Where I’m From…

I really am going to put away the rest of the Christmas decorations today – but I have been busy. Reading a yearbook. From a private boy’s school in Dallas. No. I guess you would say I don’t have any connection there – beyond my first journalism teacher. But when I look back at my career of writing, I remember the cinderblock walls of his classroom in the “new” English building that has since been torn down. And I know that group of St. Mark’s journalism students and I have a lot in common. Ray Westbrook’s classroom: It’s “Where I’m From.” 


Ray Westbrook came to San Marcos High School right out of Southwest Texas State University as our first “real” journalism teacher. Before he stepped into the role, journalism teachers had generally been English teachers who were saddled with the newspaper and yearbook staff, or coaches who had to also teach something else during their off periods.

The year before he came to us, Ray had edited The SWT Pedagog, an innovative and journalistic yearbook. In high school we looked at that as the definitive yearbook. I managed to wrangle a copy a few years ago.  It read like a time capsule. In recent years,  that yearbook has set on my desk at the office, raising my iMac two inches to the perfect height. And yes, occasionally, I  pick it up and look through  it. More than group pictures and class favorites, that college yearbook chronicled our world at that time. Folk singers and war veterans, streakers and sorority girls, and current events and trends –   a new movie theatre opens – a Hollywood movie being filmed in San Marcos with Big Stars – protests continue as America’s youth finds its voice.  At the time it was published, I was still in high school and this was a college yearbook, but it spoke with eloquence of the times of our lives, and the weight of the world our generation was soon to inherit.

When Mr. Westbrook came to SMHS, he was not much older than we were. At the time, I don’t think we realized that. There was a line between Teachers and Students and when one crossed that line, they aged quickly, and began to wear sweater vests and ties. But he was different. Behind the sweater vests and ties, he understood us. And he knew, better than we, what we could be. He brought that new way of thinking to The Rattler yearbook. We were allowed to sit ON the desks and hang out in the journalism room when we had free time. We began to tell our stories – and we learned elements of design and life lessons along the way.

It wasn’t until several decades later, when the magic of Facebook brought us all back together in our 50s, that we realized that Mr. Westbrook was Our Age. In that way that the years blur as we get further away from seventeen.

So what is Ray — yes, now we call him Ray — doing now? He has The Dream Job. He teaches journalism and publications at the famed St Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas. He went from teaching at SMHS to working for Taylor Publishing Company (a major player in yearbook publishing) for nearly two decades.  Along the way, he served as director of academics for the University Interscholastic League and the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals – and in 2001, landed in The Dream Job.

For the last 14 years, he has taught at St. Mark’s Of Texas, a private boys school on Preston Road in Dallas, with about 850 students between first and 12th grades. In 2011, he earned –  and continues to hold –  the Gene and Alice Oltrogge Master Teaching Chair. He explained, “In private schools, some teachers are honored with a Master Teaching Chair. The Oltrogge Chair is funded by H Ross Perot Jr.  When it was founded, I was honored to be given this chair. It is basically an “elevation” in rank for good work – and it came with a $20,000 pay raise – no small potatoes!”  He teaches journalism and design, and is the advisor for the student newspaper, The ReMarker, and The Marksmen yearbook.

Student newspaper? Hardly the stuff we would expect. The quality is outstanding.  http://www.smtexas.org/podium/default.aspx?t=146661 Check it out.

As we swapped text messages during the holidays, Ray told me he was going to send me their latest yearbooks. I looked forward to receiving them and seeing what my old friend and mentor was doing these days. And, it’s been more than a decade since I have looked through a current high school yearbook. I wondered what they look like now.

Wow! This is a dream job. His multitalented stuIMG_4378dent staff handles all phases of the publication, from theme to content, to layout and design, and operations.  The 2013 yearbook theme is “Where I’m From,” and after I poured over the pages and read every word, and wrote back and raved about this coffee table book, he casually mentioned that it did happen to sweep the three most prestigious national and state awards for yearbooks last year.

The three national awards are the Gold Crown from Columbia Scholastic Press Association (NY), the Pacemaker Award, given by the Natl. Scholastic Press Assn., and the Gold Star, given by the Interscholastic League Press Conference (the state journalism group housed at UT Austin).

Where I’m From offers well written feature stories, such as “20 Years of Arnie,” a story about the longest serving headmaster of the school preparing for retirement; a definitive “Class Tree” that lists a year by year roster of the Class of 2013 graduating students beginning with their first grade year — (second grade out – second grade in… third grade out – third grade in, etc.);class pictures of each group from first graders to seniors; a feature about a physics teacher who plays a little blues music on his guitar and harmonica when there is time at the end of class; and  each senior gets his own page – including a personal essay about his experience at St. Mark’IMG_4380s, and includes his activities in school, a favorite quote and other details.

Yes, I guess it seems odd for a 50-something woman to spend a couple of nights curled up by the fireplace reading, cover to cover,  a high school yearbook from a boys school in Dallas. I only know one soul in the book, and he is a greying master teacher now.  But I do feel the spirit of the place.

When I read the notes from the editor, I see, “Ray, I can’t thank you any more articulately than past editors, but suffice it to say I am the man that I am because of you. Even when we disagree, there’s no one I respect more. Thank you.”

And the last words on the last page: “It’s where I became who I am – and where I will come back to for the rest of my life. 10600 Preston Road. It’s where I’m from.”

Where I’m From speaks volumes. Not just for these Dallas prep school seniors, or former students withIMG_4381 old yearbooks and faded memories.  It is the one thing that we all have in common. We wear that like a class ring or a letter jacket wherever we go in life.  It is the tie that binds.

And it’s heartwarming on this freezing January Saturday,  as I look into the faces of these bright young strangers, and wonder about all  they will see in the next 40 years.

I think of my earliest friends, Kate and Gregg and Shelly and Lloydean and Debbie and am grateful. They are a part of who I am today.

And Mr. Westbrook. And his classroom.

It’s Where I’m From.

Listening to: “You’re Always Seventeen In Your Hometown”  – Cross Canadian Ragweed