Be True To Your School

(November 2012)

I love the week before Thanksgiving, and it has nothing to do with seeing family and enjoying a festive meal. I look forward to the Northeast-Central football game on Thanksgiving morning, but it's not about watching the game on the field. I love seeing former Northeast High classmates and generations of alumni. I love trash-talking with Central grads in the days leading up to the game. But, most of all, I love the fact that high school matters in Philadelphia.

Mark Twain famously observed, "In Boston they ask, how much does he know? In New York, how much is he worth? In Philadelphia, who were his parents?"  Twain has clearly not visited lately.  In my Philadelphia, they always ask, "Where'd you go to school?"

A true Philadelphia "tell" is betrayed by how one responds to this question. While colleges and universities are impressive on resumes, Philadelphians are talking about high school when they ask that question.  Respond by offering your college and you  might get a quizzical look in response, no matter how impressive the alma mater.  Answer it right, and one can tell you are real Philly.

I think that is more than a quaint localism. I believe the fact that high school matters in Philadelphia says something about our city. Maybe it shows deep roots in a town where being born here is still important to so many life-long Philadelphians. Or, maybe it is just a sign that one doesn't forget where one comes from.  Or, that no matter how far one travels, one never severs all ties.  No matter the reason, it is one of the quirks that gives Philadelphia its unique civic character, and this week I revel in it.

I am a Northeast High boy who married a Central girl (not too many Northeast boys could say that before my era).  Truth be told, my Central-high sweetheart doesn't care who wins the big football game, but she indulges me the fact that I do care and she does get together with her high school chums each Thanksgiving to catch up.  I can trace my Philadelphia high school roots back three generations through Northeast, Germantown, and Southern, and I enjoy the discussion over turkey at Thanksgiving dinner about whose schools won their games and where long-remembered friends have gone.

High school is a critical fork in the road, after which life-long friends and neighborhood ties yield to college, military service, life, and whatever comes next. In a city of neighborhoods where generations live close and where cross streets represent real boundaries, many grow up knowing where they will go to high school from birth. I certainly adore my college alma mater, but decided on college when I was a junior in high school.   I knew I was going to Northeast for my entire life and growing up just a block from the school, spent my youth -- along with all the friends I grew up with -- anticipating my enrollment.

Public high school might just be the last truly democratic institution, where future laborers and future lawyers interact as classmates, teammates, and peers before setting off on different life paths. I recently celebrated my Northeast High Class of 1987 25th reunion, where I noted my former classmates included police officers and parolees connecting for the first time in years. But in a city like Philadelphia, those graduates may not travel too far. In the end, they may be separated much less in miles but by directions their lives take after graduation.

In Philadelphia, it's really not how much one knows or how much one is worth.  It's where one went to school -- no matter where one goes after graduation, and on from there. It may be a civic shortcoming that Philadelphians collectively embrace "from here" more than knowledge or value.  There is little doubt that new Philadelphians bring new vitality to our city and there can be no debate that Philadelphia can definitely benefit from fresh looks at the challenges that we have so far failed to overcome.

For every other week of the year, I am happy to embrace the idea of attracting new energy to our city and embracing new solutions to Philadelphia's many problems. But, for this week, I am all about being true to my school and enjoying the fact that so many others are doing so as well.

Happy Thanksgiving! If you go to the great granddaddy of all Public High School Thanksgiving Games, I'll be tailgating with my guys. Stop by and say "hi!"

Go Northeast! Beat Central.