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Of Jungaleers And Technicians

Not a whole lot divides me and The Wife. We grew up in Detroit under similar economic circumstances, wound up doing similar jobs, have kindred views on many big political issues and usually hold like-minded opinions when it come to family and friends. But this coming weekend, we'll find ourselves separated by a chasm that neither of us could cross even if we so desired (and, trust me, neither of us wants to).

This Saturday her high-school alma mater, Detroit Cass Technical High School, faces my old school, Detroit Southeastern High, in the state football playoffs. And for those few hours, the person I'm closest to on this planet becomes my rival. I can't wait.

But the SE/Cass Tech clash isn't just about two schools -- or one married couple -- going at it. For many around here, this game also serves as a metaphor for the class, geographic and social distinctions that have traditionally demarcated life in Detroit.

Historically, Cass Tech has been the crown jewel of Detroit's public high schools, a magnet for many of the city's best and brightest students (as well as some not-so-bright children fortunate enough to come from the "right" families). Over the past century, the school, located near downtown Detroit, has turned out a who's who of successes, including industrial designer Niels Diffrient, comics Lily Tomlin and David Alan Grier, inventor John DeLorean, music legends Diana Ross and Donald Byrd, TV personalities Ed Gordon and Shaun Robinson and former Miss USA Kenya Moore. (And they get a Wikipedia page, to boot...sigh.)

Even though the city now boasts three other magnet high schools, too, Cass Tech is still Detroit shorthand to some for top-flight college-prep education. Little wonder then that its green-and-white clad students are nicknamed "the Technicians."

And then there's Southeastern. Built in 1914, Southeastern, like Cass, is one of Detroit's oldest schools -- but we've never enjoyed the enduring petty bourgeois fanfare ( shot, I know) that Cass is accustomed to. Located on the far eastside, SE has usually served a distinctly less affluent group of kids than Cass, even way back in the days when both schools were all-white (and even though Cass too has always had its blue-collar students). SE has traditionally been home to no-nonsense, working-class students whose parents got their hands dirty toiling in the area tool-and-die shops and car plants. (As for famous grads, well, we do have Jets linebacker Bart Scott -- and I think I've heard rumor that actor George Peppard once went there, too, but pickins get slimmer from there...)

SE was built in what was then a largely undeveloped, swampy area of the community heavily surrounded by trees. That's how we became known as "the Jungaleers."

By the time I started attending in the early 1980s, SE was also reflective of an eastside community that was in the throes of some serious ills, much of it stemming from local de-industrialization and the crack cocaine boom. We still had far more great kids and caring teachers than not, but there was also no getting around the tragic realities that plagued our neighborhoods and made it tougher for some kids to learn and some teachers to teach. As a cruel joke, some people took to saying that SE stood for "Special Education."

Whatever. I had made a conscious choice to go to Southeastern. Yes, I'd tested in to Cass, but my heart remained with the Mack Ave. neighborhood I'd grown up in. I wanted to be a Jungaleer and rock the purple and white that, to me, still seem like the sweetest school colors ever. And just so you know: Four years after enrolling, I graduated SE with academic and athletic honors and earned a full scholarship to college. So color me purple, white, proud and grateful.

And now comes Saturday's game, which will mark the second time the two schools have squared off this football season. Back in September, we kicked Cass 35-0. And last year, much to my glee and the Wife's chagrin, we smashed them three straight times en route to winning the Detroit Public School League championship. (We should've been defending that PSL title this year, too, but an apparent paperwork snafu did us in...and yes, I know there's an SE joke in there somewhere.)

The traditional class contrasts that the game highlights are still evident, though not nearly as pronounced as in decades past. Cass is still seen by some as the "elite" school that draws the "proper" kids from upper-middle-class westside oases like the University District and Green Acres. And SE (now known as the Southeastern High School of Technology and home to some cutting-edge DPS technological programs) is still fighting to overturn negative perceptions about its working-class student body and a troubled-but-resilient eastside community bounded by streets like Mack, Charlevoix and Jefferson.

No, the broad strokes and grainy old POVs about Cass and Southeastern certainly can't fully define the current realities for the people or communities vested in either school. But you can still see in them the outlines of Detroit's past and present, the dynamics that have compelled the evolutions of our assorted neighborhoods and our social, intellectual and professional classes.

And when the teams from SE and Cass take to the field on Saturday, I hope you'll also get a glimpse of the passion and pride that, despite Detroit's well-cataloged troubles, still burn within our city as a whole.

More than anything else, though, I hope you -- and the Wife -- get to see those mighty Jungaleers whip some Technician tail. Again.

(Sincere thanks to Cassandra Spratling for suggesting this idea...)

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