That question is up there with the three made famous by Marcelle Bienvenu:
Who's Your Mama?
Are You Catholic?
Can You Make a Roux?
Those three are what a New Orleans mother will ask a girl who wants to date her son, but the son will simply ask, "Where did you go to school?"
Earlier this year, I was sitting in the bar of a restaurant in suburban Atlanta. (I often eat at the bar in restaurants when I'm traveling, since it's easy to get seated as a single.) The bartender, asked me where I was from, and I said New Orleans. A guy down the bar chimes in, "Yeah? Me too," and a New Orleans conversation ensued.
After a couple of minutes, the guy asks me, "So, where did you go to school?" Now, he's got an Auburn University ring on his hand, but I know he's not interested in the fact that I went to the University of New Orleans. He wants to know where I went to high school, of course, because that's what really matters to a New Orleanian. Where your education took you after high school just isn't as important to us.
There are a couple of reasons where you went to high school is significant to New Orleanians. First it's a throwback to a time when not everyone went to university. While many of the "greatest generation" took advantage of GI Bill benefits, a lot of vets returning from WWII ddin't continue their education. For them, high school was it, and those guys are still proud of their Warren Easton, Jesuit, Francis T. Nicholls, and St. Aloysius class rings. They worked hard throughout their lives to make sure their sons and daughters could go to college, of course, and many of the boomers are just as proud of their schools as their dads were.
The other big reason why high school is more important here is because there are so many of them. In cities and towns where public education dominates, everyone goes to the same high school. New Orleans has a 150 year tradition of Catholic education in addition to the public school system. Catholic schools were founded by the various orders of priests and nuns who came to America to preach the gospel. The Spanish brought the Jesuits with them, the French brought the Redemptorist Fathers, Ursuline nuns and the Brothers of the Sacred Heart. The Holy Cross Fathers came through New Orleans on their way up to South Bend, Indiana, and founded their school in the Ninth Ward. The School Sisters of Notre Dame attracted young Irish women who educated the boys and girls of the Irish Channel for generations at St. Alphonsus.
Neighborhood and ethnicity played a significant part in where kids went to school as well. There's a paragraph on the website of the Academy of the Sacred Heart that's telling:
In the late 19th century, the French Quarter was in decline. Most importantly, the established French, Catholic families from the Quarter and Esplanade Ridge, whose daughters were the mainstay of the student body, were moving across town into what was the American sector. In addition, second generation English and Irish families, who were already uptown, were seeking for their daughters a school that provided the same type of education that the religious had been providing downtown.
It was therefore no surprise that the religious sought refuge from their deteriorating urban environment and turned their attention upriver. Demographically, the nuns and the city were moving in the same direction.
Hmmm...the "decline" mentioned here was that Italian immigrants were moving into Da Quarters and Da Ninth so fast that the "established" folks bailed out for Uptown. I'm sure the families who sent their boys to St. Aloysius and their daughters to Holy Angels would consider it a surprise that they weren't considered "religious" by the uptown folk.
Not everyone sent their kids to catlick school, of course. Warren Easton on Canal Street, Nicholls on St. Claude, John McDonough on Esplanade, and McDonough #35 on Pauger Street in Treme are just some of the Orleans Parish schools attended by the greatest generation. Others popped up in the 1950s and 1960s as the city grew. Integration changed the public school landscape dramatically, though. White families whose kids had always attended public school were now focusing their efforts on opening Catholic elementary schools in the various church parishes. White flight was happening so fast that parish governments couldn't keep up, so the archdiocese filled in the gap. Prior to the storm, the church administered over 70 elementary schools in a four-parish area. By the 1980s, public schools in the city proper had a student population of 98% black, 2% white, this in a city that was 60% black, 40% white.
At face value, one might accuse the Catholic church of facilitating de facto segregation by running mostly-white private schools literally around the corner in some instances from mostly-black public schools, but the black community of New Orleans also has a strong tradition of sending their kids to catlick school. The Josephite Fathers have educated young black men at St. Augustine High School in Gentilly since 1951. St. Mary's Academy, for black girls, dates back to 1878. Xavier University Prep, founded by St. Katharine Drexel for black girls, opened its doors in 1915. St. Mary's Academy's campus on Chef Menteur Highway, as well as St. Aug's in Gentilly, were heavily damaged by the storm. Those two schools and Xavier Prep banded together to form the MAX School at the (relatively) undamaged XUP campus uptown. The boys have since moved back to Gentilly and SMA has re-opened in the old St. James Major school facility on Gentilly Road near Franklin Avenue.
All this about the public and catlick schools, and I haven't even gotten into the other private schools, such as Isidore Newman School uptown (primarily Jewish), St. Martin's Episcopal, and Metairie Park Country Day, both out in the burbs. There are two dozen or so other high schools I haven't even mentioned, and all this in a metro area of 1.2 million (pre-storm).
The various orders of priests and nuns still maintain ownership and control of their respective high schools. The catholic elementary schools are nominally administered by the archdiocese, but each parish has its own school board which makes specific policy and handles personnel matters. The private schools, of course, are administered by their own boards of directors. All this community involvement has been an important factor in the acceptance of charter schools in the wake of the storm. The storm has given the city the opportunity to fix the dismal failure that had become our public schools, and community leaders, parents, and others are stepping up to serve on the boards of charter schools to get public education moving once again.
So, with all these schools, it's no wonder that everyone wants to know where you went to high school.
Oh, and by the way, the guy in the bar? He went to De La Salle High School, uptown, and I went to Brother Martin High School, in Gentilly. That worked out just fine as far as I'm concerned, since he didn't go to Jesuit. :-)