Superior Court: Coolidge is the rare high school that still does homecoming right.
Superior Court: Coolidge is the rare high school that still does homecoming right. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Is the fabric of our country under attack? Or, are kids today just cooler?

A couple weeks ago I went to the homecoming game at Falls Church High. That’s my old school. My Jaguars got whupped by the Washington-Lee Generals in the athletic portion of the proceedings.

No surprise there. Falls Church went in winless, and if 30-year-old form holds, they’ll stay that way or close to it for the rest of the season. (In defense of FC’s chronic ineptitude: It’s now the smallest school in the whole Northern Region of the Virginia High School League and perhaps the most ethnically diverse, and its football abilities are further restrained by a newfangled year-round class schedule that prohibits players from doing two-a-day workouts when almost all other area schools are doing ’em.)

But folks go to homecomings for more than football. They want pomp, too. And that segment of the evening was the real eye-opener.

The regality of the homecoming queen, I’m sorry to report, appeared gone.

Disrespect for coronation conventions ruled! Whereas tradition, for example, holds that nominees for homecoming queen—and also, nowadays, king—would each be escorted by a single well-dressed parent or a boyfriend/girlfriend, on this night the lasses and lads instead walked among informal posses of pals, and just about everybody who wasn’t a football player or cheerleader was wearing whatever they wore to school that day.

That means mainly jeans and T-shirts.

Or less. One potential king wasn’t even wearing a shirt, just a little paint (in school colors) on his otherwise bare torso.

And when the winners were announced, nobody seemed to give a rip. Irony abounded.

The shirtless kid faked fainting, falling face first (à la Ric Flair) to the dirt when somebody else was crowned king. The king, a football star, did a goofy, if athletic, wobbly-legged dance as he and his queen, a cheerleader, accepted their headgear.

Some part of me was giggling at how much fun all the kids in the court were having at the expense of the grandfatherly tradition. But damn if my inner geezer wasn’t bugged. Off-key national anthems or most other tweaks of vintage conventions don’t faze me, but my overwhelming thought after witnessing the spectacle at my alma mater was: Don’t muss up homecoming!

The marriage of football and flourish one typically finds at homecoming games will celebrate its 100th anniversary, give or take, next season.

Though a bunch of colleges claim the tradition as their brainchild, most gridiron historians give Baylor University credit for having the first homecoming football game, in 1909.

And the same bunch, plus Jeopardy researchers, recognize the University of Missouri as the first school to turn the concept into an annual shindig, complete with class reunions, parades, and, of course, the crowning of a queen.

There are some colleges where homecoming is still a huge deal—at Missouri, for example, where proprietary reasons surely play a part. And, as anybody who lives along lower Georgia Avenue learned again and again last weekend, so does Howard University, which like many historically black colleges throws more of a homecoming season than a homecoming game.

But the homecoming concept, not long after its founding, trickled down to high schools, and at that level became a much more profound part of the American experience.

Proof? Well, in Julie Brown’s 1983 novelty smash hit, “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun,” the killer queen is in high school, not college.

Also, who among us can name a college homecoming queen?

Yet, if I may speak for the Dazed and Confused generation, few symbols are as powerful to the adolescent American male than the high school homecoming queen. I remember almost nothing about 10th grade. But dang if I’ll ever forget having a class with the school’s reigning homecoming queen…

Where were we? Oh, right…

Even the process behind being named homecoming queen was a big deal. During my senior year, school administrators said they’d uncovered a plan to rig the queen elections to favor the apple of the alleged rigger’s eye. The principal had no proof, so the alleged perpetrator wasn’t suspended. But the homecoming queen ballots were tossed anyway. (Watergate was only a few years removed, and, being an inside-the-Beltway school, every big election was suspect.)

I realize that one odd homecoming is not a large enough sample to declare a trend. So I asked Falls Church administrators if the homecoming apathy that I witnessed this year was an anomaly or a sign of the end of days?

“That’s hard to say,” says Jeanne Kelly, longtime director of student activities at Falls Church (and a fellow alum of the school). “Yes, things are different than they were, not as big. I think part of it is that the kids here might not be familiar with the traditions of homecoming, maybe for [cultural] reasons. I’m also not sure that we gave them appropriate instruction this year. But, maybe they know all about [homecoming] and it’s just not as big a deal for them.”

Other proof that it’s a Falls Church thing: Homecoming got the big deal treatment at Coolidge Senior High this season, for one. The Manor Park school, which has one of the strongest alumni groups in the city, put on a soiree last weekend complete with a parade for the homecoming queen and her court and a pre-game tailgate before the kickoff against Wilson. Coolidge’s homecoming even had its own Web site.

And, after some reading, I’ve learned that homecoming traditions, including the coronation of a queen, have withstood tweakings far more serious than the clowning of the Falls Church students.

The most famous homecoming queen in Ohio State history, for example, is Maudine Ormsby.

According to a New York Times report from November 1926, Maudine had just beat out “10 popular…girls” in voting among students despite being “a thoroughbred Holstein cow.”