The Question

In this town, where you went to high school says more—much more—about you than simply where you went to high school.

Illustration by Ryan Snook

When I moved to Cincinnati a couple of years ago, I arrived primed and eager to be asked The Question. I was aware of The Question’s existence because everybody joked about it. Locals would smirk, roll their eyes, and give a knowing nod. “Cincinnatians are meta about The Question now,” says City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld (Seven Hills School, class of 2003). “I think we’re tickled and amused by the phenomenon.” But having a conversation about The Question falls far short of actually being asked The Question. It’s like the difference between a stale discussion of the concept of marriage and the life-altering, butterflies-and-fireworks moment of a proposal (assuming one is intelligent enough not to deliver that most important query via the scoreboard at a Reds game).

As days and weeks passed and nobody asked, I started to feel left out. After all, The Question was supposed to be the gold standard of Cincinnati’s social currency. If you want to become an authentic New Yorker, pretend not to notice a celebrity. In Pittsburgh, say jumbo instead of bologna (just one example of a perplexing language known as Pittsburghese). To feel like a bona fide Cincinnatian, all you need to do is hang out long enough for someone to ask where you went to school. No need to use the word “high.” Of course that’s what we’re talking about. What did you think? College? Don’t be silly.

“You say, ‘Where’d you go to school?’ and people absolutely assume you’re asking high school,” Sittenfeld says. “Having gone to Princeton and Oxford for post-secondary education, I think if I didn’t belabor it, more than a handful of people would think, ‘Oh, he went to Princeton High School and then he went to Miami University.’” In the western reaches of the city, where Catholic families have been rooted for generations, The Question digs even further back. “On the west side, it’s even grade school,” says Jack Heffron (Elder, ’75), a lifelong resident and frequent contributor to this magazine. “As in, ‘What parish are you from?’”

So why do people here spend so much time discussing their school days? For one thing, Cincinnati has been in the education business for a long, long time. Founded in the 1830s, Woodward is one of the oldest high schools west of the Alleghenies, and St. Xavier traces its roots to the same decade. “We helped invent high schools,” says Eve Bolton (Aiken, ’69), board president for Cincinnati Public Schools.

Here’s another thing: In a town where the vast majority of residents are lifers, The Question is just plain handy. Fairly or otherwise, Cincinnatians develop a certain stereotypical profile for each local high school and its graduates. In that way, Where did you go to school? isn’t just Cincinnati’s version of How ya doin’? The answer matters. “I think The Question gets asked because it’s possible to learn something about somebody’s background,” says David Stradling (Indian Hill, ’84), a history professor at the University of Cincinnati. “These schools mean something to people.”

Heffron agrees. “You’re announcing your tribe,” he says.

And in so doing, you start to make connections. It’s social shorthand, a rudimentary taxonomy system that locals use to sort one another by phylum and family, a way to group people by class and geography without having to address those messy issues directly. “It’s a less troubling question than many that you might ask at the beginning of a relationship,” Stradling says. Sure, it might come off as a little insular to an outsider. But in an era of high unemployment, asking someone you just met about his or her career isn’t exactly a risk-free move, either. And we all know not to discuss politics or religion at the dinner table.

Still, the high school associations aren’t always necessarily welcome. As a rare native on UC’s global faculty, Stradling gets The Question a lot from his mostly local students. “Even though I am from Kenwood, I have to say that I went to Indian Hill,” he says. “As a way of deflecting criticism, I let them know that I’m from the other side of the tracks.”

Another obvious factor in the high school obsession is the fact that this region boasts some seriously good schools, both public and private. Top-notch education tends to engender loyalty among grateful alumni—or alumnae, in the case of our all-girls institutions—who are then more likely to support the school once they enter the real world.

Consider Walnut Hills, the crown jewel of CPS, where kids from all over the city come to receive a nationally renowned liberal arts education rooted in the classics. At least that’s the way the school’s starry-eyed graduates describe it. “Our alumni have a higher allegiance to this high school than they do to their colleges,” says Debbie Heldman (Walnut Hills, honorary), the executive director of the school’s alumni foundation. “We have surveyed them.” That’s certainly true of the class of 1950, which included several bright students who went on to Harvard and then came back to become prominent business leaders. Members of that group, Neil Bortz and Bill Friedlander among them, are holding a joint 80th birthday party this year. Six decades later, and they’re still pals.

