Illustration by Lynsey Erin

40 Greatest Stories

Why Hockaday Girls Are Different

And whether that’s good or bad.

You can’t sit in classes at Hockaday or even walk down the halls — which are filled with art exhibits, interesting book displays, and the sound of a voice student rehearsing her recital in the Great Hall — without worrying that education is wasted on the young. One recent graduate told me that she remembers walking into the building for her admissions interview: “I thought, ‘This is all so fantastic, but I’ll bet someday I take it all for granted.’ And I did.” No matter how splendid the educational atmosphere may be, kids are kids, and their immaturity will always limit what they can absorb. “We always spent more time figuring out how we could sneak out of the symphony performance at McFarlin Auditorium to get ice cream on the SMU drag than we did listening to the symphony,” recalls one graduate of the ’50s.

I sat through an English class in the Upper School, where students were analyzing Hemingway’s story “The Killers.” The insightful reading they had apparently given their homework assignment was remarkable. Another class was reading John Knowles A Separate Peace, a novel with built-in appeal for Hockaday girls since the story deals with a boys’ boarding school. As they read, the students kept critical journals which facilitated reference to imagery and recurring themes. When the class was over, I had to stifle an impulse to shake each little girl and say, “Do you have any idea how lucky you are? You won’t get this sort of teaching and individual attention until you get to graduate school, if then.’’ Few classes in Hockaday’s Upper School exceed 15 students. Some have only nine. You can’t get lost in the crowd.

Some complain, however, that though you may not get lost, you can certainly be overlooked when the awards are handed out. Some kids thrive on the competition and the pressure of such an environment. Miss Hockaday herself was a great believer in pushing girls to achieve their highest potential. But there are so many more distractions today and so many more areas in which girls can achieve. One parent said, “I couldn’t be happier with Hockaday; my only concern is that my daughter feels compelled to be a Renaissance woman, and she may burn out trying to be the best in everything.”

I heard a lot of talk about “burning out” from parents who are concerned about their ambitious daughters. Although some of the girls are quite certain about their chosen careers, there are still plenty of kids who don’t feel entirely secure with the liberation that has been thrust upon them. For some, their primary concern may still be “Somebody show me how to care what men think.” “My daughter tells people she’s going to be a nurse just because she feels she has to have some career plan in mind, but I think all she knows about herself at this point is that she likes to sing,” said one mother. The younger students at Hockaday may not suffer this loss of confidence when they’re seniors because they’ve had a longer time to contemplate the opportunities. I am told that there is a 4-foot-tall seventh-grader at Hockaday who is certain that she will cure cancer. Others in the lower grades speak glibly of spending a few years at Time-Life before launching brilliant literary careers. It makes you wonder who’s going to run the charity balls and TACA auctions of the future.

What would Miss Hockaday have to say about all of this? She might find a lot of it “highly irregular,” but then again, I think she might also see threads of continuity that would be pleasing to her. In addition to the excellent sports training that Hockaday has always given, the school still fosters a love of reading. My contemporaries who graduated from Hockaday in the early ’60s are among the best read women I know, and I think Hockaday had something to do with it. And as any girls’ school must, Hockaday appreciates female wit — particularly wit with some intellectual sophistication. So if these ambitious graduates should opt for the gracious life some of their mothers have led, they won’t be entirely unequipped.

Very little of Hockaday’s finishing school tradition still exists. However, I did sit in on a Form meeting in the Upper School and hear a debate over who should be honored at their tea. Even in 1978, hardly anyone graduates without having properly poured tea at least once during her high school years. And Miss Hockaday’s belief that her girls should be exposed to outstanding personalities continues. In recent years Hockaday girls have talked informally with Gloria Steinem, Nancy Dickerson, Lily Kraus, Nobel prize winner Norman E. Borlaug, and a host of artists, poets, and authors of children’s books. These extraordinary experiences are served up so frequently that I occasionally wonder if life after Hockaday will seem dreadfully dull.

The graduation procession still features girls in white lace dresses and horsehair hats.
Miss Hockaday would feel completely comfortable with graduation. Except that there is no pergola on the new campus, graduation is unchanged. Lower school girls dressed in white are first in the procession, arranged by class and according to height. Sisters of the graduates still form an honor guard arch of gladiolas through which the entire procession passes. The seniors, wearing long white dresses that have been supplied by Neiman-Marcus since 1916 and broad-brimmed pastel horsehair hats (now purchased at K-Mart if you’re on a tight budget) and carrying wicker baskets of fresh-cut flowers, proceed in measured, much-practiced steps to “Land of Hope and Glory” and take their seats in the bleachers in front of the assembled parents and guests. The speaker this year is Dr. Hanna Holborn Gray, new president of the University of Chicago. Eleanor Roosevelt gave the commencement address in 1952. The student body still sings “O Brother Man” and concludes with a tearful “Taps” as the flag is lowered. In 1970 there was a brief stuggle to include “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” but tradition won out.

