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Why are St. Louisans so fixated on where other people went to high school?

Michael B. | Flickr | http://bit.ly/1MbTzFk
"Why are St. Louisans so fixated on where other people went to high school?" asks Morgan of Curious Louis. "St. Louis on the Air" answers the call.

Morgan Hagedorn asked a question of Curious Louis that we’ve heard echoed at least 1,000 times in 1,000 different situations all over St. Louis:“Why are St. Louisans so fixated on where other people went to high school?”

To be honest, this is probably not one of those questions we can answer in one fell swoop. There are dozens of racial, socioeconomic, habitual, communal reasons why the question “So, where did you go to high school?” is repeated again and again.

Yet, we thought we’d take a stab at starting a conversation about why the question is asked. So we called in the folks at Missouri History Museum’s Teens Make History program. The group has put together a new gallery installation about whether the question divides or connects St. Louis as well as the history of high schools in the region. It is open at the museum through July, 17, 2016. 

On Friday’s “St. Louis on the Air,” Ellen Kuhn, the teen and adult interpretive programs coordinator at the Missouri History Museum, said that that the high school students who produced the exhibit “have a unique perspective on high schools because they are in it.”

Ellen Kuhn, Missouri History Museum.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Ellen Kuhn, Missouri History Museum.

The exhibit delves into the history of race and integration in area high schools, extracurricular activities, teaching styles, among other things. Students were surprised by how many similarities they found between their high school experiences and those long ago.

Emma Mitchell, a senior at Nerinx Hall High School who was involved with the project, said that she often feels stereotyped when people ask her the question.

"My high school plays a lot into who I am and it shaped who I am, but the assumptions made when I say I go to Nerinx aren't accurate," Mitchell says, citing that people immediately think that she is Catholic and has a lot of money in order to attend such an institution.

The exhibit also gives participants a chance to reflect on how they feel when people ask them where they went to high school. During the program, listeners commented on Facebook, tweeted and emailed us about why they think St. Louisans ask this question and how it makes them feel.

Many people think that the roots of the question lie in class and socioeconomic differences. 

Katie emailed, writing:

The St. Louis Question — where'd you go to high school? — is so laden with socioeconomic and religious overtones that's it makes me bristle whenever I hear it. I try to dodge it whenever I'm asked, even though I grew up here.

This question is code for: 

‘Are you Catholic?’ 

‘Are your parents rich? Blue collar? Poor?’

‘Is your neighborhood "black"?’

Asking it is a cagey way of sussing out a person's level of privilege.

On the flip side, several people, including those involved with the Teens Make History program, discovered a less divisive reason for why people ask the question.

“A lot of times, the question is used as a way to make connections with people,” Kuhn said.  “People will ask the question and others will respond: ‘Do you know so-and-so?’”

One Facebook commenter explained it in a similar way, saying that the question is asked “because we stay close with classmates as lifetime friends.”

Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Emma Mitchell, senior, Nerinx Hall High School.

As part of the exhibit, the Teens Make History Players are also putting on originally-produced plays based on their high school experiences.

“They really do tackle the issue of stereotypes and try to unpack it,” Kuhn said. “They use their own personal experiences as the basis for the play and how people make assumptions that aren’t always correct, that we really need to think twice before we ask that question.”

When asked what she thought people 50 years from now would think about the St. Louis high school experience, Mitchell paused for a moment before responding and saying:

“I think they’ll see a lot of division but also a lot of connection, which we have seen this question leads to, through this exhibit itself and the society we’re in now. With technology, there are so many chances to connect but so many divisions have cropped up as well.”

There are several ways you can continue to be a part of the discussion:

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.