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The St. Mark’s Mystique

The cost is steep and the competition is ruthless, but families still covet a St. Mark’s education. Third graders study Japanese, ninth graders debug Tl calculators, and seniors go on to Yale, Juilliard, and Harvard.
By Prudence Mackintosh |

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: YOU WILL KNOW a Marksman by his chapped red knees. Even on the coldest days in January, when the wind rips across the now densely populated Preston Road prairie, St. Marks 770 boys from first through 12th grade steadfastly refuse to wear their optional long gray uniform slacks. The uniform has been modified by custom, not administrative edict, to gray flannel shorts (year round), white shirts (blue for seniors), white socks, and any athletic shoe that fits. On cold days, the ensemble is topped with an assortment of ski sweaters or athletic letter jackets, “Macho-comfortable” is the way one mother describes it.

Perhaps cold knees are just one more price a student pays for matriculation at St. Marks, one of the richest educational environments in the Southwest. This is no school for the faint-hearted, the sentimental, or the educationally ambivalent. Getting in is Darwinian. Staying in requires sacrifices. Not everyone believes the benefits are worth it.

Dallas now has many fine private schools, but St. Mark’s was the first all-boys’ school to emulate the prestigious, exclusive Eastern prep schools by bringing in Ivy League-educated headmasters and teachers. It is a young school by the standards of the East, where some prep schools have been around since the 17th century, but St. Mark’s roots-the Terril! Preparatory School, Texas Country Day, and the Cathedral School-give it a social history dating to 1906, very “old Dallas” indeed. Having a son at St. Mark’s may not instantly confer social status, but it is certainly a conversation opener with some of the wealthiest, most powerful people in town.

The Southwestern-style buildings that now crowd St. Mark’s campus in the heart of North Dallas are studded with such names as A. Earl Cullum, Cecil and Ida Green, Eugene McDermott, Morris G. Spencer, Ralph Rogers, H. Ben Decherd, D. Gordon Rupe, Albert G. Hill, and Charles and Sadie Seay, suggesting that St. Mark’s students will have access to the upper echelons of the Dallas business establishment. Such entree provides serendipitous perks. Some years ago, when die St. Mark’s choir sang “Happy 80th Birthday” to benefactor and Texas Industries founder Ralph Rogers (with a descant of the St. Mark’s school song), Rogers announced that during the choir’s upcoming performance tour in Europe, he had arranged for them to stand inside the gates at Buckingham Palace to watch the changing of the guard. The built-in “good old boy network” that St. Mark’s offers may open other gates as well.

Getting In

Given the recent merger of St. Michael School and the Episcopal School of Dallas {see page 63) and the continuing fear on the part of many parents that local public schools are not maintaining high standards, spaces in all Dallas-area private schools are now at a premium. Anxious young parents have begun to regard admission to North Dallas private schools with the same hysteria once reserved for getting kids into Ivy League colleges.

From an application pool of about 130, just 32 boys will be admitted to the first grade at St. Marks in the fall of ’96. Ed Young, the school’s director of admissions, understandably would not comment on which preschools were the most successful in sending their graduates to St, Mark’s first grade. Not surprisingly, the school is looking for boys who are intellectually curious and developmentally mature for their age-“boys who are ahead of the curve, ” Young says. Translation : If your son still needs a nap after lunch, he need not apply.

An entire industry of educational consultants has sprung up in Dallas to tutor preschool children who have “glitches in their symbol recognition” or “sequencing problems” or ’’weak pencil grip.” The educational consultants call it ” assuring an enhanced first grade experience, ” Hiring someone to practice bead stringing, paper scrunching, or puzzle working with your preschool child can cost $35 an hour. It’s a shark tank out there.

Ready or not, the little applicants are tested in groups of 10 on two consecutive Saturdays in the fall prior to the year they wish to enroll. Specially trained teachers observe the boys while a “very nurturing” individual administers the three-hour test. The $100 fee is thought to be a bargain since comparable comprehensive evaluation of auditory, visual, and fine motor response normally costs S600 when done by a private assessor.

Once the evaluations are finished, the applications of those who seem well-suited to the fast-paced St. Mark’s environment are placed on a table. From that acceptable pool, preference is given first to children of St. Mark’s faculty (who pay no tuition), then to siblings of St. Mark’s students, and finally to children of alumni.

