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“Head Mischief”: How Mrs. Hall Changed My Life and Shaped Yours

Concord, Mass.

Remarks on the occasion of Concord Academy’s 90th Anniversary

Thank you, Rick, and thank you Ms. Mendelhall, who said I could call her Sylvia, but I can’t.  She was a spectacular and wonderful teacher and advisor and it is such an honor to be introduced by her today.  Thank you so much.  It is a real pleasure for me to be back at Concord and to have such a warm welcome from all of you.  It is marvelous to be celebrating 90 years of Concord Academy.  I arrived at CA in September 1960—52 years ago.  So I have been connected with Concord—as student and as alum—for more than half its existence.

And I am a historian.  I believe that the present is a product of the past.  Just as childhoods shape who we are as adults, so origins shape institutions and what they become. And so as I anticipated my remarks here today, to celebrate this place that so profoundly influenced me, I asked myself, what in Concord Academy’s past has made it distinctive? What about its history makes it the Concord Academy of today?

Concord originated as a girls’ school.  That is what it was when I attended, and what it remained until 26 boys enrolled in the fall of 1971.  Much of its remarkable character was set during this time by a woman named Elizabeth Blodgett Hall, its headmistress for 14 years, from 1949 to 1963.  She is familiar to many of you as the name on the Elizabeth B. Hall Chapel.  It was a good thing her name wound up on the chapel, she observed, since it relieved the school of having to name a building “Hall Hall.”  She was known to many as Mrs. Livingston Hall; to her friends and colleagues as Betty Hall; and to us students as Mrs. Hall and “Toad of Toad Hall,” because that is what she named her house—close by on the Sudbury river.  And perhaps most tellingly, she often referred to herself not as headmistress but as “Head Mischief,” an example of the gently self-mocking stance toward life she once called “being simply true.”

I want to talk about Elizabeth Hall today. You might reasonably ask, why talk about someone whose last year at the school was 50 years ago this coming spring?  I will tell you why.

First of all because she is fascinating.  Here was a woman with a family of four children, pearl necklaces, and a degree in government from Radcliffe—sweeping  across campus trailing a string of miscellaneous dogs, exhorting us to think for ourselves, whistling through her teeth in assembly to call us all to order.  She was in every way a phenomenon, not to be missed.

Second of all, she had a powerful impact on the school. During the 14 years of her leadership, the campus was transformed from a local institution of 9 grades and 130 students into a nationally recognized, four-year college preparatory high school of 220 students with a growing and more diverse faculty. As the New York Times noted in her obituary, she turned “a genteel finishing school” into “one of the most dynamic girls’ preparatory schools in the East.”

She also created the chapel that came to bear her name—first conceptually, by imagining a space of contemplation, which she thought the students needed, and then physically, by dismantling an abandoned Freewill Baptist meetinghouse in New Hampshire, filled with cobwebs and hundred-year-old square nails.  With the help of her husband and eventually most of the faculty and students, she hauled it to Concord and reassembled it board by board on campus where it stands now as the beating heart of this school.

Here is a photograph of Mrs. Hall peering out from a cot in that old church as she began to dismantle it in New Hampshire.  You can see the face of one of her dogs in the foreground. She later recalled the moment, and I quote her: “To this day, whenever I look at that northeast corner of the Chapel where the organist sits, I can remember lying there in my cot, appraising with satisfaction the evidence of the day’s work which was all around and above us…stars shining through a frame which had been solidly covered in the morning.”

Finally, I want to talk about her because she had such a profound effect on me, and on those who were at Concord Academy when I was.  Her children have very generously given her papers to the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, so it is possible for me to now supplement memory with history, as I try to better understand not just her life, but by extension my own.

So who was this woman?

She was born in November of 1909, an only child, who celebrated her 11th birthday two weeks after American women cast their first votes in a national election.

She had scant memories of school but spent her early childhood roller-skating across the west side of Manhattan and scrambling across brownstone rooftops and wading in the Hudson River. At age 12, she learned to milk cows and shoot squirrels with a .22 when her father, known as “The Wizard of Wall Street,” decided to move the family to a dairy farm in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

She entered Radcliffe College as a freshman at age 32—one of the first older students—with four young children, two Nova Scotian maids, one English refugee student boarder, a husband in the South Pacific, and a kennel full of dogs.  She commuted to Cambridge from Weston by bicycle, train, and subway, nursed her children through measles, mumps, and chicken pox, and graduated in four years, Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude.

