Lily Tomlin Trivia: Something in the Water at Cass Tech High School?

Sep 19, 2008

In ambling about the ’Net for my recent pieces on actress Lily Tomlin, I came across a most fascinating tidbit of information related to her formative years.

Tomlin is a graduate of Detroit’s Cass Technical High School—where, she quips, she wound up becoming “the best white cheerleader” in the entire city!

A hard-won distinction, perhaps, but here’s the truly noteworthy thing about Cass Tech: Apparently all who go there—including Tomlin—become incredibly successful and/or famous in their field! I mean, I was poking around Cass Tech and related sites, and, like, maybe two graduates since 1908 have lived quiet lives as suburban carpooling office workers. A whopping mass of them are actors, comedians, opera stars, military officers, journalists, fashion designers, actors, beauty queens, captains of industry, and pro athletes.

According to their website, they’ve got a huge JROTC (Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) presence, too.

A handful of Cass Tech grads who’ve done all right for themselves: actors Lily Tomlin, Ellen Burstyn, and David Alan Grier; Motown legend Diana Ross; alt-rocker Jack White (The White Stripes); automotive engineer John DeLorean; soprano Janet Williams; and jazz luminaries such as bassist Paul Chambers; pioneer jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby; guitarist Kenny Burrell; violinist Regina Carter; pianist Sir Roland Hanna; and bandleader/composer Gerald Wilson.

Cass Tech, part of the Detroit Public School system, is the type of “magnet” high school that looks at exam performance and a student’s middle school grades in order to determine admission. Kids come from all over the city to attend, and must keep a certain grade-point average to avoid getting the boot.

In other words, there are expectations in play at Cass Tech, and that’s one of the very best things with which a student may be presented on entering any school building in the world.

Cass Tech certainly hasn’t cornered the market on hard work and expectations in the classroom, but I find it an inspiring example of what can happen when dedicated teachers’ demands meet fired-up students’ dreams head-on.

Potential energy unleashed, and expressed to the fullest!

I leave you with a little gem, a thing of beauty I came across that will refresh your senses when you get a break. It’s a few moments with Janet Williams, the Cass Tech soprano mentioned earlier, pouring her soul into “Ah! Je Veux Vivre (I Want to Live)”, Juliette’s soaring aria from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette.

Only once Williams’ dream was made real—through hard work and steady encouragement–could she share it with us. I say a special prayer today for every teacher who listens, discerns, cares, and pushes young charges forward toward their destinies; too, I pray that every youngster out there will seek to develop the guts, and the stamina, to answer that singular call to self-realization.