Sometimes St. Mark’s will admit a child, but recommend to parents that he receive some specific tutoring in the summer before he starts school. Other parents just opt for sending their sons through a first grade elsewhere before applying to the first grade at St. Mark’s. And sometimes the evaluation is superfluous. Young recalls walking one six-year-old across the campus to the testing room. The boy paused in front of a mobile sculpture displayed on the lawn and said, “This is interesting. Look, gravity is causing this to move. Do you think I’ll have time after the test to come back and explore this some more?” Ed Young says, “I knew he was an instant admit.”

Fifty percent of parents whose children are not accepted put their sons through the process the following year, vying for the one or two spaces that may become available. The school expands its admissions by 25 to 30 pupils at the fifth grade lewd. Twenty more may be added at the seventh grade and 15 or more at the ninth grade, depending on attrition, Previous school performance and achievement tests as well as St. Mark’s admissions testing play a part in admittance to the higher grades. Being admitted after first grade often requires additional hours spent catching up, not only in math and science but in Japanese, the required language from third through sixth grades.

As with most private schools since the late ’60s. St. Mark’s is always trying to shed its traditional reputation as a school for rich white boys, chanting the buzzwords of “diversity” and “community.” The admissions office is constantly scanning urban and suburban public schools for qualified minority students. A $39-miilion endowment allows the school to offer $800,000 in need-based scholarships each year. The results? Of 770 students at St. Marks, 6 percent are African-American, 4 percent are Hispanic, and 13 percent are Asian. Minorities comprise 16 percent of the faculty. (Only four are Asian,) As a ’51 graduate of St. Mark’s observed, “It ain’t brunch at Brook Hollow anymore.”

Going to Class

The head of the lower school, Barbara York, walks me down the hall lined with bright felt banners and intriguing three-dimensional art projects, Little boys are scooting plastic tubs containing their school supplies and books in and out of various classrooms. No lockers in the early grades, she explains; the boys don’t have the fine motor skills for combination locks or the organizational ability to keep them straight. She and I are talking of the pleasures and perils of heading a lower school where the intellectual range is from “bright to brilliant.”

“We are not a school for everyone,” she says. “Our students are the ones who might choose to skip recess to plan a project on black holes in space. Part of my job is to see that we are also creating the kind of people that you’d like to be around.”

With that in mind, I visited third grade science and language arts classes taught by Kathy Luckett, The boys were exploring simple machines, recognizing ramps, levers, cog wheels, and fulcrums in drawings at their desks and also in Mousetrap games and robotic toys in the room. “Fulcrum is a word you’ll need in fifth grade,” Ms. Luckett says. In preparation for the lesson, the boys have designed on paper their own wacky Rube Goldberg machines, fanciful pancake flippers, bathing machines that convey bodies to tubs and dry diem oft, and automatic door openers all employing ramps, levers, cog wheels, etc. In a hands-on activity, they’re asked to analyze whether an inclined ramp could simplify the task of moving a heavy in-line skate. Unsolicited, one student asks, “Ms. Luckett, why don’t you put something heavier in the toe of that skate? That would make it move faster down the ramp. ” “Engineering may be in your future,” the teacher replies.

When the writing activity of the language arts class gets under way, the boys file past the teacher’s desk for a quick one-on-one analysis of their compositions. ( No letter grades are given in St. Mark’s lower school; evaluation comes through extensive written comments and parent conferences.) I can’t help noticing the boys’ extraordinary penmanship. AU cursive letters are evenly proportioned and neatly slanting at approximately the same angle. The teacher uses standard copy-editing symbols on their papers, which the students seem to understand. She efficiently confers with every student, dispatching those deemed ready to the bank of computers at the back of the room to produce a typed draft, A misspelled word is greeted with “Check your resources.” One student s too-brief composition is an excuse to engage the whole class in generating more ideas. Though it’s afternoon, everybody seems happily “on task.” That isn’t to say that horsing around doesn’t occur. Ms. York reports that a pair of first graders got a little carried away with their study of the Middle Ages and did some jousting with sharpened pencils, which landed them in her office. Despite the schools caution in admitting only those boys who will fit into the rigorous academic atmosphere, Ms. York says, “We really do not expect perfection.”

The middle school (grades five to eight) is the largest school at St. Mark’s with 328 boys. Warren Foxworth (St.. Mark’s ’66), head of the middle school, says the influx of students at the fifth and seventh grade levels is good for breaking up cliques that inevitably form in the four years of lower school. Middle school is where boys begin to And their niche, Foxworth says; whether nerd, jock, or artist, there’s a place for them at St. Mark’s.