She was, to put it mildly, a powerful role model.

Mrs. Hall put on no airs.  She cautioned us against them—against what she called putting up a “keep out” sign, a temptation for those at Concord Academy and elsewhere who, in her words, “would like to believe that they are…better people than those who are not here.”  She was herself completely matter-of-fact and down to earth—one admirer called it her “utter naturalness.”

She was clearly an athlete, the captain of her high school hockey team decades before Title IX, and she was awarded the cup for school spirit.  On any given day we might see her donning a tool belt or carving a wooden sign. She drove a tractor named Beulah, and gave students a turn at the wheel, to clear away brush for the skating pond she built during her first year as headmistress.

She awed us with her fearlessness and her can-do spirit.  As one long-time faculty member put it, “Betty was willing to risk….She took chances, all the time [that] [n]ot many people do, or are willing to.”

At the same time, Mrs. Hall talked to us about the Big Questions—democracy, freedom, war, love.

Students wrote notes to her like this one—in pencil preserved in the collection of her papers:

“Dear Mrs. Hall,

Could you please talk about revolutions on Friday.  On Wednesday could you talk about life.  Thank you.”

She once recalled a scene involving two fifteen-year-old students—and you have to picture it in those more formal times—who came into her office apparently to exchange pleasantries about the weather and ask after her health, until, after a moment of settling uneasily into their chairs, the braver one of the two finally said something like, “We wondered if you could tell us why life is worth living?”   “How much time do you have?” Mrs. Hall replied.  They said, “Ten minutes.”  And she welcomed it—in fact, she prized such questions above all other aspects of her work at the school.

How did she develop the capacity that teaching and learning demands?  Mrs. Hall described her own preparation for the job as “bizarre”—indeed, when asked what qualifications she had for the job of headmistress, her selection committee said none, except that she was a born leader.  But she also found her background fitting, since, as she put it, “so much of teaching is knowing how to select material, how to use the facts, how to interpret them.”

She instituted the chapel talks for students to encourage this in us.  In her own regular talks she often did the equivalent of addressing revolutions on Friday and life on Wednesday.  She covered everything from the nature of leadership to the significance of popularity to style and the clothing we wore.

She taught a course for students called “Stuff (and Nonsense)” that was about big issues, big ideas, and at the same time about useful knowledge she thought we ought to have—like Robert’s Rules of Order.  I realize now, as I did then, how profoundly these discussions affected me.

At an event just last month someone asked me if I saw issues today that might challenge the strength of the United States in the way that slavery and industrialization did in the nineteenth century, and I answered by saying that I had been observing the gridlock in our government, our seeming inability to address the critical issues before us.  It made me think about something Mrs. Hall had said in “Stuff”—in the Robert’s Rules of Order segment. Democracy, she noted, requires a will to agree.  Pretty simple.  Necessary to run a meeting well.  Or a country well. A fundamental truth. And I have never forgotten it.

These things stuck with us—questions, ideas, ways of thinking. She created a space we could see into and enter for a moment, to glimpse a better way to meet the world.  She seemed superbly competent, engaged not just with the actualities of life but with the mysteries of the cosmos—like Socrates and General Patton rolled into one.

What a role model—magnificent and magnified.  She terrified and I would almost say terrorized us, although she didn’t really terrorize us.  We terrorized ourselves because we were so terrified of her.

A former student named Debby wrote her from Swarthmore College about how she remembered, as she put it, “feeling tied up in knots inside…driving by your house at night and not daring to go in, always wishing that I could get to know you better” and learn “to understand the meaning of self respect and the value of living.”  Another wrote that she felt, in her words, “sure you have heard all that is to be said by grateful graduates about the wisdom and value of an alert, stimulating, idealistic, demanding, difficult, aesthetic Headmistress,” but could not help telling her that she had dreamt of Mrs. Hall presiding over an idyllic bicycle shop that became a haven where people gathered to talk.  The Hall papers are filled with scores of letters like these, attesting that as we listened to her explore the questions that might make a life worth living and the qualities that might make us better students and better human beings, we were also given, as another former student put it, “a living example of these qualities in the speaker: a form after which to pattern ourselves.”

