By MADOLINE MARKHAM
When Oak Mountain High School (OMHS) opened its doors in 1999, students like Zack Feldman reunited with classmates from Oak Mountain Middle that had split off to attend Chelsea and Pelham high schools. The first graduating classes were small and had to help establish a sense of school pride.
Today, among a decade of Oak Mountain graduates out in the world, Feldman, a math teacher, and eight others have come back to teach, coach and invest in the middle and high schools in the community that raised them. For them, homecoming isn’t just an event that will take place on Oct. 21 but each day of the school year.
“Even though we’re not actually a town or a city, we are starting to feel more like a town where community is involved,” Feldman said, noting how now people from the area who don’t have school-aged children follow the football games now.
Graduates in the first OMHS graduating classes grew up with the Oak Mountain schools: playing Cahaba Heights or Pelham little league sports, voting for the original mountain lion mascot at the intermediate school and taking classes on the on blue and gold teams at the middle school before all the schools became red, white and blue eagles.
Current OMHS students might have always known Oak Mountain as community, growing up playing Oak Mountain little league sports and attending schools with unified colors and mascots. However, today both groups of students are a part of a more established Oak Mountain community.
Even though each of the OMHS grads who are now faculty said they started teaching or student teaching at other schools, they stayed in contact with former teachers and coaches at Oak Mountain and were drawn back to the community and standards they knew well.
“It’s amazing being back at Oak Mountain,” said Chris Wilson, a 2006 graduate who returned this year to serve as choir director after Ed Cleveland retired. “You don’t know how blessed you are to be in Shelby County schools until you go out and teach in other schools.”
Kyle Dudley, a 2003 graduate who now teaches English and coaches baseball and cross country, agreed. “I student taught at Hoover but also volunteered coaching the baseball team at Oak Mountain,” he said. “Oak Mountain was where my heart was. I felt loyal to my school.”
There are new technologies, new teachers, new wings of the building, new athletic fields and new traditions at Oak Mountain, but grads who teach there now say much has stayed the same. What has evolved, however, is school spirit.
“Everyone was so new when I was there that pep rallies were more quiet,” 2003 graduate and current math teacher Sophie Cowan said. “It started to get okay by my senior year, but truthfully everyone thought it was pretty lame.”
“When we were there, I felt like it was such a new school that they were trying to pump school spirit into us,” Dudley said. “Now there is a ton of school pride and school spirit.”
Today the faculty we interviewed say homecoming is amped up, with dress up days, dodgeball, a huge pep rally and teacher groups performing. The spirit spills over into all athletic competitions.
“You will never find a high school basketball atmosphere like we have,” Dudley said.
The younger teachers say they also enjoy working with teachers who taught them.
“It’s fun seeing my old teachers and working with them,” Cowan said “They were teachers that I looked up to, and I felt more comfortable asking them how to make things better rather than others I didn’t know as well.”
Natalie Slaten, a 2005 graduate who now teaches and sponsors cheerleading at the middle school, said sometimes the colleagues that taught her catch her calling them by their last name. They have to get onto her and insist she use their first name, she said.
Feldman remembers the emphasis on the “nothing but the best” motto at Oak Mountain Middle School from years ago and has seen students taking it to heart both as he grew up and now as a teacher.
“There was an early emphasis on high expectations for both academics and athletics,” he said. “We don’t have the resources that some schools do, but our academics are as good as any of those schools.” Feldman adds citing the stand-out involvement of the PTO, the band’s stature as one of the best in the state and the soccer team winning its fourth state championship.
The OMHS PTO likes to talk about a “next generation” of Oak Mountain graduates returning to the community. Some Oak Mountain grads live back in the area, but most are still young, exploring their careers in a challenging economy around Birmingham and the country and buying starter homes in parts of the city that are more affordable. The faculty at the school who grew up there say, however, that they certainly hope to one day give their kids the same education they had. With eight alums teaching at the high school alone, there will definitely be a next generation in the 280 community.
Wilson said part of him was unsure about coming home because he’s always adventurous. “But ever since I’ve been back at Oak Mountain, it’s been nothing but adventurous,” he said. “I am planning on staying as long as the Lord keeps me here.”
Note from managing editor Madoline Markham: I am an Oak Mountain grad who has “come back.” I edited the yearbook, played in the band and fell in love with studying Latin and history at Oak Mountain before graduating in 2004. While in college and grad school out of state, I dreamt of editing for and investing in a community somewhere but had no idea where, only to find myself back at home writing about the community where I grew up. Every time I see kids with Oak Mountain baseball shirts or a car with an Oak Mountain bumper sticker around town, I can’t help but smile.