CNN’s Jake Tapper on Growing Up in Philadelphia
LIZ: You and I first met as students at the Philadelphia School in second grade, in 1975. That was the third year of the school’s existence, when it was still in rented rooms and before it was the normal, respected, fully accredited institution it is today. How did you end up at such a wacky place?
JAKE: My parents were hippies and looking for like-minded idealists who were coming together to form this school that visited a farm once a week and didn’t have homework or tests. Instead of gym we had “Movement.” Remember?
LIZ: Yes, we ran around the classroom to the drumbeat of our names.
JAKE: Amosita Robinson McClain! I assume you remember her.
LIZ: Of course. She had the best name to run around to.
JAKE: I wonder what happened to her. I’m going to look her up on Facebook right now.
LIZ: No, she had to keep that name because it was so rhythmic and important to the rest of us.
JAKE: I can’t find her on Facebook. But I’m sure she’s on there. She might have a fourth name added.
LIZ: Your name wasn’t that exciting to run around to, I have to say.
JAKE: Nah, Jacob Tapper, even with the two syllables.
LIZ: Given that you were a city kid, how did you feel about spending one day a week at a farm?
JAKE: I have good memories of Sycamore Farm. I remember the owners, the Donners. It was so cold in the winter. None of the barns and none of the rooms were heated. I do remember when we created a Gold Rush, and we had to go and find a square of land and then write about the land.
LIZ: I totally forgot about that. Do you remember when we created the Civil War in the classroom, and one side was the South and one side was the North? I thought that was really cool.
JAKE: We did a lot of really cool things. I don’t know how effective they all were. I think they have homework and tests now. Back then, the question was, “Why do kids need tests and quizzes and homework?” And after they put us guinea pigs through it, they were like, “Oh yeah, that’s why.”
LIZ: Do you remember there being a tarantula there?
JAKE: I do. And I remember there was a rabbit named Radar, and Susie Bulova was obsessed with Radar. I hope Susie Bulova became a veterinarian. Because if not, perhaps she married a rabbit. Now I have to Google her.
LIZ: I was totally obsessed with the tarantula, which maybe no one remembers because it’s best they don’t. And I named it Oscar. I was allowed to clean the cage, but I wasn’t allowed to take it out. And I did take it out one day and it crawled up my arm and got as far as my neck, and I got in trouble because it could have bitten my neck and killed me.
JAKE: I might have blacked out all the bad memories. All my memories of TPS are really positive. We had a great gang, a cool co-ed gang. After school got out we would run around Center City and go to Zounds Arcade and Rittenhouse Square. It was all very wholesome — the parts I was included in, anyway.
LIZ: We had very little supervision, but also very little threatening us.
JAKE: That’s exactly how I think of it. It felt completely safe for us to have tokens and take the bus and go to the candy store and get Wacky Packs or taffy and baseball cards. I remember Jason Lerner and I had a lot of baseball cards. And you know, it was the best of city living. Nowadays when I hear about kids in New York being raised that way, I think, “Oh no, that would be awful, because who knows what crazy things they’d be exposed to?” But I don’t recall anything untoward at all. The worst thing that we were exposed to was disco music.
LIZ: That was pretty bad, though.
JAKE: Do you remember Joey’s disco party?
LIZ: No. I don’t think I do.
JAKE: Well, I’m sure you were invited. It’s one of my last memories of the gang at TPS. I was a year younger than you guys. I skipped kindergarten, so all of you were a year older than me. It really started to show in fifth grade, sixth grade. Like, all of sudden I felt a little less up to speed, like Joey and Susan were the Mommy and Daddy of our group, and who knows what they were doing? They were getting to first base, and I was so innocent, just reading my comic books. The world was about to leave, getting on this train, and I didn’t want it to go. I liked where we were.
LIZ: I know. It was terrible. I remember going on a double date with Susan. She was with Steven M. and I was with Jason M. We went to movies, to the Sameric. I have no memory of the movie, because all I could focus on was the fact that Susan and Steven were going to second and Jason and I had only gotten to holding hands after a painful hour, and that was a major accomplishment. I felt so inadequate, but I was also so happy that we were holding hands. I have such a strong memory of feeling behind the curve.
JAKE: My only memory of that kind of stuff is when we were all competing for Jennifer Sey. Or at least Peter Simmons and I were. That was the ultimate brains vs. brawn that I was never going to win.
LIZ: Ah, yes. Jennifer was our golden girl. Her blond hair shimmered, she always had a tan, she had amazing Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, she had sparkling white teeth, and she was a champion gymnast headed for the Olympics. She was phenomenal.