We were terrified, but we desperately hoped for her approval, or at least her notice.  It was on the site of this building, in what was then the Russell Robb dining hall that Mrs. Hall took me aside in the coat room one evening before dinner and told me I might make something of myself, but that I had better get my act together. Though those were certainly not her precise words, it was definitely her meaning. I must have done something that did not entirely please her.  I don’t remember what. She didn’t chastise me for what I had done—but rather for what I had not yet done and what she thought I might do. I have never forgotten her words to me. The impact of that moment on my life was enormous, not even so much because of what she said but because she noticed me.  She challenged me.  She inspired me.  I felt taken seriously.  She expected something of me.  And it seemed hardly to matter that I was just a girl.

And yet—it was not until later that I realized perhaps the most extraordinary thing of all about her.  And here is the central contradiction, the conundrum, of Mrs. Hall that I want to linger over for a few moments today.  If you read her speeches or her papers, you discover that she gave to us as students an overt message about womanhood that was actually completely at odds with her life and the message her very being conveyed.  The struggle for political equality, she told us, had, in her words, “forced the exaggerated claim that women were equal to men in every way and therefore should have every possible equality of opportunity and privilege.”  “Only a few,” she continued, “can successfully combine a professional career with marriage and children, and only a few…will want to give up marriage for a career.”

This extended even to education.  In a baccalaureate speech called “Ladies: 1962,” she told us that men and women used education differently, saying, and I quote, that “For men the use must be primarily practical,” while “for women who would be ladies, it must be primarily reflective and of use through Being and influence, rather than through Doing.” And yet what a Do-er she herself was!

“When you ask a girl of today to be a lady, you run a risk,” she told us, because it was like asking a girl to impersonate her great-grandmother, who, however admirable, also happened to be dead.  Nevertheless, even if “Ladies,” she said, might be an “archaic term,” it is one, she continued, that connoted “womanly excellence.”  “Ladies, be ladies,” she intoned.  In her own life she had bridled against this very instruction even as a small child. A new family moved in next door and her mother sent her off to play with the new neighbor girl, whom young Betty found to be, in her words, “a ghastly creature with gaiters…and ringlets.”  Her mother admonished her, “Now Betty, behave like a little lady,” and she recalled her reaction: she threw sand in the girl’s eyes, was sent to apologize, whereupon, as she described it, “threw paper dollies in the fire.”

Again in high school, after a few years of public schooling and roaming free on the family farm in Great Barrington, her parents sent her to Miss Hall’s School in Pittsfield “to acquire more conventional graces” and stop being a tomboy.

How did the unladylike Betty become Head Lady Mrs. Hall?  The answer, I think, is a kind of sleight of hand that may be the most fascinating thing about her.

In the view of Headmistress Hall, women were equal to men only before the law, though in the 1960s even that remained in significant ways constrained. In other realms, women were complementary to men.  To have them compete would be, as she put it, “as ridiculous as it would be to put the wind instruments of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in competition with the strings to see which could produce the loudest music, or get first to the end of the score.”  Careers were not for most women, she argued.  Women sandwiched careers around the duties of motherhood, and at certain stages of life, before and after children.  As she put it, “Most of us women can work outside the home but a part of the day or for but a part of our lives.  Only a very few can have that complete independence of home which makes possible a career in the sense that a man has a career.”

The philosophy she espoused is in fact strikingly like the ideology historians have described as defining women’s lives in America from the time of the late eighteenth century. Women and men were understood to live in “separate spheres.” Men inhabited the bustling public world with responsibility for politics and for making a living. By contrast, a true woman belonged at home, with the duty of enshrining a higher morality through domesticity and childrearing.