In the days before English became “humanities” and required Latin yielded to Japanese, middle schoolers at St. Mark’s had a rite of passage. For nearly 40 years, until his retirement in 1991, Marksmen had to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of John J. Connollys seventh grade English class. “He was stern and intimidating as a teacher. Some guys were so scared of him that they wet their pants,” recalls one survivor, “but if you could stand up to his bantering, you emerged knowing that you had earned his respect and also a friend for life.” Connolly, an Irish Catholic, often quoted from Flannery O’Connor’s “On Literature and the Eighth Grade. ” “If the student finds it is not to his taste, well, that is regrettable, most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.” Nevertheless, Connolly had a knack for catching the romantic, adventurous impulse of 12-year-old boys through books like The Call of the Wild, Beau Geste, and Shane. When Beau Geste went out of print, Connolly kept a set of books in his room. “Just writing your name in the front of that book beneath the signatures of all those other Marksmen who had read it before you was a part of the Mr. Connolly experience,” says a St. Mark’s senior.

Connolly also required that his students memorize a poem every week. Where two or three old Marksmen are gathered, someone can still recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, a Shakespearean sonnet, or Emily Dickinson.

In a St. Mark’s classroom today, ballpoint pens are clicking, knees are jumping, and feet are swinging. The whole room wiggles with the puppy-like enthusiasm of 10-year-old boys as a huge black man, Bobby Walker (St. Mark’s ’91, Williams College ’95, Division 3 record-breaking linebacker), brings the class to order with “Chill out, men. We have a guest, Mrs. Mackintosh. Can you greet her?” The room explodes with a solid chorus of “Yo! What’s up, Mrs. Mackintosh!”

Welcome to fifth grade humanities. Seventeen boys are more or less seated at tables arranged in a U-shape, their heavily highlighted books open, ready lor a lesson on the American Revolution. Walker quickly makes the rounds of the room, checking homework assignments and test corrections and instructing any who have come unprepared to see him after class. I glance at the corrected test of the boy sitting next to me and see that he has had to write the word “lasciviousness” five times.

Walker, employing the time-honored Socratic method, quizzes his charges through the chapter they have read and highlighted the night before. The subject today is the contribution of the French, women, Indians, and slaves in the fight for independence. Hands fly in the air. Highlighters, which are now slimy from being sucked on, slip out of hands and clatter to the floor. The boys, brash and cocky and intensely competitive, fling out answers both thoughtful and impulsive. The reasoned responses to the lesson merit a “Beautiful, man,” from the teacher. An idea gone awry, as middle school ideas often do, is cut short with “Perhaps your colleague, Mr. Kemp, will help you out with that.”

The pace is swift and every child in the class is called on, Boys like to talk about war, about the British whipping up on the French, about wanting to get back at somebody who’d beat you up twice. Walker tempers their enthusiasm by reminding them that war is about seeing your “homie” get shot, going hungry, wading through swamps, being wet and cold. “War is not so cool,” he says. Multicultural homage is paid to Indians, slaves, and women, but the boys are skeptical about the female contribution to the war effort. Molly Pitcher carrying water and dodging cannon balls, or women tending farms clearly do not capture the fifth grade male’s imagination as dramatically as do Washington freezing with his troops at Valley Forge and John Pau] Jones declaring to the British, “I have not yet begun to fight,”

St. Mark’s requirement of Japanese in third through sixth grade intrigued me, I visited a catch-up class for fifth graders and was simply amazed to see the boys reading from a cartoonlike text that was totally unintelligible to me. David Hicks, a former headmaster at St. Mark s, presided over this addition to the St. Mark’s curriculum in the early ’90s. Of his decision to require Japanese, Hicks says, “Our curriculum at the time seemed overwhelmingly Western, a narrowness good schools no longer can afford. I hoped that in Japanese class, the little boys would feel as if they had stepped through the back of the wardrobe into something like the Land of Narnia, a place with its own language, distinctive art, culture, food, and alphabet.” In an hour, all I understood was the teacher saying, “Ah, very good, Aronoff-san, very good, Oden-san,” and the boys’ trading high-fives when they were successful in the Japanese equivalent or a spelling bee.

Trouble in Paradise

The ninth grade is the point of greatest attrition for the school. For several reasons, parents at this juncture begin to reassess the St. Mark’s experience, and a number of them decide that it is no longer the right place for their child. A seventh grade class which began with 90 members often shrinks to around 60 by the ninth grade. One obvious reason cited is the absence of girls.

“To fast, to study, and to see no woman-flat treason ’gainst the kingly state of youth.”

