St Louis’s Obsession With High School

We had an unusually warm Saturday with temperatures near 70F. It was also my first weekend day off in months so I swooped up my 12 year old sister and went for a scenic drive with the top down, dog included.


Most of our conversation involved me asking her, as I went through my rotation of cassette tapes, whether she knew the song or artist, of which she only recognized Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson.


“We’re listening to my Paula Abdul tape.”

‘Who’s that?’

“She was a judge on American Idol.”

‘You mean J-Lo?’

Argh! She did, however, introduce me to a Taylor Swift song on the radio that could have come right out of the Grand Theft Auto: Vice City soundtrack.

Fast Tube by Casper

I then asked about her upcoming school selection. A common ritual among well-to-do St Louis youth is to choose and apply to a private/parochial middle/high school, an entirely foreign concept to me as I was subjected to Spokane, Washington’s less than spectacular public schools. With the exceptions of the music program, great friends, and a handful of spectacular teachers, much of my high school experience was an unchallenging waste of time. How I endured such boredom without indulging in drugs or alcohol is beyond me.

In St Louis, high school isn’t just a transitional period into adulthood, it’s the definition of your entire long term professional life. You went to a prestigious east coast college? Great, but if you want an easy “in” at a major firm, you’re best served by attending Clayton, Ladue, MICDS, or any of a number of costly west side private schools.

It evolves into a network of the well-heeled taking care of the well-heeled, making St Louis rather insular as people greet each other with a “Hello!” immediately followed by a “Where did you go to high school?”

I didn’t understand “the question” at first because I wasn’t sure how having attended high school in the state of Washington, or any high school for that matter, had any bearing on who I was as a 30-something adult. For me, high school was an awkward period I endured, escaped, and moved on from as I became a much better person in my college and professional years.

But having endured the jarring query on several occasions, I see it less as a threat to confused outsiders and more of a way for locals to find common ground with new faces, as if St Louisans assume no one from elsewhere would move here on purpose.

While juvenile, it’s also the most efficient way for natives to relate to one another. Where you went to high school in this town defines your economic status, intelligence, and breeding far more than the car you drive or the square footage of your suburban home. However I, like the rest of the work-is-a-virtue midwest, prefer to ask people what they do for a living as a way of defining who they are.

To their credit, alumni keep local talent from leaving by promising greater access to jobs and opportunities, but it contributes to St Louis’s embarrassing economic divide. If your parents can’t afford $10,000 to $30,000 a year to send you to the “right” high school and form the “right” connections, you’re nudged out of the circle of winners.

That’s not a meritocracy.

Combine that with this town’s obsession with the distant past (when it was #4 in population rank and hosted the World’s Fair) and creepy traditions of the ruling elite like the Veiled Prophet Ball, and you have a city that loves the smell of its own farts a bit more than it should.


That’s not to say that St Louis isn’t one of the best places in America for college grads, startups, art aficionados, foodies, sports fans, or prosperous and safe residential communities, but in order for the region to fully recover from decades of white flight and urban decay, it’s going to need to look beyond its stodgy traditions and embrace the outside world.

All this from an afternoon cruise in a Miata.

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