JAKE: When I got in touch with her years ago on Facebook, she literally had no memory that I existed, but one of the first things she did remember was Peter’s muscles. So everything I suspected to be unjust when I was 11 was completely accurate and true. I do remember that one time, as kids, I asked her to go the movies and I thought it was a date, but then everyone else started going, too, and I don’t think she had any idea that it was supposed to be a date. We saw Jaws 2 — on Chestnut, I forget which theater — and she had popcorn and I was eating her popcorn, and at one point she switched hands and I ended up sticking my hand in her Coke.
LIZ: No you didn’t.
JAKE: This is a true story. This is not a movie. This actually happened to me.
LIZ: Oh no.
JAKE: I stuck my hand in her Coke, and she had a good laugh over that. Of course, of all the things I have forgotten, which include four years of history curriculum in college, there is still room for Jaws 2 and my hand in Jennifer Sey’s Coke.
LIZ: That’s so terrible!
JAKE: That’s okay. I think even at that age, I could appreciate that it was just empirically funny.
LIZ: Of course, this is somewhat analogous to something that happened between you and me. I had a terrible crush on you, which I told my mom, so she helped me write a note that said, “Will you be my boyfriend?” I gave it to you and you ripped it up and stuck it in the front pocket of my pink denim overalls. An incident we’ve discussed previously, I know. And which you claim didn’t happen.
JAKE: I don’t remember that. I was a sweet little kid.
LIZ: I seem to remember you were wearing a striped velour shirt.
JAKE: I’m willing to go through as much photographic evidence as I have to prove that I never owned a striped velour shirt, just to disprove this memory of yours.
LIZ: Okay, maybe you weren’t wearing a striped velour shirt.
JAKE: I just don’t think it’s true. I always thought that you were adorable, so I don’t think I would have done that. Unless it was just some sort of “spaz” reaction, to use the lingo from the time. The only thing I can think is that I must have been so overwhelmed that I had no idea what to do other than rip it up and pretend it didn’t happen. I guess I was just not emotionally up to the task of what you were looking for at that point.
LIZ: Well, we were children.
JAKE: Listen, I’m happy to retroactively say yes, and we can just say that when I was eight and you were nine, you were my girlfriend and I was your boyfriend. I’m happy to do that now that I have the emotional wherewithal. When I was eight, my parents were going through a divorce. I think you probably hit me at a time when I was feeling not positive about commitment.
LIZ: It’s okay, Jake. I think I’m going to be okay.
JAKE: I think you dodged a bullet, quite frankly.
LIZ: Mmm-hmm. What else do you remember from that time in Philly when you rejected me?
JAKE: I remember seeing Monty Python’s Life of Brian at the Ritz; that was the first R-rated movie I ever saw. I remember when everybody got into roller-skating — there were sneakers with roller skates attached. I remember Stephen Bruno, our classmate, who I think was related to Angelo Bruno. Angelo Bruno got whacked, and Stephen Bruno disappeared, in my memory. I don’t know if that’s what happened. I mean, Angelo Bruno definitely got whacked. …
LIZ: Yes, that’s what happened. One day Stephen was our friend and we went to his house, the next day he was gone. What else?
JAKE: Well, it’s been weird to watch the success of the Taney Dragons, because in my mind “the Taneys” were this awful gang of Irish and Italian thugs who harassed us every time we went to Taney Park.
LIZ: Right. A lot has changed since the ’70s.
JAKE: It was a weird decade. It was a time when people actually thought that electing Jimmy Carter or electing John Anderson would change the world — would change everything. God bless our parents’ idealism.
LIZ: I wonder if Philadelphia was a particularly fertile place for that kind of idealism, and if that sort of filtered down to the children.
JAKE: It feels like it. And also TPS at the time. A lot of the parents were progressive and politically active and enlightened, although I think to a couple, every one of them got divorced. But there was definitely some sort of convergence going on.
LIZ: Do you feel like that time shaped who you are and what you do?
JAKE: Probably the ’80s had more of an influence. But it makes me want my kids to have the same kinds of friendships that I had back then. In a much more limited, don’t-leave-our-cul-de-sac kind of way.
LIZ: Is there a way to replicate what we had?
JAKE: Not in the era of Amber Alerts and text-messaging and post-9/11. It’s a different era. That was maybe the last innocent decade. I just can’t imagine letting my kids run around Philadelphia at age 10 the way we were all allowed to do. I guess in theory there were just as many bad guys back then.
LIZ: Crime was even worse, in some respects.
JAKE: Maybe we just didn’t talk about it then. None of the Catholic Church sex scandals were being publicized; it was all being swept under the rug. The Summer of Sam happened while we were kids, and I don’t remember hearing about it at all, so a lot of this stuff must have just been kept from us.
LIZ: We were sheltered, lucky.
JAKE: We were, in many ways. It’s like that last line of the movie Stand By Me, when Richard Dreyfuss says, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?” That’s how I feel. I never had any friends like that again. It was such a good time.
An abridged version of this conversation was originally published in the November 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.