Over 100 alumnae celebrated Hewitt’s 95th anniversary at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The festive night brought together alumnae, parents, faculty, and staff and offered private access to Jeff Koons: A Retrospective. Caroline Hewitt would have been proud to see the entire community come together!
How I Met Miss Hewitt
Students, colleagues, board members, parents and graduating seniors, I greet you on this wonderful day and begin my words with a confession. Taken literally, the address title suggests an event that never occurred. I began teaching at The Hewitt School in 1972. Miss Hew, as she was often called, had departed this world over ten years before that, just as I was beginning high school in another country. So, I never met Miss Hewitt. I did meet – briefly – Miss Hewitt’s successor, Charlotte Comfort. Thereafter, I have worked with each head of school, so I have met six of the total seven. With that statement, I will return to my words about Miss Hewitt, whom I could not possibly have met – except in a metaphorical sense. Why Miss Hewitt? A few seniors once expressed interest in hearing about her. In my case, that’s all it takes.
Initially, Miss Hewitt existed for me as an image in a portrait. You have all seen it: the elderly, white-haired lady with pearls. I had heard the eccentric-sounding stories, like the annual student pilgrimage to Shakespeare’s statue in Central Park. I began my meetings with the real Caroline Hewitt about twelve years ago, while I was organizing the archives and writing about Hewitt’s history. I learned a great deal about her–too much to tell you here. I will instead provide a few verbal sketches, an animated sequence that leads up to the lady in the painting.
As a little girl, in 1876, she is called Carrie. I learned this from her great-nephew, who still lives in Warwickshire, near Shakespeare’s birthplace. Carrie is four years old, bright and inquisitive, very verbal – just as you were, Graduates, if you came into the admissions office at that age. Carrie’s family is loving and prosperous. Suddenly – her father has a riding accident and dies of his injuries. The widowed Mrs. Hewitt struggles to make ends meet, with little money for educating her offspring.
Carrie grows into a young girl. She and her siblings attend the village school. Carrie is a fine, hardworking student who grows into early adolescence. She loves literature, most especially the work of William Shakespeare, whose plays she has seen in Stratford and whom she reads avidly. She practices the speeches, delivering her favorite soliloquys to anyone who will listen and often to herself, luxuriating in the beauty and emotional power of the language. Her friends tell her that she is good at it, which encourages her to more reading and deeper familiarity with Shakespeare’s work.
Very soon, she reaches the end of the local school curriculum. In her family there are two sisters, a brother, and limited financial resources, especially for schooling. You can guess the gender of the child who received funds necessary for boarding school. Carrie regretted this arrangement: she loved her brother and missed him deeply when he went away, and, of course, she longed to go herself. Fortunately, she had an aunt who taught at a high school in Warwick. Mrs. Hewitt arranged for the aunt take on her clever niece as a student, but family finances remained strained. At age seventeen or so, Carrie has to find a job.
Caroline Hewitt is now just about your age, Graduates. She has a beautiful, expressive speaking voice – described by a later student as “soft and fur-lined.” She has an encyclopedic knowledge of Shakespeare’s work, and she loves theater. A career on the stage, which seems logical, is not an option for her: it was not then considered respectable. Additionally, as she openly and poignantly says, she considers herself “too plain for acting.” She turns instead to childcare and education. You have all read Jane Eyre, Graduates- you know the hardships of a governess’ life; but Caroline Hewitt – Miss Hewitt now – has a natural gift for teaching. She has innate dignity, and she holds her pupils spellbound with dramatic renditions of favorite childhood stories, delivered in her compelling voice.
In 1895, age 23, she accepts an exciting and potentially risky offer. There is a job opportunity, through family friends, across the Atlantic in Tuxedo Park, New York. Picture her departure on a steam ship, all alone, family waving her off at the pier in Southampton. Today, Seniors, there is no equivalent voyage. Imagine casting yourself into a new world – credit cards, computers and cell phones do not exist – equipped with a steamer trunk and a passport. Terrifying. She arrives in New York, and the customs official records her arrival with a brief description: Caroline Danella Hewitt, spinster; 5’6” tall, regular features, eyes grey, hair brown. Her future begins.
