You don't have to be born-and-bred Baltimore to have been asked The Question, much less posed it to someone else—the mark of a true Baltimorean lies in the answer. The Question is, of course, "Where'd you go to school?"
Why do we ask The Question? How did this tradition come to define a person? And does it still matter the way it once did?
Let's call on Stefanie DeLuca. Three and a half years ago, she got the biggest break in her still-young academic career. The Chicago native jumped at the job opportunity she'd been offered at Johns Hopkins University as an assistant professor of sociology. She'd been born and raised in Chicago and even stayed local for college, attending the University of Chicago and Northwestern. So she found herself homesick and confused early on in Charm City. Mainly because people kept starting conversations with The Question.
"It was awkward for me," she says. "This was happening to me a lot at the Downtown Athletic Club, where I'd get to talking to people and they'd ask me where I went to school. And my first response was: 'So what?' I went to college and then to grad school and it would get confusing because I just had no idea about it, and it would end up being embarrassing."
People like to point out that Baltimore is a big city with a small-town feel. Some people say it wistfully—others, with a sneer. But whether people love it or hate it, they acknowledge it. They see it reflected in Charm City traditions, from the rowdy, communal nature of eating steamed crabs in a large group, to the celebrity status of the local news anchors and weathermen, to the postmodern worship of Baltimore's Hons.
The tradition that goes the furthest in fueling the "smalltown" argument—the one that causes folks to label the town as "parochial"—is our obsession with our high schools. And we're not talking stamp collecting level of obsession, we're talking Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. In some cities, people might be judged on what part of town they're from. Others might be judged on what they do for a living. In Baltimore, where you went to high school speaks loudest. All at once, it tells people where you grew up, just which rung you (and your family) cling to on the social ladder, and sometimes even gives a pretty good indication of what you do for a living. Heck, it even susses out whether you're from Baltimore, as anyone not from around these parts assumes you're referring to their college alma mater.
For the sake of clarity, let's outline what we're assuming are most people's presumptions—that Baltimore has certain "Power Schools" whose reputations are of excellence, whether it be in the arts, sciences, athletics, or even religion. When someone in town asks you where you went to school, these are the alma maters that carry the most weight. And they're pretty widely agreed upon: Baltimore School for the Arts, Beth Tfiloh, Boys' Latin, Bryn Mawr, Calvert Hall, City, Dulaney, Friends, Gilman, Loyola, Maryvale, McDonogh, Mount Saint Joseph, Notre Dame Prep, Park, Poly, both St. Paul's schools, and Western.
Tom Kiefaber owns and runs one of the lasting icons of a bygone Baltimore era, the Senator Theatre. This is appropriate because, after a peripatetic adolescent tour through Baltimore's public, private, and parochial school systems, he possesses rare insight into The Question.
His elementary school years took him to McDonogh once and Gilman twice (he points out that this doesn't deter Gilman from calling him every year during fundraising season). And by junior high, he was a genuine adolescent Odysseus, wandering from school to school.
First, he was back at McDonogh. The next year, he branched out to Boys' Latin, then Baltimore Institute, then
Roland Park Public. Finally, he strung a couple years together at Baltimore Lutheran—long enough to edit the school paper and become school president as a senior, graduating in 1971.
So these days, when asked The Question, Kiefaber says he "learned to cut to the chase and shorten the exchange by responding that I didn't go to St. Paul's or Friends."
Out-of-towners are usually forced to adapt similarly. After a couple decades of answering The Question, some of them get savvy enough to respond with a convincing "Oh, I went to the 'Gilman' of Boston" or possibly "the 'Maryvale' of Poughkeepsie."
DeLuca, on the other hand, tried to dig up the roots of the tradition to satisfy her curiosity—after all, her forté is studying the effects of social context on adolescents.
Initially, she says, "my gut reaction was that Baltimore's a small town with a lot less turnover. So this is simply more of the local tradition, because you have a solid population that doesn't change as much over time. It's a good bet that someone's going to know what you're talking about. And they're going to have gone to high school here. It's largely not something that people even think about."
DeLuca went first to the census data, hoping that something might leap out at her to explain Baltimore's intense love affair with its high schools. "I was trying to think of things that would change the cultural milieu here," she explains, "and which would explain some of what might seem provincial or parochial, but which I look at as culturally traditional." No luck.
But when asked about drawing a parallel to the close ties most people create in college fraternities and sororities, DeLuca acknowledges some similarity. "In the South, fraternity and sorority involvement is for life," she says. "Because it's a status thing. And I think that's what all of this comes down to. I don't think the specifics of whether it was Delta Phi Epsilon or Calvert Hall are what matters. It comes down to when people are interacting socially, there's just a little bit of getting a footing when it comes to social status. It's a common denominator. And it's a way to get a better handle on who you're talking to."