I noticed this wistful quotation from Love’s Labors Lost taped on the side of a filing cabinet in the St. Marks’s ceramics studio late one afternoon. Quite frankly, after a long day with angular boys and the familiar sour-sweat smell their socks and hair exude. I found myself unconsciously looking for softer sights. What is it like to face school every day with no chance of being distracted by a whiff of perfume, to sit in study hall never contemplating a wild cascade of shiny Hair being mysteriously twisted into submission around a pencil?

The advantages of single-sex educa-tion are increasingly well documented for females; the case for all-boys is not so strong. It is apparent, however, that in elementary grades, die natural energy and physicalness of little boys are less likely to be regarded as discipline problems when there are no quiet, teacher-pleasing little girls with whom to compare them. Nevertheless, the better known private schools in the East-Groton, Choate, Taft, St. Paul’s, Exeter, Andover, and Deer-field-have long since gone co-ed. St. Mark’s newly rejuvenated “coordinate classes ” with Hockaday should not be taken as a sign that either school is relaxing its commitment to separation of the sexes. The schools do have historic ties, and it makes good economic and sometimes educational sense for them to cooperate in limited ways, Upper school drama performances are produced jointly. (The lower and middle school boys at St. Mark’s, in Shakespearean tradition, have to wear wigs and play girl parts for their drama productions.) French is no longer offered at St. Mark’s, so young men interested in pursuing that language must do so on the Hockaday campus. Certain art classes take advantage of Hockaday’s larger studio art facility, while “Hockadaisies” sometimes take higher math courses like differential equations at St. Mark’s. A handful of Hockaday girls come to St. Mark’s for a psychology/sociology class, making for more spirited discussions of gender issues. But don’t expect “Markspersons” any time soon.

The fear that students will be stunted socially by single-sex education grips the schools parents more than their kids. The upper school students with whom 1 spoke felt that the all-boy aspect of their school was advantageous in at least two ways: First, it engenders strong male friendships with classmates and teachers. Guys who are physically mature and socially confident seem to find girls no matter how inaccessible; less mature boys have some extra years to grow up without the sting of a girl’s giggle at their awkwardness. Second, there is no stigma at St. Mark’s to exploring artistic interests, singing in a choir, playing a musical instrument, or writing poetry for the literary magazine-activities that in a co-ed situation might get relegated to the female domain.

The absence of females, of course, is not the only reason boys leave St, Mark’s. Some feel that the academic competition is ruthless and the pressure too great. “A bright boy can feel dumb at St. Mark’s,” one mother says. “We were very naive. We didn’t know that if you weren’t at the top, you’d just blend into the walls.” Another parent says, “It is a great deal of work just to remain ’average’ at St. Mark’s. I also felt that some of the teachers were more interested in their particular courses than in the kids they’re supposed to be teaching.” Of course, each family’s persona] expectations and experiences color its perceptions of what is true about St. Mark’s. Laura Wilson, mother of sons Owen, Luke, and Andrew, who are currently capturing headlines with their movie Bottle Rocket, says that her family had three completely different experiences with the school, Another Marksmom who stayed the course with her own sons says, “Kids can take the pressure. 1. don’t understand parents caving in to normal slumps in adolescent boys. Their parents just need to tell ’em to knuckle under. This burnout stuff is nonsense.”

There is no doubt that some who “hang tough” consider the survival-of-the-fittest element in a St. Mark’s education one of its strengths. In his valedictory address to the class of 1995, Tony Payne, who commuted to St. Mark’s from Lewisville for six years and is now a freshman at Cal Tech in Pasadena, admitted that his life at St. Mark’s had been “an uphill battle, an intense struggle.” A speech impediment earnedhimthecruelnicknameof”Voo.”

“As a 12-year-old boy, I had never expe-rienced such rejection,” he told the class. “At my previous school, 1 had always fit in and the attitudes at St. Mark’s shocked me. I couldn’t understand why I was treated so poorly. All I wanted was to be accepted for who I was.”

Tony determined to beat his tormentors on their home field. One teacher says that during his junior year, he engaged in vindictive intellectual attacks in class. He threw himself into his studies and athletics and the school newspaper. In his farewell to his class, he characterized his high school years as a “closely packed, tour-year-long, 67-man race” in which they all ran as fast as they could. (He estimated that collectively his class had done 1.6 million hours of homework.) “I know that I would not be giving this speech tonight if it had not been for the desire of others to give it,”

The classroom atmosphere in the upper school, at least in classes 1 visited, seemed challenging, but at the same time, collégial and laid back. Steve Seay (St. Mark’s ’68) teaches geology and astronomy. The day I visited the geology class, they were going over a nine-page test given the third day after students had returned from Christmas break. Part of the test required the boys to identify the components of a rotary-oil rig. Students challenged every answer marked wrong on their papers and even elicited a few concessions from their amiable teacher. A subsequent lab involving analysis of sand under excellent microscopes brought to mind the advantages of a well-traveled student body. Students have brought back sand samples from such exotic places as Ham Ranch, Hawaii; Bermuda; Acapulco; Cancun; and Port Clyde, Maine. (None from Galveston?)

