.

“So just tell me the name of your high school,” I coaxed.

“Woodlands High in Greenburgh Central 7 District.”

“You’re right, I’m not even going to write all that down.”

“And you guys think New Yorkers are snobs?!”

The high school game can be snobbery. But for most of us, it’s simply cracked code. St. Louisans spend so much time feeling inferior to the coasts that it’s bracing to speak a private language. The danger is using it to exclude others—which is thoughtless and arrogant—or allowing those early stereotypes to define us, then spending the rest of our lives either proving  them or rebelling against them.

I do expend rather a lot of energy being stubbornly bohemian, living on the South Side and never, ever wearing navy pleats. Anybody who went to Incarnate would understand. And anybody from out of town would recoil at the smugness of that assertion. But in the end, the high school game is just a way to understand ourselves; a code, written in our first experiments with identity, that reveals and connects us.

—Jeannette Batz Cooperman

Con

When someone first asked me where I went to school, I took it in stride. “Connecticut College,” I replied. “No,” my inquisitor smiled, “high school.” Say what?

Where’d you go to high school? It’s perhaps the best-known joke in St. Louis, but the more I hear it, the less funny I think it is. What does where I went to high school have to do with anything, and why is everyone so interested? College is where most people decide what they think about the world, what they want to do with their lives, what kind of person they want to be. The fact that you would think of your prime school experience—the one that defines you forever after—as the time when you were a teenager … well, as Kelly Bundy would say, the mind wobbles.

Perhaps it’s because St. Louis is a city that holds on to its own. In New York, nobody is from New York. But in St. Louis, not only are the majority of people born and raised here, but those who do leave often come back when they’re ready to settle down. That St. Louis has such a high percentage of natives makes high school more relevant (though it’s also what makes St. Louis a big small town rather than a small big city).

But as cheery and innocuous as the question sounds, St. Louis’ fixation with high school has a darker side. In fact, I’d venture to say it’s a microcosm of St. Louis’ bigger problems—a lack of connection to the outside world; a tendency to close itself off to new experiences; an exclusionary attitude that creates separations between locals and ensures outsiders will never become insiders; an inability to believe the city can ever again reach the glory it had a century ago.

It reminds me of those popular kids in high school. The ones with the perfect hair and the perfect clothes, the ones who didn’t seem to experience high school as the roiling stew of insecurity and angst it was for the rest of us. I have a theory about those kids. It’s the other ones—the loners, the losers, the wallflowers—who make the most interesting adults, because they weren’t able to coast through high school on their looks and popularity. They had to develop other interests, other coping mechanisms. They had to find their own paths. Those popular kids? They’re the ones you see at the high school reunions. The cheerleaders with faded looks, the football stars with bald pates and bulging bellies whose best days are clearly behind them. They’re living in the past. And by making “where did you go to high school” the city’s definitive phrase, so is St. Louis.

—Elaine X. Grant 

Where Did You Go to High School?

Judith Newmark
Post-Dispatch theater critic
University City High School, Class of 1968

I went to U. City at a time when—was everybody in U. City Jewish? Of course not. But people assumed they were. And I was. And at that time, Jews really didn’t go to other schools.

U. City High was a place where people were not on the whole really well off, but went to schools as if they were. April 15 was the day of the acceptance letters. Everybody left school at midday, rushing home to see where they’d gotten in. My classmates went to Yale, Harvard, Princeton. I went to Bryn Mawr.

When we were in high school, Friday nights were Wigwam, it was like a sock hop at the U. City recreation center. I did not go to Wigwam. I went the next night, to folk dancing. Pierced earrings, black stockings, you get the picture. There was a boy in my class who was very cool, possibly the coolest boy in the whole school. I had a party and he wanted to come. I was floored, because he was really Wigwam and I was really folk dance. I ran into this guy at our reunion, he’s practicing law in Madison, Wis., and I thought, did I really think we were that different?

I know what Villa means: society. I know what St. Louis U. High means: brains. But with the public schools, nothing stays the same. Everything I’ve said about U. City, in my parents’ generation was true of Soldan High.

Where Did You Go to High School?

