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Barry Saunders: Durham’s Jordan High School remembers alumna Carly Fiorina

Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina speaks at a town hall meeting at the University of South Carolina on Oct. 2, 2015, in Aiken.
Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina speaks at a town hall meeting at the University of South Carolina on Oct. 2, 2015, in Aiken. The Aiken Standard via AP

Since surging in the polls following her impressive performance during the first GOP presidential debate, Carly Fiorina’s poll numbers have dropped like a lead Zeppelin.

An apparent penchant for making up unverifiable stuff – like the aborted baby she claims to have seen being harvested for parts – will damage one’s credibility among people who value veracity.

Despite her plunging popularity in the polls, though, Fiorina will be at the grown ups’ table for Wednesday’s GOP debate, and she has, in one regard, the right stuff to be president: She wasn’t very popular in high school.

Don’t look at me like that. Of the past several presidents this country has produced, how many of them do you think were cool kids in high school, the kind you’d want to sit next to in the cafeteria or to sign your yearbook on an entire page?

W, perhaps, who went on to become a cheerleader at Yale, and maybe Obama.

I talked to some classmates of Cara Carleton Sneed – Fiorina’s name when she was graduated from Jordan High School in Durham in 1972 – and read some of the Jordan High Facebook posts about her. The picture that emerged was of someone who was a non-entity. If she were recalled at all, except in a couple of instances, it was not fondly.

That makes her like most of us, mere faces in the crowd, floating halfway-anonymously down high school’s hallways. There are, after all, only so many homecoming queens and football stars per school to go around, so most of us – if remembered at all – will be remembered vaguely as “Oh, wasn’t he the dude who played ‘Stairway to Heaven’ with his armpits during 6th period geometry?”

When it comes to Sneed/Fiorina, though, it’s hard to believe she isn’t fondly remembered, especially after reading this passage about her time at Jordan High in her “Tough Choices” memoir:

“In North Carolina, I understood for the first time what football meant to high school in some parts of the country... I taught remedial reading to several of the football players. They were about to graduate... they were stars of the football team, but they literally couldn’t read. It was heart-breaking and frightening to witness their frustration, but together we were able to make progress.”

Of high school, she also said, “I cried a lot.”

A saint, I tell ya’. A freakin’ saint.

A popular parlor game among skeptical Jordan alumni, though, is trying to identify what one facetiously called these “hillbilly moron athletes” to which Fiorina referred. Frank Hill, quarterback of the 1972 team and alum of ’74, told me, “I’m not trying to slam her, but looking back at the pictures, I don’t remember anybody on that team that needed remedial tutoring.”

Most members of the 24-member team, he said, “did pretty well in life.” Hill was a Morehead Scholar, and mentioned businessman William Marable, who went to MIT, and Herb Clark, an orthopedic surgeon in Seattle.

It’s hard to imagine Carly teaching any of them how to conjugate a verb, isn’t it?

Mary Thompson Skinner, a Jordan classmate and friend, said she hasn’t seen the presidential hopeful since high school, but remembers her well. “We were in classes together, we were both seniors,” Skinner, an attorney in New Bern, told me Monday. “We socialized some outside of class, but I have not seen Carleton – that’s how I knew her – since the summer we graduated. She was very nice, a very smart individual. I enjoyed knowing her that year.”

David Green, a math teacher at Jordan in 1972 who just retired this year, said, “She was my student, and the fact that I remembered her even before she started running for president tells you something. I taught an awful lot of kids” over a 40-year teaching career. “For some reason or another she impressed me, and I kept up with her. I know she liked to talk to me, and she asked good questions.”

I asked Ralph Keyes, author of the bible for high school losers – hey, there were more of us than there were of you golden boys and girls – if one’s popularity in high school translated into political success, or at least into political aspirations later in life.

Keyes, who is working on an updated version of “Is There Life After High School?,” separates high school students into two groups, innies and outies. Innies, of course, are those who comprised the inner circle of popular kids, the In-crowd.

Outies were the rest of us.

“If Carly Fiorani was an outie in high school,” Keyes told me, “she’s in good company. Bill Clinton was a pudgy saxophonist who had trouble getting dates. Richard Nixon lost an election for student body president to a classmate who later worked for Arizona’s highway department. Franklin Roosevelt felt so hopelessly out of it at Groton that he had little to do with his alma mater in later years. The list could go on and on.

“It's not hard to see them seeking the kind of popularity they didn't achieve in high school. On the other hand, it's just as easy to see George W. Bush trying to reclaim the limelight he enjoyed as an innie’s innie in high school and as a Skull and Bones member at Yale,” he said.

One Jordan alum, noting the mostly unflattering comments toward the candidate on an alumni page, wrote on there, “Despite that Carly Fiorina may have stepped on our little toes, I think it’s pretty cool that a JHS Grad has a realistic chance to be a major party nominee...”

A chance? Sure.

Realistic?

Check back after the candidates’ debate tomorrow night.

Barry Saunders is a columnist for The News & Observer in Raleigh.

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