On a rainy day after school, the wait outside the Headmistress’s office held a tone of finality that oddly resembled the weather.
Eugene McDermott Headmistress Jeanne P. Whitman wore a multi-colored shawl and a classic button-down that day with an ornate golden necklace. Her elegance struck me just as much as her eloquence in speaking.
With her seventh and final year at Hockaday coming to a close, Whitman’s legacy remains something that is intangible to all of us, but perhaps, most of all to her.
“I don’t know that many of us have the omniscience or the privilege of actually saying or setting what our legacy is. In some ways, legacy is in the eyes of the beholders,” she admits.
Junior Sheriden, who developed a close relationship with Whitman, explains her personal piece of the headmistresses’ legacy. “She’s always happy, and not having her around my last year is going to be tough since she’s pretty much helped me get through Hockaday and been a support system.”
Sheriden’s experience exemplifies what Whitman intended of her tenure. She left a career in the university world, becoming the 11th (and fourth female) head of Hockaday, with this purpose:
“I also knew the opportunity to really have impact on how [girls] shape themselves is way before college…so when I came here, I think I had the hope that I would have some impact on the ways that girls see themselves and the way that they feel prepared for a very complex, competitive and terrific world out there.”
Throughout the interview, Whitman had an endearing habit of imparting gems of wisdom in the midst of conversation.
“Frankly, by the time you’re in college, your die is cast—who you are, your moral center by and large, your sense of self.”
But even after such moments of poignancy, she added a touch of the lightheartedness inherent in her spirit, “I’m not even sure I know who Justin Bieber is,” she quipped, discussing the ways in which she does and doesn’t connect with Hockaday students.
When asked about her favorite parts of Hockaday, she exclaimed, “Oh, a thousand things!” She lovingly gushed about lower school carpool, relaying an anecdote about peeling a crying four-year-old from her car.
She recalled everyday marvels, “those golden spring and fall afternoons when the sun gets low in the sky, and it hits the grass and actually reflects gold.”
Junior Michelle comments that most students do not know Ms. Whitman very well and although she is “always friendly,” they regret not getting the opportunity to “have more one-on-one interactions with her.”
But for the last seven years Whitman has been a silent observer, absorbing details that we did not know she could see.
“Watching you listen to each other, watching you on stage, watching you all in the cafeteria, listening to you talk to each other when you don’t even know I am within a hundred yards—I love all of that,” says Whitman. In the moments she discusses Hockadaisies, her eyes are filled with affection and occasionally tear up.
From her perspective, however, there is more to being Headmistress than doting upon young women and shaping their educations. The position required her to make difficult choices.
“My job is to represent the institution…there have been times I have cried my way through decisions because I was hurting a person.”
Resilient, Whitman does not dwell on mistakes. She viewed her job in a unique way. “There are going to be a lot of people who don’t like me, but what I will hope is that I am perceived as fair, honest and respectful.”
Junior Isabel describes how she will remember Whitman, “We Hockadaisies admire her poise and grace…her most lasting impact is the expansion and renovation of Hockaday.”
At a school where women dominate even the administration, Whitman has set a permanent example, one that is exactly what she hoped for—fair, honest, respectful, but so much more—charming, innovative and timeless.
As the year concludes, it is the end of an era. For Whitman, commencement, a bittersweet occasion will mark the end for both her and the graduating seniors.
“Graduation is beautiful…but it’s both my favorite thing and my most feared thing. You didn’t ask me what my most feared thing is: rain at graduation.”
While Whitman will be physically immortalized in the form of a portrait (for which she is at a loss of what to wear), her true legacy will be celebrated through this generation of Hockadaisies as they become the daring, graceful and enterprising women of the future she aspired to shape.
“I think I’ve been really lucky. I’ve had incredible, incredible work. With you all—what a joy, what a glorious joy,” she concludes, striking a perfect balance between sorrow and content.