We know that this adventure has a happy outcome. Over the next twenty years, Miss Hewitt’s fortunes rise, from governess, to teacher, and ultimately, to Headmistress. She left England, young and relatively poor; she returns in the 1920’s a prosperous and accomplished woman. It is a real success story, with Miss Hew rising up in a Gatsby-esque way. Like Gatsby, she has a charismatic personality and an entrepreneurial spirit. Unlike Gatsby, she does not embrace wretched excess in order to recreate a romantic past. Instead, she gives her energies to create a school where generations of girls and young women will feel known and valued as they learn and grow. Her caring for her students is legendary. She is celebrated, in her time, as one of the great New York City Headmistresses.
Well, students – I understand that a graduation address generally includes inspirational counsel. What can be learned from this life story? I thought, “Why not ask Miss Hewitt?” Having the archivist’s advantage, I went directly to the source and consulted her speeches and letters. There, I heard the voice of a strong-minded and practical woman. When you think about it – she and her career lived through a massive financial crash and World War II, times fraught with risk and difficulty, just as our own times are fraught with risk and difficulty. Her words reveal something about how she survived it all. She knew that a successful life calls for hard work and self-discipline. She also knew that self-discipline must sometimes yield to a little self-indulgence. She gave this counsel to the graduates of 1940, a time when the German Blitz in London was just about to begin and, in truth, the foundations of civilization trembled. Miss Hewitt spoke about the “courage of the commonplace,” suggesting to them that small habits of responsible behavior not only sustain us in day-to-day life, but also prepare us for courageous behavior in times of real crisis. She said: “Those daily routines and disciplines that seem irksome are a means of storing up strength for when all our powers are needed.” Then, she adds an amendment, of sorts, to this advice. “Sometimes it happens,” she said, “that life presses upon us so forcefully that we lose our perspective, that we become bewildered and distraught. It is then that we need simple direct contact with some source of pleasure. I do not mean idle escapes, but a renewal of body and spirit.” She mentions sports, dancing, music, travel; for herself, gardening and reading to children. “Whatever it may be,” she said, “do not lose touch with these things. They are sources of power.”
You already know about self-discipline, Graduates, or you would not be here today. You have done the reading, revised the essay, studied for the test, re-done the problem set, shown up at the rehearsal, filled out the paperwork. You have achieved a laudable goal with your college admittance. You also know about the need for release from stress. You have played music, vented in the stacks room, taken a walk, done yoga, danced, played a sport. The challenge for you now is to carry this balance into new phases of life, when you have to create your own deadlines and figure out how to carve respite and renewal from a growing mountain of tasks. You need this balance so that, over time, you can figure out how to do, with your lives, whatever it is that you love to do.
Miss Hewitt met this challenge. Her portrait symbolizes a goal she achieved, but it is the brief glimpses of her advancement towards this goal that animate our understanding of her. Seen in progressive stages, her life story itself becomes the lesson of this address. We begin with a child who lost her father; a girl who read Shakespeare and worked to help her family. We meet a woman with limited options who loved children and theatre. She took these passions and built a career that supported her and gave her joy. Along the way she forged relationships and maintained involvements that sustained her into her old age.
For all of us, life is a succession of beginnings. Miss Hewitt, of course, has some comments on this, which I will direct to you: “My dear girls,” she said. “Each stage of life has its compensations. For youth, it is pleasure and excitement. For the middle years, it is growth and appreciation. For the years beyond, understanding and tolerance. It is by accepting each stage as it comes, looking neither back with regret nor ahead with apprehension, that you will never grow old.”
We are at very different stages, Graduating Class of 2014, but I feel somewhat as you all probably do: excited, a little nervous, full of plans and curious about the future. I am also filled with gratitude to you, Graduates, for allowing me to share both the occasion of your Commencement and some Caroline Hewitt lore, which I have in abundance. Miss Hewitt and her story belong to Hewitt past, but the lessons of her courage and independence are timeless, and are yours to take into the future. My closing wish to all of you, Graduating Class and the school community at large, borrows Caroline Hewitt’s final words at her last Commencement address: “May the school that I love” – and its wonderful students, with particular focus on the Class of 2014 – “continue to grow and to prosper… My love and best wishes will journey on with it and with all of you, through time.”
With over 150 in attendance, it didn’t take long for the gym to fill with buzz. Alumnae spanning 66 years joined current and former faculty to honor Ms. Anita Edwards and Ms. Sherry Grand. Thank you to everyone who came back to Hewitt to catch up with classmates and celebrate these two well-loved faculty members. Look for more photos on our Alumnae Facebook Page.
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