News & Politics

Hillary Clinton and I Went to the Same High School. I Hated It.

A year after her loss, the almost President and our shared alma mater don’t look as black and white as they once did.

Suburban legend: Hillary Rodham and Maine South. Photograph of school by Steve Kagan/Getty Images. Photograph of Clinton by Wellesley College/Getty Images. Photo-Illustration by Yodith Dammlash.

When I was a student at Maine South High School, legend had it that the final scene of The Breakfast Club—Judd Nelson’s stoner character walking across the football field, hand raised—had been filmed there. I just found out that isn’t true. It was shot the next town over at Maine North, a school that has since closed. There goes that story! However, one thing remains true: Hillary Clinton graduated from my suburban Chicago alma mater in 1965, 44 years before I did.

In a hallway, two cases dis­played dozens of items: a picture of Hillary visiting Maine South with Bill Clinton, a letter she wrote to the Constitution Team after their trip to the White House, a Chicago Tribune article about her Park Ridge connection. Today just a plaque remains with her picture and bio.

I found few things about Maine South cool. The debunked Breakfast Club connection might have been one. Hillary Clinton was not. By the time I entered, she was a senator settled on the East Coast. Because my parents are political junkies, her name came up, but I was focused on surviving high school. Hillary wasn’t part of my worldview.

Like many Chicagoland schools, Maine South revolved around football, a cause I could never get behind. I imagined my life as a Teen Vogue editorial assistant. In college, I’d have classmates who liked literature, languages, music. If I’d had a better attitude, I might have found more people who shared my interests, but all I saw was football jerseys, cheerleaders, and T-shirts emblazoned with our mascot, the Hawk. School pride was embedded, and rewarded, everywhere. I made decent grades and was involved in student council, marching band, and other things that looked good on a college application. But I got bogged down by the monotony and authority figures—hall monitors, cafeteria security—who could make high school feel like a minimum-security prison. Some classmates hovered above it all, unfazed by stressors like GPAs. This swaggering confidence, particularly among the jocks, drove me crazy.

When Hillary announced her first run for President, I was a sophomore. Her opponent, Barack Obama, was the coolest thing to come out of Chicago. Hillary may as well not have been running. Eight years later, it was different. I followed that race avidly with the rest of the world and even had enough distance to appreciate articles about her link to our school. A Washington Post story talked about her teen activities: student council, anti-vandalism committee, church youth group. But as hard as she worked, she “lacked the charisma to win the contest for student council president.” I thought about how little this had changed for her—and how even the most ambitious student can feel small at a big school. How at times Clinton, too, might have disliked a high school where charisma and machismo often come out on top. To this day, she still struggles with “likability,” just as I did. Finally, I understood—and cared about—where she came from.

Last November, Hillary made it further than anyone else who came out of Maine South. I was inspired by her resilience and proud that a woman who’d graduated from a school I found so ordinary could do something extraordinary. If nothing else, I credit her for tempering my bitterness. Maine South didn’t define her life—why should it define mine? It was where I grew tougher skin and discovered my passions. I started caring less about what people thought of me.

As a politician, Clinton never had that luxury. Now that she’s a private citizen, this might change. Either way, whenever I drive past Maine South, I’ll think of her.

This article appears in the November 2017 issue of Washingtonian.

Courtney Vinopal is a former Washingtonian editorial fellow. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, and previously worked as a press attaché for the Embassy of France in Washington, where she ran the institution’s social media accounts and newsletters. She lives in Woodley Park.