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Thursday, July 5, 2012

Faint of Heart Whately Prep p.8

Illustrated by Emma Hanquist

I am a woman in a man’s world.  Seriously, if not for nepotism and a healthy dose of croneyism, I might never have made it as Head of a co-ed independent boarding school.  Few women do.  About 70% of independent school leadership is male.  The percentage is much higher if considering only secondary schools.  More like 90% male. My experience and education might not have been sufficient for the Board to appoint me when my father died, if he hadn’t taken the last three years of his life to groom me for the job.  
His point of view was that we would make it impossible for the board to make any other decision than selecting his daughter, Julia Grant Dickinson, as school head.  I did not take Declan’s name because I felt I worked too hard to establish a professional identity.  I was not willing to give it away with my name.  Declan made it easy for me; he didn’t care.  “Just so long as you marry me and promise never to sing Cher songs, of course, you should keep your name.” It is the unexpected with Declan that makes me laugh. He so often delivers the unexpected. I am uncomfortable when I consider what life might be without him by my side.  
I pride myself on having had almost every job on campus. I mowed lawns, washed down dorms, worked in the kitchen and filed in the Admissions office all before graduating high school.  In college, I worked as a substitute administrative assistant in whatever department had their full-time assistant off vacationing.  When I graduated college, I went to work at Exeter, teaching English, as a dorm parent, and field hockey coach.  Four years in, I received a call from Deerfield.  They had an opening in the Admissions office and thought of me.  My job changed, my locale changed, but I didn’t. I wanted more.  I put in a request to fill an opening in the Development Office. It was tremendously satisfying to “land” a fish that contributed 1.2 million dollars toward a new Arts Center.  The night of the Deerfield Art Center opening, my father cornered me with two glasses of champagne.  He toasted me and asked me to come work for him at Whately Prep.  He wanted to teach me a few things. I went to Whately as Assistant Head of School.   
Our partnership was simply remarkable.  He granted me room to make mistakes, and even more to fix them.   In the beginning, I seemed to be falling down, making the wrong choices more times than not.  Gradually, something shifted.  I discovered that I had to combine compassion with leadership. I had to be dogmatic and precise if I wanted to short-circuit impressions that I was warm and matronly.   A lot of what I did to establish myself as a leader was related to wardrobe.  I am not too proud to deny that.  I shopped at Talbot’s, Cathy Cross and Thorne’s Market in Northampton, combing the stores for clothes that were slightly conservative, professional with a youthful edge.  I found skirts work for me. Skirts with or without blazers.  With pumps, with boots, with stockings, with tights.  Skirts with blouses or sweater-sets or body-hugging shirts with scarves to tone down the sex appeal factor.  My wardrobe is modest, but functional.  I live here, too.  That means my off-hours clothes must be correspondingly acceptable.  I use the Dallas Cheerleaders as my model for keeping up appearances.  Their rules are so strict (no leaving the house without makeup, no leaving the house without being groomed for a photo shoot) that even an approximation is a step in the right direction.  
My father never noticed my habits of dress.  He was invested in my academic and financial acumen. 
“We are raising leaders here, Julia. We have a responsibility to each and every crop.
One day, you will be running Whately Prep.  You must be prepared for the burden that represents.  It is not a task for the faint of heart, believe you me.” In the years that I was groomed and then became Head of School, my daughter died. My husband strayed, My son became clinical depressed.  I believed him, being Head is not a task for the faint of heart.   

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