St. Xavier alumni director John Schrantz (St. X, ’96) tells similar stories. While 70 percent of St. Xavier grads stick around Cincinnati—where they delight in asking other people, and occasionally one another, The Question—the rest spread out across the globe, taking their love of St. X with them. One time, Schrantz received an e-mail from an alum who had been marked as deceased in the school’s database. It turned out he was a CIA agent coming back on the grid in Scandinavia. “This guy came back to life and contacted St. Xavier High School,” Schrantz says. “That, to me, says something.” Me too.

Naturally, sports plays an important role in keeping folks near and far plugged into their alma maters. Fox News anchor Bill Hemmer (Elder, ’83) moved away 15 years ago, but he still wears purple on Fridays as a tribute to his high school years, when he wore his jersey to school on game days. He’s not alone. People overseas go online to listen to streaming broadcasts of high school football games. Alumni, even those without kids, come out in droves on Friday nights in fall and winter, donning school colors to hoot and holler in hopes that their team will trounce the competition. With countless age-old rivalries drawn along neighborhood lines, it’s like the Crosstown Shootout every week, minus the punch-outs.

Then there’s money. I asked my wife, an Illinois transplant, why she thought Cincinnatians cared so much about high school. “If I had paid that much to go to high school,” she quipped, referencing the rising cost of private education, “I would appreciate it more, too.” There may be something to the theory. Tuition at Seven Hills, where Sittenfeld went, is well over 20 grand a year; several other private schools charge five figures as well. When you invest that much in something, you tend to want to get your money’s worth. Then again, considering the real-world advantages of being in an elite school’s alumni network, the money might be well spent.

Just ask Eric Avner. He moved a lot as a kid and bounced around between schools. When he came to Cincinnati as an adult, he initially was turned off by all the high school talk. “It just seemed really parochial,” he says, meaning narrow-minded rather than religious. He would tell people he went to a high school named La Salle, then have to explain that no, he wasn’t talking about that La Salle. But as time went on, he started to see how all that pride could be an asset. As a vice president at the Haile Foundation, he admires the fund-raising prowess of alumni outfits like that at Walnut Hills. “Most colleges would love to have that kind of loyalty,” he says, echoing Heldman. “These networks are just really impressive because they’re able to withstand the test of time and economic waves.”

And just as those who move to Cincinnati are impressed by the surplus of high school spirit, people who leave tend to miss it. Bar owner and cocktail queen Molly Wellman (Colerain, ’91) took The Question with her when she moved to San Francisco. “They don’t do it there because everyone is from somewhere else,” she laments. “I’d ask just out of habit from being in Cincinnati, and they’d be like, Who gives a crap?

Well, here, everybody does. Which brings us back to my quest to be asked. It seems odd, in hindsight, but even with my level of anticipation, I never considered how I would answer. When The Question was finally posed, between pickup basketball games, I didn’t even recognize it. My teammates were apparently surprised to see a stranger on the court, which I mistook for admiration of my skills. “I didn’t play basketball in college,” I answered, my ego swelling. The guys looked at me as if I had just arrived from outer space. In a sense, I had.

Another time I was out with my friend Jeff, a fellow out-of-stater, when a young woman came up to him and asked, “Did you go to Sycamore?”

He was befuddled. “Um, no,” he said.

“Well,” she replied, “you look like you went to Sycamore.”

Jeff and I have been trying to figure out just what people who went to Sycamore look like ever since.

After a while, I started to understand—and come to terms with—the phenomenon. The important part isn’t The Question, it’s the six degrees of separation game that starts once you answer. Oh, you went to Roger Bacon. You probably played ball with my cousin…. Simply being asked might indicate that I’m starting to come across more like a Cincinnatian, but it won’t help me fit in because I don’t have a valid response. Lately, I’ve taken to answering with a dejected, “Oh, I’m not from around here.” That usually kills the conversation. Few people take the next logical step and ask where I’m from, and I don’t blame them. Compared to hearing that I graduated from SCPA or Highland Heights or Taft, the fact that I grew up in rural Pennsylvania doesn’t mean anything.

I’m not complaining. Like Avner, I’ve come to realize that The Question is an odd, amusing quirk. It’s a sign of how loyal people are to the city. After all, if this were a dying town where everybody left as soon as they graduated, The Question wouldn’t be relevant. As Sittenfeld puts it, “The fact that it’s even a pertinent question is in some ways flattering about the city.”

My only hope is to someday have kids, through whom I can acquire a school allegiance vicariously. But then the thought of my children’s high school choice following them around for their entire lives is a lot of pressure. I better start researching the options now.

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