The Real World
Associate editor John Spong on going to Westlake, being popular, and life after high school.
texasmonthly.com: When you first got to Westlake a boy asked you if you had been popular at your old school. Did that moment change the way you presented yourself to people, and if so, what aspect of yourself did you change?
John Spong: Did it bring on some big change? Yes and no. Few kids can aspire to a Dallas Allisonian level of popularity, and it would have been particularly unrealistic for a kid like me, with Coke-bottle glasses and fire-engine red hair that I’d only let my mom cut about three times a year. I think it was washed even less frequently.
But what I did come to realize was that there were some pitfalls that I had better avoid. For instance, my mom, in all her bargain-finding glory, had a habit of buying me clothes without asking me what I thought about them, some of which could charitably be called gender neutral. I remember being in the sixth grade and she got me this one outfit, a red-terry-cloth-shorts-and-tank-top getup that looked especially sissy. At the school in north Austin that I attended before moving to Westlake I could probably have worn that without ever knowing there was anything amiss. I wore it to Westlake once and only once, then I think I buried it in the backyard with those white Toughskins I mentioned in the magazine piece. If I was going to be ostracized by the cool kids, it wasn’t going to be because I failed to turn a critical eye to the clothes my mom laid out for me to wear to school.
And maybe that’s not a bad thing. I’ve always thought that there comes a time in a young man’s development when he needs to lay down the terry cloth and walk away.
texasmonthly.com: What would you consider your social status during high school? What do think it was that put you into that category?
JS: Like any high school there were cliques scattered all over the board: jocks, cheerleaders, goat-ropers, punkers, drill team dancers, band-jocks, the Trans Am clan, the freaks. (The freaks were the kids who smoked at school, smoking actually being legal at school and meriting its own cordoned area.) I ran mostly with a group of guys who lacked the skill sets and the money to fit squarely in any of those circles, but we got along fine with all of them. Our currency was that most of us were sufficiently funny and ready to cut up.
About the time we got in the tenth grade and all started drinking beer, there was a unity of purpose that connected members of all the groups. As one of the guys who always looked old enough to buy beer and who was nervy enough to attempt to do so in places where high school kids weren’t expected to try at all—like the supermarket where all our parents shopped—my stock rose.
texasmonthly.com: In your research you contacted Dallas Allison, who you referred to as the popular kid everyone wanted to be. How do you think he will react to the story and would he agree with your assessment of how high school was?
JS: I actually didn’t get to talk to Dallas until the magazine had already gone to press, which was something we were afraid would happen during the editing of the story. For one thing, I felt like I needed to give him a heads-up about the mention. But I also needed to make sure I had my facts right. It turned out that that latter concern needn’t have been an issue. After three quick phone calls to guys I grew up with, I had three quick confirmations that Dallas had driven a maroon Porsche 924 to school in the eighth grade, not a cherry-red 944 as I had originally written. The fact that they all remembered it so clearly confirmed for me also that I hadn’t overstated Dallas’s prominence in our lives back then. And I did eventually get Dallas on the phone. He’s still a good guy. The whole thing cracked him up immensely.
texasmonthly.com: Were there things you wished you hadn’t sacrificed about yourself to fit in or moments you went along with the crowd when you knew it was wrong, what specifically?
JS: I may well have put a lot of stuff out of my memory that wasn’t quite as cute as the principal’s secretaries thought the “You’re mama’s washing it” bit was. I know I called one old buddy to talk about stuff for the story, and he told me that he remembered me starting chants of “Mobile homes! Mobile homes!” to make fun of some of our opponents during basketball games. I told him that that sounded weird to me, because what I remembered was him starting chants of “AIDS! AIDS! AIDS!” when schools with guy cheerleaders came to play basketball in our gym. I find it reassuring that we were both sufficiently disgusted by the other’s recollection that we refused to believe anything we told each other. We’re both dead certain the other is dead wrong. But that was the kind of thing that was happening back then.
texasmonthly.com: You commented that at one of the football games there were a few older kids sitting up in the bleachers and they seemed a world apart from those in high school. Once you left Westlake and started college at the University of Texas, did you feel you had changed as a person? Also, was there anything that surprised you about life outside of Westlake?
JS: I think I started to pull back from that Westlake-is-always-in-the-right mind-set during my senior year. It probably came from staying close with a number of friends who’d gone off to college and quit caring about Westlake altogether. And I think that Injunction Bowl football game was a big part of it. Most of our kids genuinely felt cheated after the game. The bigger story to me seemed to be that two guys from Taylor—the little defensive back who was blindsided by the Chaparral linebacker jumping off the bench; the coach who was almost hit in the head by the flying helmet—quite realistically could have been killed.
Of course, going to college myself made for bigger changes, the most significant being meeting people with different backgrounds from mine, kids whose parents didn’t make at least $100,000 a year, who didn’t have televisions in every room of the house, who didn’t get cars—not even clunkers—for their sixteenth birthdays. Most important, I started meeting people who weren’t white.
Couple that with the news that was coming out of Westlake at the time, stories that are mentioned in passing at the end of the magazine piece. The school installed artificial turf on the football field shortly after I graduated, a move the school district said was necessary but that every other school in the state seemed to be able to work around. Then there was the 1986 prom where Westlake kids literally destroyed a number of rooms in the hotel that hosted the dance. The school responded by condemning the behavior but refusing to punish the students, stating that the official school activity had already ended before the rooms were damaged. In any event, one step the school did take—or at least a step taken by its yearbook staff—was to photograph a group of the prom night suspects in tuxedos for a special page in the yearbook commemorating the event. Classless as that sounds, it’s perfectly tasteful compared with the racial slurs written on the visitors’ side bleachers at Westlake’s football stadium when LBJ High School played there about three and a half years later.
Once I left Westlake I started looking at those kinds of incidents differently. A big part of college is getting into the real world and ditching whatever stereotypes you bought into growing up. Just as important for me was coming to understand better why so many people I met had a stereotype of who I was.
texasmonthly.com: Have you been back for high school reunions, and if so, has anything changed? Would you let your kids go to Westlake now?
JS: I went to my twentieth reunion this summer, in fact, and one of the great moments was talking with an old buddy about these very things. He’d been one of the country club heroes, a star tennis player with the right car, clothes, and his pick of the girls. And what he said this summer was, “You know, in high school I had the Porsche, the Sergio Tacchini and Fila tennis clothes, and as soon as I got to college, things started going downhill. It’s been that way ever since.” Of course he was joking. I think.
The reunion wasn’t held at the school, but I did go back by there when I was working on this story. The football stadium, the architecture of which was defined by chain-link fence and cinder block when I was there, now looks like a professional sports complex, complete with a video scoreboard. And the school itself is even more impressive. Ten years ago, increased enrollment forced Westlake into a choice between building a new high school, which would cut the talent pool for the football team in half, or building a ninth grade center and expanding the existing facilities. Westlake chose the latter, and the results are both impressive and, to a member of the class of ’85, unrecognizable.
As for sending my own kids there, that’s tough. I’d like to think that if I worked hard enough at parenting I could help my kids to find and appreciate, away from school, the cultural diversity that they weren’t getting at school. But then there are also more practical concerns, such as how in the world would I ever be able to afford to live out there?