Why We Never Get Over High School

Deborah Fallows:

“Hello. Where did you go to high school?” When so many of you nominated this question as your natural conversation starter, as I mentioned here last week, it was tempting to dismiss it as an example of how Americans never quite get over high school. Was this just about Fast Times at Ridgemont High, or 90210, or The O.C., or forever remembering all the other schools in your league? Or maybe you all are 18 years old. But you wrote with such enthusiasm, thoroughness, and conviction, that it looked like something else was going on. So, I decided to look again.
Your nominations of this particular question came in from all corners of the country–all mid-sized cities–like Louisville, New Orleans, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Charlotte. They came from all ages of you, from the millennials to those who wrote that a half century ago, this question was also asked in Chicago and San Francisco, when those cities were arguably more “mid-size” than they are today. You also said this was the question of Oahu (where we know the young Barack Obama of modest means attended the elite private school, Punahou) and from Melbourne, Australia.
From your descriptions, it became clear that “Where did you go to high school?” is another way of asking “Where do you live?” But you aren’t seeking a simple answer of name or geography with either of those questions. You are using those questions to seek valuable information about the socio-economic-cultural-historical background of a person. It helps you orient that person in the context of the world as you live it and interpret it.