Tradition has a strong hold on Hockaday. The alumnae took Miss Hockaday seriously when she wrote: “And my dear ones, I know you will care for and nourish this school of yours and mine through the years to come.” As I wrote this article, people kept insisting that I compare Hockaday with St. Mark’s. One parent summed it up neatly when she admitted that all of the clamoring for Hockaday to be like St. Mark’s was rather like Henry Higgins’ soliloquy from My Fair Lady, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Because of its longer history and because it is in the business of educating girls, Hockaday is a far more complex school. For many of its alumnae, it was not just a school; it was a way of looking at life. “St. Mark’s,” as headmaster Ted Whatley will tell you, “is a Sputnik school pragmatically established by industrialists who were interested in turning out scientists.”

It also occurred to me that men seem to pass through the institutions of their youth – schools, camps, fraternities — and if these are pleasant, worthwhile experiences, they may send occasional checks or letters of recommendation for a friend’s child. Women, on the other hand, tend to be more sentimental about their institutions. Perhaps we also view ourselves as custodians of important traditions that men might ignore. Or perhaps because so few of us pursued careers until recently, we have stronger feelings about our high school and college days as days of important achievement. At any rate, the fact is, women have traditionally had the time to remain involved with their institutions. As one “outsider” put it, “Hockaday seems to be both a victim and a beneficiary of its own success. It graduated all of these intelligent, strong, concerned, opinionated women, and now they return full force with their daughters and all sorts of ideas as to how the school should be run.”

Sometimes the alumnae may be too caught up in preserving the past. One board member recalls making an impassioned plea for the upgrading of the science library at Hockaday. To illustrate his point, he passed out some very dated science books that were still in the Hockaday library. When he sat down, a white-gloved hand went up. “You know, you’re absolutely right about the library, and I think the first thing we should do is get these books of Miss Hockaday’s bound in leather.”

Hockaday will not be able to shake its “rich” reputation because it has very affluent alumnae, who like the school’s founder have an uncompromising demand for quality in their lives — only the best will do. For some, that means being sure that the cafeteria still serves excellent food, or arranging for the Latin Banquet to be held at Brook Hollow. For others, it may mean giving a lovely silver tureen to be used at tea parties or an exquisite rug for a Memorial room. A display case in the hall arranged by alumnae last week featured the 1923 Idlewild Ball gown, slippers, and dance program of dear Miss Louise Kribs, the bookroom bulldog who frightened me so eight years ago. These small cozy gestures seem to say, “You may educate our daughters for the future, but we will not let you forget who you once were.”

But some of the alumnae are concerned with more than the quality of material things that surround Hockaday. These are the women with the liberal arts educations who feel that Hockaday gave them a self-reliance that grew out of knowing some things thoroughly. They worry that as the school has grown, broadened its aims, and offered more options to accommodate more tastes, it is in danger of losing the vision and cohesiveness that it had in the early days. They worry that the school will flounder in trying to be all things to all people. They are skeptical of current trends that say, “Establish your career goals, and we will shape the education for them.”

These are the cross-currents and paradoxes that are Hockaday today. The school is rich and poor; it is new and also old: shiny glass buildings house elegant antique-filled rooms; girls wear streamlined uniforms and carry calculators, but the same girls will also don horsehair hats and pour tea.

Mrs. Lively, the housekeeper, eyes me suspiciously as I have coffee in one of the Memorial rooms with a young staff member. There is a classic standoff here between the generations, and I am in the middle. Like a curator in a museum, Mrs. Lively’s look implies, “This is all we have of her lovely things, and they must be preserved, so drink your coffee elsewhere.” And the younger generation stubbornly ignores her reproving glance and finishes her coffee as if to say, “The past is lovely, but when it ceases to be useful in the present, how can we justify the cost of maintaining it?” I am uncomfortably in between, still pragmatically using Grandmother’s hollow handle knives, but polishing them more often and no longer tossing them in the dish-washer. I think Hockaday is too.



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