Dr. Michael Keyton (linear algebra, non-Euclidean geometry, and differential equations) has taught at the university level, but says, “It is far more satisfying to be at St. Mark’s where excellent teaching is valued. ” Keyton. students say, is eccentric I he gets his hair cut once a year, at the beginning of baseball season) and notoriously creative. One year his text was a set of empty transparencies and a poem by Lewis Carroll, “The Hunting of the Snark.” His ninth grade algebra class is currently debugging the TI 92, a calculator released by Texas Instruments last year, which he says has the capability of performing ever)’ manipulative operation currently taught in high school mathematics today. “It’s about the size of a Nintendo or Sega unit and has linking abilities to PC or Macintosh. It’s going to be very controversial. Teachers will have to rethink everything they’ve been teaching. High school math just moved to a new level.”

Every year Keyton has the pleasure of a handful of advanced students who study with him independently. “These- students,” he says, “are at an age when they are not worrying about careers, about whether what we are doing has a practical application. They just like playing around with mathematical ideas.”

That’s part of what lures tine teachers to St. Mark’s. True, the salaries are as good as it gets in the world of Southwestern private schools. Beginning pay is around $28,000 and top salaries for master teachers or endowed chairs may run as high as $60,000. Still, nobody does this for the money. For all the wealth of their benefactors, prep schools are notoriously penurious places. Everybody on the faculty fills at least two school positions during the year and often pursues a third job during the summer. Keyton is also the St. Marks golf coach, and teaches an elective course in music history. He spends his summers researching, writing, and editing articles for music encyclopedias. Full-rime teachers also serve as advisors and class sponsors and may coach a sport, which means working after school hours and often on weekends. Even administrators, including headmaster Arnold Holtberg, have to teach at least one course or coach a sport.

Charles Britton, a popular young upper school English teacher, came to St. Mark’s in 1994 from Trinity Pawling, a prep school in upstate New York. Britton, who also coaches junior varsity baseball, requires his students to write a paper every 10 or 12 days. He is usually up at 5 a.m. grading, since he promises to get their papers back within five working days.

“The trust level between student and teacher is very high,” Britton says of his charges. “You wouldn’t want to do anything to jeopardize it. If these kids have been here for 12 years, they are so well read and their knowledge is so thorough that you wouldn’t dare pretend to have read something you hadn’t.”

Needless to say, a student body bent on high achievement creates unique problems for those who shape their educations. While many public and private schools endlessly search for ways to orchestrate success and self-esteem for students, St. Mark’s is concerned that its students do not have enough experience with failure. Ceramics teacher Bill Kysor says. “There is a lot of failure inherent in trying to create art. That’s very frustrating for kids who are accustomed to doing everything well.” Erik Benke, head of the upper school, says, “We are trying to create an atmosphere in which striving is rewarded. We can’t have kids not taking AP calculus because they’re afraid they can’t make an A. ” Heads of both lower and upper schools observe that successful parents, intent on giving their offspring every edge, arc prone to bail a child out before he has struggled to solve his own problems. In a letter to parents last October, headmaster Holtberg said, “I would hope that no boy goes through St. Marks without having to confront difficult tasks or bounce back from some failure or defeat, for it is from such experiences that an important facet of one’s personality is formed.”

The 10-day Pecos wilderness trip, a tradition begun 25 years ago by then,headmaster Ted Whatley, is one way the school works a little self-reliance and delayed gratification into lives that are often layered with safety nets. Upper classmen like to terrify freshmen prior to the trip with tales of near-death experiences, having to fend off mountain lions or bears. In truth, the safety nets are still in place-rigorous hiking expeditions, bad food, and 324-hour “solo” experience are about as tough as it gets-but spending 24 hours alone without electronic gad-getry is for many Marksmen the first quiet “down time” they’ve ever had.

Some use the time to write in journals, some build elaborate shelters, and some avoid the whole thing by sleeping as much as possible. At least one used the solo time to construct an elaborate miniature golf course of twigs and rocks. At the very least, the trip is fodder for a thoughtful college application essay.