Social institutions, she explains, are simply shortcuts that we take. We take them because they're easy and we take them because sometimes they actually get us somewhere quicker.
"It either serves a purpose of sussing out who you're talking to, or it's just a force of habit and the specifics are irrelevant—it's just a way of entering into a conversation with somebody," she says. Either way, it's the Baltimore version of asking people where they're from or what they do for a living. It's a more polite way of asking "Who are you?"
"I think it may be related to our provincial past, when your classmates often reflected your social class," Kiefaber offers. "Although the clear delineation in the past has blurred somewhat, it remains a method for efficiently establishing where an individual may fit in the Greater Baltimore Scheme of Things."
When two Baltimoreans are involved, he says, The Question is always followed by a quick game of Who Do You Know? "Since indigenous Baltimoreans tend to stay put, there are fewer degrees of separation here and the 'Where did you go to school?' inquiry is still an effective search engine that beats Google every time."
Writer Laura Lippman, who started at Western before transferring to Wilde Lake, nods in vigorous agreement. "Baltimore is obsessed with high school because, in general, no one ever leaves," she says. "I've heard newcomers say they've never known a place that was so obsessed with high school. And the old high schools—Western, Poly, City, Eastern, Forest Park, etc.—had very strong identities once upon a time. It was a very convenient way to stereotype. Why do you think I'm so quick to invoke [my] one year at Western? It's a total brainiac credential to have been A-course."
And boy, does Lippman have a point— Baltimoreans love to stick around. Proof of that lies at the heart of this very discussion. DeLuca points out the obvious: If the best of Baltimore's high-school alums always left town, there wouldn't be much point to asking The Question.
Fortunately, most of those alumni have remained in and around Charm City, helping to lead and shape the city over the past half-century. More importantly, those school ties are as instrumental as ever in getting alumni into colleges, boardrooms, and elite social circles.
"I often have kids who are seniors who are getting jobs at some point," says Barry Fitzpatrick, principal at Mt. St. Joe. "And they say 'Wow, Mr. So-and-so hired me because I'm a St. Joe grad and so is he.' You have people giving a little bit of a preference in hiring to guys from their high school."
Fitzpatrick's counterpart at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute—always shortened to "Poly"—agrees. "The hand has always reached backward to pull folks along," says Dr. Barney Wilson, Poly's principal and a class of '76 grad.
Last year, for instance, Willard Hackerman, construction magnate and Poly alumnus, established a scholarship for three Poly grads each year for the next 25 years who go on to attend Johns Hopkins University.
"When I went to Pittsburgh for college," says Wilson, "there was an article in the paper that there were some Poly students at Carnegie Mellon. The vice president of Westinghouse at the time immediately called the school and took 15 of us to dinner and paid for it and said to us: 'Welcome to Pittsburgh. I know that Carnegie Mellon's going to be okay because there are 15 students from Poly and Western here.' Anything he could do to support his schools, he would do."
There's no question that this is how Baltimore's school ties have remained so strong—and why The Question is still relevant.
"If someone asked me today about where I went to school," Wilson says, "the last thing I'd think about is college. The very first thing I'd think about is Poly. When I'm out and I see a City or Western ring, I immediately engage in conversation and we immediately have some common ground." He's even met fellow Baltimoreans in such farflung locales as Africa and Australia simply because he spotted their school rings.
And although the "provincial" and "parochial" labels don't always carry such savory associations, Baltimore's school ties are admirable in their ability to go beyond race. "Poly now is predominantly African- American," says Wilson. "Before 1960, most of the folks were white male. But they still have the same love for the school and the love for the students who are there, because they're Poly students and race doesn't really come into it." It may seem insignificant, but it's apparently refreshingly different after some of the things he's seen in other places.
"In New York, a lot of the alumni at some of the stronger schools have abandoned the schools because the population has changed," he says. "The rigor didn't change—the schools are still producing topnotch students who can compete nationally. But the alumni support has waned. Baltimore, to its credit, has not abandoned its schools along racial lines."
It's clear that Baltimore's high-school alums haven't abandoned Baltimore either. A look at some of the most notable alumni of Baltimore's schools reads like a who's who of Baltimore's elite over the years. And in many cases, it serves to reinforce the reputations schools have.
And that's another unique element to The Question—graduation rates don't matter. SAT scores don't matter. Class sizes don't matter. For the purposes of the average Baltimorean asking The Question, the proof of a Power School is in the pudding—the alumni.