Brad Kessler
Criminal defense attorney
Ladue Horton Watkins High School, Class of 1975

If some kid came to me with a résumé and said, ‘I went to Ladue High School,’ I would at least take him to lunch. People outside St. Louis are much better at networking their college connections, but here, they milk high school. You walk into the courthouse, and it’s almost like a Ladue High/Clayton High reunion. Country Day, Burroughs, maybe Parkway Central. You get a lot of people whose dads and grandpas were lawyers, too.

The assumption if you went to Ladue is you were rich. Which isn’t necessarily true at all. Maybe your parents had some money. But the stereotype is a generation behind.

I live in the city, I do criminal defense, how much further can you get from your roots? I’ve spent my whole life trying to get away from that stereotype.

Clearly, people make snap judgments about you. I didn’t realize how much it was a part of this town until I got into the Catholic school league, where they really do it. SLU and DeSmet and CBC—there it’s unreal. I  think it’s relatively harmless, though. In a city that is sort of parochial, it’s kind of expected. You want to know who you are talking to.

Rites of Passage

At MICDS, custom and tradition bind alumni together for life—whether they like it or not

An MICDS alumnus might miss the annual bonfire before the big Country Day–Burroughs game, or the May ceremony when young women in long white gowns clasp hands to dance around a flower-strewn maypole. But odds are, these alumni will stay in touch, return for the reunions and show up at the football games.

At MICDS, formed by a 1992 merger of the all-girl Mary Institute and all-boy Country Day School, everybody knows everybody. They belong to the same country clubs (mainly St. Louis Country Club, Old Warson or Bellerive) and if they stay in St. Louis (another tradition), they send their kids to their alma mater.

Those parents who aren’t alumni ruefully dub themselves POPS (“plain old parents”), knowing that when changes are discussed, they cannot invoke the school’s past with proper outrage. Still, their children will be able to draw on a network only marginally less powerful than the Mafia.

“Someone will say, ‘I’m graduating; can I have a list of alums in Atlanta?’—and have a job in four days,” notes an insider. “No matter where you go, there’s an alum there.”

But some of those alumni are happier than others. And like siblings in a large family, they have starkly different memories.

Linda Ferguson Benoist, a St. Louis real-estate agent, and Christy Marshall, editor of St. Louis Magazine’s At Home, both went to Mary Institute. Benoist graduated in 1970, Marshall in 1968. Both remember their British headmaster, Ronald Beasley, insisting that women could do anything they wanted and teaching, at weekly teas, the art of conversation.

But that’s where the parallels end.

For Benoist, Mary I. was a kind and happy place. “Everybody was superfriendly and superkind and superthoughtful. The climate was not mean-spirited at all.”

Marshall remembers Benoist’s class as especially tight-knit but says a couple of her own classmates were indeed mean-spirited—and competition could be fierce.

Benoist remembers thinking that what she experienced at Mary I. “was the way it was, and should be, at every school. We just knew we would always be close.”

Marshall remembers that “you dressed a certain way, acted a certain way and associated with certain people. I left with these ridiculous notions that I would never date a guy who wore socks or didn’t drive a new car. I was in the bottom of my class, and there was a total lack of expectation for me, so I went to the University of Wyoming, where none of the prepster rules applied. One day, one of the cowboys said loudly when I walked into class, ‘Omigod, she’s blue—and yesterday she was pink.’ I got out of class and went straight to the Western-wear store.”

Benoist didn’t escape the stereotype of money and snobbery, though. After college  she worked at a radio station, KADI, and a colleague nearly spat out her lunch when she learned where Benoist had gone to high school. “As I’ve gotten older, it doesn’t bother me,” says Benoist. “MICDS has 20 percent of the kids on scholarship. People need to move on.”

She looks forward to the annual spring luncheon for Mary I. alumnae. Marshall dreads it. “For me, that was one of the hardest things about moving back to St. Louis: returning to that environment, which is lodged in perpetuity,” she says. “A lot of my Mary I. classmates married their sweethearts and replicated themselves. They were the duplicates of their parents, and now they’re in triplicate.”

An active volunteer since 1975, Benoist serves on the MICDS board. She married a guy from Whitfield Academy, and they sent their son and daughter to MICDS. “If I hadn’t gone to Mary I.,” she says, “I wouldn’t have the broad network and wonderful, wonderful friends I have.”

—Jeannette Batz Cooperman

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