The Payoff

St. Mark’s parents may have been obsessed with college place-ment since their child was conceived, but the school officially addresses the issue at the beginning of upper school. After all the heft) tuition checks, the mandatory Japanese, and the post-midnight study sessions, what can St. Mark’s guarantee its graduates by way of college placement?

Quite a bit. But for a number of reasons, a St. Mark’s diploma is not the automatic passport to the college of one’s choice that it: may have been 3 G years ago when women and minorities were not part of the coin-petit ion. Paul Mott, the college counselor at St. Mark’s, facetiously agrees with Ivy League admissions guru Richard Moll, who says, “Do your kid a favor. Go to Harvard.” There is no doubt that having a family connection to a great school is an advantage-and Dallas families’ connections to Ivy League schools rarely run to three or four generations as do those of families in the East. No private school can change that tact.

Then, too, the high-jump bar is higher than it used to be. “For whatever reason,” Mott says, “our culture is becoming more and more selective.” He watched the stakes get higher while working in the admissions office at Williams College. The college rated its applicants on a scale of one to nine with one being the highest rating, “A one was what we called a WOW (walks on water), but a four was still an automatic admit,”Mott says. “While I was there, the cutoff point moved to Three.”

While St. Mark’s trains many of the best and brightest, colleges are not just looking for the highest test scores. They seek a mix of students who fit into one of five categories. They’re (1) well rounded. (2) intellectually gifted, (3 ) have a special talent, (4) have a traditional family connection to the school, or (5) assuage the school’s social conscience, especially if the school is light on minorities. Ironically, a top college may choose to accept a kid with less rigorous academic preparation from a small West Texas town because he brings variety to the class profile. J So what “edge” can St. Mark’s offer in the college admissions game? For one thing, as Mott notes, it’s a 12-year I prep course. St. Marks students sometimes enter college with enough advanced placement hours to be classified as juniors. The middle 50 percent of SAT scores last year ranged from 650 to 740 on the verbal portion of the test and from 640 to 730 in mathematics. Some students made perfect scores of 800 on each portion. The lowest math score was 600; the lowest verbal, 550. From a class of 67 students last year, 19 were National Merit semifinalists, 17 were finalists, and two received Merit scholarships. Of course, these commendations and scholarships are awarded proportionately based on the number of high school graduates in a state. (161393 in Texas as opposed to26,312 in Connecticut). Still, St. Mark’s acknowledges that it was a very good year.

Beyond the numbers, there are more subtle advantages for a Marksman. ” Our students do well in college interviews,” Mott says, “because they can talk with intelligence and poise about the things they’ve read and studied. Small classes mean that our teachers know their students well and can write recommendations that are rich in anecdotal material. Our teachers are articulate people who know what will catch an admissions officer’s eye.” Liz Trice, an Advanced Placement English teacher, says that a recommendation for a Marksman can take five or six hours to compose. She keeps a log on her students throughout the year, noting astute observations they make in class or vignettes that will make them come alive on paper for a college admissions officer.

The Price

As FOR THE PARENTS WHO WILL BE writing those college checks, their role at St. Mark’s is to be very proud, but also very anxious. Mothers worry about cold knees and no coats when the temperature dips to 12 degrees, and they have mixed feelings about the stress their families feel as a result of their own and the school’s expectations. “It’s hard to watch a boy cry when he’s feeling overwhelmed by homework,” one confides. “At the upper school level, ” one mother complains, “it is cool to brag about how little sleep you get.” A mother of a very active senior says, “We had to learn to back off and let him organize his own life.”

Many St. Mark’s parents’ schedules are just as harried. Being a bit overwhelmed for the good of your child’s school is considered normal here. As in many private schools, parents save die school considerable money by volunteering in the library and the school store. At St. Marks they also serve lunch in the cafeteria. During the construction of the new Cullum Commons, they served from steam tables set up in miserable tents outside. They organize meetings to share concerns about teenage drinking, driving, and stress. They are on hand to cheer the Lions and run concessions at all sporting events. Lamar Hunt flipped burgers at the football games last fall.

Parents are also major fund-raisers for the school, Ninety-five percent of the parents contributed to last year’s annual fund drive as compared with only 50 percent of the alumni. After paying a tuition that tops out at $11,985, some resent the pressure placed on them to harangue other parents to contribute more money to the school. Parents also bear the responsibility for co-ed social functions like die Marksmen’s Ball, victory dances, and fund-raising auctions which are major extravaganzas. Mothers serve on telephone committees and keep teachers’ lounges stocked with snacks. They also compose Christmas newsletters full of their children’s intellectual achievements, and are the fastest rumor mill in the Southwest when PS AT scores or college acceptances are mailed.

