Embarrassment of Riches

Attending Westlake High meant never having to apologize for being wealthy or successful. And if other towns hated us, it surely wasn’t our fault.

BY DEFINITION, high school kids are idiots. If you’ve but one lonely, honest bone in all of your body, you’ll admit that there was no other time in life when the disparity was greater between what you thought you knew and what you actually did know. Add to that the abject insecurity of untamable adolescence, the body and soul itching to lay claim to their place in the world but possessing none of the know-how to do so, and the result is an idiot. A high school kid is a misfit intent on masking that zit-ridden impotence behind a two-beer buzz and the right kind of car, clothes, and music—played as loudly as your parents and the cops will allow. One of the most beautiful things about growing up is that with sufficient distance, you can see clearly the central mystery of those awful, awkward years: In the attempt to forge your own identity, you did everything you could to fit in.

The generalizations become specifics when you talk about individual schools. I graduated from Westlake High School in 1985, and for us, the beer was big-mouthed bottles of Mickey’s malt liquor, the cars were Trans Ams, the clothes were Polo, and the music was Van Halen. At least that was the dream. Room was left for negotiation. You could drive a pickup with a tall enough lift kit, in which case you could also get away with playing Hank Williams Jr. And the variety of beer was in fact secondary to the ability to buy it at all, either by use of a fake driver’s license or, in my own case, a bushy set of age-camouflaging sideburns. (The legal drinking age back then was, after all, only nineteen.) But at Westlake, even if your parents wouldn’t spring for Ralph Lauren, you could still work your way into the in crowd by adopting the right attitude. That meant believing, with every ounce of your being, that all of life was a struggle pitting us against them. We were the Proud, the Persecuted, the Mighty Westlake Chaparrals.

We were in fact off by ourselves in the hills west of Austin, a suburb isolated by more than just geography. There were also the little twin matters of income and race. Westlake High was rightly regarded as a white-flight school, and of our 1,500 students, barely a handful could be described as being “of color.” Though the Westlake community existed long before public-school integration, the area mushroomed after busing hit Austin in 1980. And because of its natural beauty—high rolling hills thick with cedar and hackberry, bordered on the north by the Colorado River and on the southwest by the Barton Creek Greenbelt—most of the families who could afford to move in were headed by doctors and lawyers and well-heeled businessmen. That seemed to sit poorly with nearly everyone we encountered, be it the larger Austin schools, who we assumed were envious of our lofty perch above town, or the schools we competed against from smaller, outlying areas. It didn’t help that we acknowledged those towns only when we played them in sports or that Westlake was becoming accustomed to the athletic success for which it is now best known.

But we Chaps considered those to be the other guys’ problems, and unaware that anything we might be doing was making matters worse, we acted accordingly. I remember a basketball game we played my junior year in Leander, a small farming community about twenty miles northwest of Austin. It was a typical contest, heated on the court and in the stands, and Westlake won. Afterward, some rawboned farm boys followed me and a couple of friends from the gym to the parking lot. When we got to my car, a dingy gray Capri with the driver’s side door smashed in—my own jacked-up Toyota four-by-four was still a year off—the Leander students looked at me with elated disgust.

“Hey, rich boy,” one said. “Where’s your Trans Am?”

“Your mama is washing it,” I replied as I opened my door.

By the standard of the Warriors-caliber brawls our schools would have in that parking lot a year later, I’d have to guess that the farm boy was feeling charitable that evening. Rather than holding me down and slamming the car door on my head, he picked me up, sat me in the Capri, and walked off with his buddies. Crisis averted. The magic of Westlake.

But the truly amazing part didn’t occur until the next day, when I was summoned to the principal’s office. Nothing unusual about that; I was there almost as often as the principal’s secretary. The administrative staff gathered around, as they typically did, to ask what I’d done this time. Only on this occasion, they already knew. “Tell us what you said last night to that guy in the parking lot after the game,” one of them said. So I told them, anticipating more d-hall hours added to what I already owed. But everyone just laughed. “Way to stand up for the school,” someone said. One of them pumped her fist in the air. Then they sent me back to class.

That was Westlake or, as the bumper stickers sold by the booster club read, “The Pride of the Hills.”

MY DAD DID NOT like Westlake even one little bit. He was a Carter-Mondale-Ferraro man, a way-left-leaning Episcopal priest who had a special facial expression he saved for when the subject of my high school came up. It resembled the faces of his Southern Baptist counterparts when they saw two dudes French-kissing. My dad didn’t feel at home in Westlake, and at bottom he had good reason. There weren’t many people living there on a preacher’s salary unless they ran a church in the area. That we could afford to live in Westlake at all was a testament to my mom’s good business sense and the fact that both my parents worked. The Rev, as I liked to call my dad,

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