For starters, if you want to be a politician, City College is apparently the place to be. They've turned out Elijah Cummings, Theodore McKeldin, Dutch Ruppersberger, William Donald Schaefer, and Kurt Schmoke. The Notre Dames haven't done too badly either, with Barbara Mikulski and Democratic Leader of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, hailing from IND, and Baltimore City Judge and First Lady of Baltimore, Katie Curran O'Malley, attending Notre Dame Prep.
Poly's got the market on future construction tycoons cornered, with grads like Alonzo Decker (of Black & Decker fame), Robert Poole and E. Robert Kent, and the aforementioned Willard Hackerman.
Most of the other Power Schools have prominent alums from more varied walks of life. Consider McDonogh, responsible for tennis star Pam Shriver, former Crown Central Petroleum CEO Henry Rosenberg, beer guru and Clipper City beermaster Hugh Sisson, and interior designer Stiles Colwill.
Or Gilman, whose alumni list includes Governor Robert Ehrlich, Moxley's Ice Cream owner Tom Washburn, Sylvan Learning founder Doug Becker, Living Classrooms CEO James Piper Bond, and restaurateur extraordinaire Tony Foreman.
Of course, not all civic leaders spring forth from City College: City Councilman Keiffer Mitchell attended Boys' Latin. Maryland Attorney General Joe Curran came out of Loyola Blakefield, along with former Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro III, and Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith. State Senator Lisa Gladden and Maryland State Schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick both graduated from Western High. Walter Sondheim matriculated from Park School. And Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, went to Pikesville High.
There's no shortage of scribes and inkstained wretches on the rolls of our alums either: Laura Lippman came out of Wilde Lake, H.L. Mencken walked the halls of Poly long ago, Leon Uris was a product of City College, Tom Clancy graduated from Loyola, Anna Deveare Smith went to Western, and Gilman boasts both Frank Deford and Walter Lord.
Baltimore also claims some serious Hollywood power as well, with alums like Fox Filmed Entertainment's Tom Rothman, of Park School; producer Marc Platt, of Pikesville High; Columbia, TriStar's Steve Mosko, of John Carroll; and actor Edward Norton, of Wilde Lake. Even Charles Theater co-owner John Standiford came from Friends School. And a list of important Baltimoreans in the performing arts is almost too long to consider. Milford Mill Academy has produced successful performers like Mario, Mo'nique, and Maysa Leak. Baltimore School for the Arts and Carver Center for Arts and Technology are responsible for world-class musicians, actors, and actresses year after year after year.
Some of our landmark local businesses are owned and run by Baltimore alums too. Advertising impresarios Allan Charles and Steve Eisner attended City and Park, respectively. Severna Park High lays claim to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti. Bread winners Sam and Alfie Himmelrich graduated from Park. And Maryvale grad Patricia Brown is the president of Johns Hopkins HealthCare.
Then there's sports—an arena unto itself, as it were. If you're hoping to play in the NFL, you could do worse than Woodlawn, which produced three current NFL players. No mention of Towson High would be complete without world-class swimmer and Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps. Towson Catholic graduated an Olympic medalist and an NBA star— Anita Nall Richesson and Carmelo Anthony. Legendary ABC sportscaster Jim McKay attended Loyola Blakefield. Rangers first-baseman Mark Teixeira hails from Mt. St. Joe. Dundalk High turned out Oriole Mike Bielecki and skateboarder Bucky Lasik. The NBA's Juan Dixon and ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. both share the same alma mater in Calvert Hall. And Kisha Ford, a Bryn Mawr alumna, became the leading scorer in Georgia Tech history before moving on to star in the WNBA.
The list of local notable alums goes on and on. But it's easy to see why schools are so proud to invoke the names of their greatest grads—and why it's so easy to apply reputations to the schools completely outside of their geographical locations and tuition costs. A constantly changing student body would seem to make a consistent reputation for academic or athletic excellence difficult to achieve, but most of the Power Schools have done this. That's what makes The Question still relevant.
It's also easy to see why that old list of Power Schools needs to be updated and expanded. Schools like Pikesville, Milford Mill Academy, Archbishop Curley, Wilde Lake, and Carver have earned a measure of respect thanks to their alums who've gone on to bigger things, whether they stuck around Crabtown or moved on.
"The problem with the term," Mt. St. Joe's Fitzpatrick points out, "is that there are other schools out there who are doing a really good job who aren't 'in the loop' or wouldn't be identified as 'power schools.' They get overlooked in the mix, and they're every bit as good as those traditional power schools."
The extensive list of accomplished Baltimore alumni suggests that there's some symbiotic relationship between the student and the institution. That great schools attract great students, and that, during their four years together, the best qualities of each are imparted upon the other.