As a public school-educated female who was permitted to grow up without much intellectual rigor and who learned, perhaps too early, the pleasures of limited ambition, I find the whole scene at St. Mark’s at once stimulating and exhausting. After a long weekend of writing, I sought some solace in the St. Mark’s Evensong, which is sung one Sunday evening a month by the St. Mark’s Choir in the school’s chapel. It is an ancient and very Anglican service. The introit, ver-sides, responses, and canticles sung so exquisitely in these pre-adolescent trebles can send one soaring beyond the cares of this world. In the flickering candlelight of the choir stalls, the boys’ faces are cherubic above their white surplices and burgundy cassocks.

But even here at heaven’s gate, one cannot escape competition. As the boys fi!e in by twos, some wear their chorister s crosses on light blue ribbons, some dark blue. Only five wear red. The printed program explains: HProbationers earn their place as junior choristers (blue ribbons) through experience and testing,and then advance to senior status (dark blue). Only a few are able to reach the expertise of full chorister (red) before their voices change.”

A tired cherub yawns and squirms a little, and I see his mother catch his eye and stare him back into full choral attention. He’s wearing a blue ribbon, and we both know that his vocal clock is ticking.

A ’Sputnik School’ Grows Up

IN THE LATE 1970s, WHEN I WAS WRITING A STORY ON THE HOCKA-day School for this magazine, Ted Whatley, then-headmaster of St. Mark’s, said, “If you ever write about St. Mark’s, there won’t be nearly as much to say. We’re just a Sputnik school founded by industrialists to improve science and math education in Dallas.” It’s true that St. Mark’s has never kept a good scrapbook. That’s part of its maleness. It has developed little sentimental attachment to its past. Board member Robert Hoffman, class of ’65, co-founder of National Lampoon and now co-chairman of The Coca-Cola Bottling Group (Southwest) Inc., frequently asks in board meetings, ” What are we doing now to assure that 10 years from now we won’t be doing things the way we were 10 years ago?”

From a few written sources and some oral history, we know that St. Mark’s earliest antecedent was the Terrill Preparatory School, founded in 1906 by Mentor B. Terrill and his wife Ada in a large house on Swiss Avenue. Terrill Prep combined the traditions of the frontier schoolhouse with the trimmings of the fashionable Eastern boys’ schools of the period.

During the 1940s, the Terrill School became the Cathedral School for Boys, associated with the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. Texas Country Day, the school with which Cathedral would merge to form Se. Mark’s, was established in 1933.

Nobody seems exactly sure why the two schools merged in 1950-a disastrous fire at TCD may have been a galvanizing event-but Ralph Rogers, a longtime benefactor, sums it up thusly: “Two broke schools merged to form one broke school.”

The first board of trustees included Eugene McDermott, D. Gordon Rupe Jr., Fred Florence, Algur Meadows, Bishop C. Avery Mason, and 15 other prominent citizens including three women. They charged headmaster Robert Iglehart to give them a school that would “enable a bright boy who is willing to work, to go out of here into Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Yale, Cal Tech, Stanford, Rice, or any specialized school, and not find himself suffering ’gaposis’ as a freshman.” Iglehart set the intellectual tone for St. Mark’s by tightening up its admissions, by adding a lower school, and by bringing in passionate and highly educated faculty. When he left St. Mark’s to become headmaster of Choate in 1957, he had fulfilled his mission. Dallas’ establishment no longer had to send its sons to Eastern prep schools to assure their entrance to Ivy League colleges. Addressing the senior class of 1954 in their yearbook, Iglehart wrote:

“…The special talents that bring each of you to a Commencement platform represent the loftiest form of capitalism…the godly endowment of some men from whom uncommon service shall be the godly dividend,”

The headmaster’s inflated prose perfectly reflects the noblesse oblige attitudes to which all elite prep schools of the time aspired. The references to capitalism and dividends suggest that the man knew his Dallas audience well.

As headmaster Thomas B. Hartman succeeded Iglehart, St. Mark’s was ideally positioned to benefit from the rapid growth of Dallas and the post-Sputnik concern about science education that was sweeping the country. Dallas industrialists saw the educational opportunities that St. Mark’s ottered as crucial in attracting Eastern talent to local companies like Texas Instruments and happily gave buildings and facilities bearing their names to the young school.

Marksmen had developed a certain mystique by the late ’50s and early ’60s. “I wasn’t sure they had parents,” says one woman who attended Highland Park High School during the same period. “We thought St. Mark’s boys were a little wilder. They were freer thinkers than their public school counterparts.”

