Joan Ross Acocella ‘62
I attended Anna Head’s, as we called it, from 1958 until 1962, for high school, and there, as I recall, I gradually renounced my ambition to be an idiot when I grew up. I owe that primarily to the school’s faculty, which consisted mainly of aging ladies who may have lacked the requisite credentials to teach in public schools and certainly lacked the fortitude to handle the discipline problems, but who cared, very much, about Latin and geometry and King Lear. Led by Daniel and Catherine Dewey, our headmaster and headmistress, they took us seriously, even though we were girls. Though the school was governed by a lot of old-fashioned rules (no nail polish, no gum), we were never harshly punished for anything trivial. In my four years at AHS, only one student, to my knowledge, was expelled, and that was for plagiarism.
Of the school’s physical plant, the places I remember best were not necessarily those that others might consider important – for example, our august chapel, complete with choir stalls -- but rather the places where my own self-esteem rose or fell. Study hall, for instance. This was a large room, where all our desks, maybe thirty or so, were lined up in four rows, facing the proctor’s desk. We were supposed to be studying here, or at least doing our homework. I, on the other hand, was usually sniggering or passing notes. For these infractions I was repeatedly given “pink slips” by the proctor – demerits that I would have to answer for later.
I have no idea why I found it so hard to settle down, but I learned one thing from the experience, and that was to hate honor systems. The study-hall proctors were our schoolmates – that is, our supposed comrades – who were chosen by the administration because they looked responsible and who accepted the job because what sixteen-year-old could pass up the opportunity to exercise this unaccustomed authority? The system was corrupting to both the proctors and the rest of us. To teach young people to snitch on their fellows for violations of rules that grown-ups have made is bad moral training. I looked across at the girl who was giving me the pink slip, and she was my best friend, or I had thought she was. Now I wasn’t sure. But one thing I am sure of is that the system was a good way to convince the young that the strictures under which they labored were the creation of the young, not the adults. It’s not our fault, the system said. You guys did it. That was not true.
There were other important spaces, for example, senior porch, where, at lunchtime, the seniors (only they) were allowed to stretch out in the sunshine until the bell rang. I remember once – maybe twice – we non-seniors filled water balloons from the drinking fountain in the quad below the porch and hurled them, up and over, to break on the seniors’ recumbent bodies and send them to their next class soaking wet. To us, this seemed fair. They had a porch. We didn’t.
As for that drinking fountain in the quad, it was close to a tree that produced large, gummy, acorn-like nuts and dropped them on the ground. We soon discovered that if we jammed a couple of these nuts into the orifice of the drinking fountain, the whole thing would stop working, whereupon Robert, the janitor, would be summoned and we, looking blameless, would sit under the eaves and watch him toil and curse over the mechanism.
But the quad was more than that. Apart from being the place where we congregated and sowed discord between classes, it was the stage for an annual miracle, the blossoming of the purple wisteria that hung from the eaves enclosing the quad. One day, in April probably, we would go home, and the eaves were covered with scraggly, no-account black branches. The next day we returned to find the wisteria flowing, in great purple cascades, down the brown-shingled walls to the pavement below. Inside one of those roofs was a room where Mr. Levis, a kind, shy, skinny man, who wore drip-dry shirts different from our fathers’ shirts, was trying to teach us algebra. (As I recall, Mr. Levis was the only male teacher I had at Head’s, apart from Mr. Dewey, who, formerly a professor at Mills College, always taught the American history course.) One day, tired of algebra, a classmate sitting three desks behind me opened the window next to her, climbed out onto the roof, and, picking her way through the wisteria blossoms, dropped down into the quad and went home for the day. Mr. Levis paused briefly and then, without comment, went right on teaching the class. More than the Free Speech Movement that erupted on the UC Berkeley campus three years later – indeed, more than the French Revolution – that is my abiding image of a popular uprising.
Looking back on these paragraphs, which were supposed to be about the school’s physical plant, I ask myself why I have given so much space our misbehavior. But what I am trying to say is that the architecture became part of our morals. Luxor, Chartres, the Empire State Building: old places tell us what happened there and, in the process, instruct us as to how to conduct our lives. I very strongly hope that the administrators of the University of California, which, by eminent domain, forced the Deweys to sell them the school in 1963, will restore it and put it to use. If they do not, and if these beautiful old buildings, imposing and comforting at the same time, come down, this will be a crime against the history of women’s education in the United States and of California’s role in it. (Why is everything thought to have begun in the East?) Beyond that, it would be an affront to the beauty that can be born of the marriage of nature and morals and art, a West-coast specialty.
Joan Ross Acocella is a long-time staff writer at The New Yorker and has written or edited six books on dance, literature, and psychology.