The late ’60s and early 70s brought a few conscientious objectors and civil rights demonstrators to the faculty and some inflammatory speeches to the chapel, much to the consternation of the conservative board of trustees. When a St. Mark’s teacher burned a paper American flag to illustrate the power of symbols, it made both newspapers. When St. Mark’s seniors staged a Vietnam teach-in moratorium, the headmaster at the time recalls board member Ross Perot “went ballistic.”

The ’80s saw a return to tightened admissions and renewed academic rigor. Today, in tune with the ’90s educational focus on values, St. Mark’s administrators talk less of intellectual rigor and more of “educating the whole boy,” paying attention to “moral development and spiritual growth.”

Headmaster Arnold Holtberg has been at St. Mark’s for three years now, having arrived at an opportune time in the schools history. The school’s alumni are of an age to contribute generously to their alma mater, A new magazine, The Pride, touts the high achievements of alumni including Hoffman; Robert Decherd, head of the A.H. Belo Corporation; film star Tommy Lee Jones (his ’65 yearbook photo is captioned “Who needs God?”); Michael Levy, founder and publisher of Texas Monthly; musicians Boz Scaggs (who graduated) and Steve Miller (who didn’t); Ross Perot, Jr.; and Cadillac dealer Carl Sewell. The board of trustees, (which includes Decherd, Sewell, Lamar Hunt, and cable TV tycoon Jeff Marcus) now focuses on upgrading technology and structuring financial aid to bring more middle-class boys to St. Mark’s.

At the time of the union that birthed St. Mark’s, Cathedral School apparently exercised considerable power over the school’s charter, which to this day requires that the school employ an Episcopal priest as chaplain. The Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas is still officially a member of the board of trustees, although I am told he never attends. Still, despite its name, St. Mark’s has been steadfastly non-sectarian. Chapel is required once a week in the upper school and twice a week in the lower school, but the worship book in the chapel pews contains prayers from Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Bahaism as well as some from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer followed by some sturdy Anglican hymns. The city’s Jewish population-and now, its Asian and Islamic population-can expect minimal religious discomfort at St. “good” Mark’s. Thus has it ever been. When the first chapel was built at St. Mark’s, there was some concern about offending the school’s many generous Jewish donors and patrons. So a compromise was forged. The chapel was also used as a theater in those days, so outside its doors to the right was a plaque that said St, Mark’s Chapel. Under that name were listed old-line Episcopalians who had contributed to its construction. To the left of the door was a plaque that said St, Mark’s Auditorium. Under that name were listed the Jewish contributors.

A Day in the Life of a St. Mark’s Senior

7:00: Wake up

7:14: Leave the house

7:26: Roll through McDonalds at Preston Royal

7:50-8:35: Advanced Placement Government (with Hockaday girlfriend)

8:50-9:35: AP German (5th year)

9:40-10:25: AP English

10:30-10:50: Chapel, assembly, or advisory depending on the day

10:50-1:20: No classes, but…

Monday-Student council and class officer meetings

TUESDAY-Tutors third grade kids at Pershing

Elementary; returns for a community service meeting with his committee. (Students are required to do 15 hours of community service each year.)

WEDNESDAY-Plays bingo with residents of Austin Street Shelter

Thursday and Friday-Unscheduled time (St. Mark’s students spend much of their free time at Borders Books and Music)

1:20- 2:05: Senior math topics

2:10- 2:55: AP European history

3:00: School is out. In past years, he has run track in the fall and played baseball in the spring, which usually kept him at school until after 7 p.m. Dropped cross country this year to ensure grades looked good for early acceptance at Duke and because he thought he’d be directing the Hockaday/St. Mark’s winter drama production. Change of schedule moved the play to spring; rehearsals will keep him at school three nights a week from 7:30-9:30 p.m. Monday nights he hosts a program on KRSM, the schools radio station. Other nights he delivers food to the Austin Street Shelter or, with friends, entertains children at the Genesis Center for Abused Women. On Saturdays, often gives tours to prospective St. Mark’s parents. Helped run senior auction, which raised $8,000, some of which will go for a catered senior/faculty dinner; the rest will fund a senior class party with Hockaday. He helps plan both events. Remembers going to school with pneumonia during junior year when he was directing a play. (St. Mark’s forbids students from participating in any after-school activity if they weren’t at school that day.) “It was okay,” he says. “The pneumonia was non-infectious.” Since starting upper school, cannot recall ever being in bed before 1:30 a.m.