Elizabeth Hall embraced this asymmetry, saying with enthusiasm, “vive la différence!”  Some of her comments about women’s lives and duties sound distressingly like pronouncements of the mid-nineteenth century. While a woman’s function, as she put it, “is not necessarily proven by marriage…[h]er femininity is proven by her willingness to sacrifice personal advancement in behalf of making the labor of man meaningful in terms of his noblest aims.”  But scholars studying this ideology of true womanhood from the American Revolution to the late nineteenth century have noted that historically it turned out to be something of a double-edged sword. To give women control over morality, truth, the transcendent—as well as the character of future generations—was no meager assignment.  Scholarship in women’s history over the past five decades has traced how women used this allocation of responsibility to propel themselves into the nineteenth century’s myriad reform movements—from abolition to temperance, that direct intrusion on male prerogative. The sphere into which woman had been relegated turned out to give her enormous potential power—power that came to be exercised well beyond the domestic realm in which it was expected to rest.

In Elizabeth Hall’s life and work, much the same transformation of the ideology of separate spheres took place, though I doubt she ever fully confronted the contradictions between her words and deeds.   She espoused at once a deference to men, and yet the belief that we as women actually do the most important things in life.  A woman’s task, in her words, is the “keeping of society …as well as the home”—upholding ethics, acting as the carriers and conveyors of the society’s values.  Why does a woman become a mother? she asked us.  Does she do so to compete with other mothers or give herself a “sense of command”? Or rather, as she put it, “does she regard her children as an opportunity to contribute to her society’s effort to civilize itself? … If you educate a boy, you educate a man; if you educate a woman, you educate a family.”  A man might work to support “his wee woman in comfort and leisure,” but it is the “wee woman” who determines, in her words, “to what end this has been done,” whether “to impress others or to use it for the good of all.”   She was able to reconcile her own childhood resistance to becoming a “lady” with a powerful role for women—and in Concord’s then all-female sphere, with a powerful role of her own.

I remember my first encounter with this message, my first week at the school, a few days after I arrived on campus as a new ninth grader.  It was at Vespers, on my 13th birthday, and Mrs. Hall asked us to “[c]onsider clothes as an opportunity to make a statement about [our] attitude toward life,” arguing that substance followed form.  And this mattered because we were to be the bearers of the good, of the highest, most transcendent ideals.  Her remarks ventured well beyond the domain of clothing into the realm of inspiration.   She said she could, and I quote, “make no case for those who do not care about good…those who have no value sense…no idea of justice…of what is fair or unfair…of truth or falsehood…of beauty or ugliness…of strength or weakness…of mercy or meanness…of love or hate…of RIGHT or WRONG.” It was a message that had a lasting effect on me—justice, truth, mercy, love. Those were meant to be my purposes and the purposes of my education. Mrs. Hall and Concord would hold us to the highest standard—not of individual achievement but of values and service. It was our job to make a better world.   The implication was—we were the carriers of justice and truth, while those boys over at Middlesex and Belmont Hill were worrying about careers and college.  She had said as much in a commencement address to the all-male graduates at Belmont Hill the preceding spring, arguing that while men and women play unequal but complementary roles, men should nonetheless suppress their “cult of masculinity,” adding, “I know of few more discouraging or pitiful sights than the spectacle of an able, loving, and idealistic woman hiding her talents in order that her male consort may feel increased.”

I remember a talk she gave about the terms “Shoe and Galosh”—then Concord Academy slang for “popular” (shoe) and “unpopular” (galosh).  She told us, do not be afraid not to conform.  She asked us to examine ourselves: “Are you wearing a circle pin because everbody is doing it, or because you like the pin? …Are you trying to be popular because you are a victory addict whose each successive victory creates a craving for another? Or are you trying to be popular because you’re human, because you want to join the human race, and, by belonging, SERVE?” … “don’t be afraid of popularity but do be afraid of corruption. And beware!  Popularity is power.  And power can corrupt.”

Mrs. Hall embraced women’s sphere and turned it into a domain of compelling purpose and force—and liberation from narrow ambitions of achievement or recognition—from what she regarded as “victory addiction.” Those values suffused the school and, I believe, defined the school.  Now, freed from their gendered meanings—though not, I would argue, from their gendered origins—they define it still—now for boys as well as girls, for men and women alike.  Education is meant to change the world; it is not about what college you get into or what honors you may achieve.  It is about truth, justice, mercy, service, love.  Mrs. Hall knew that.  She taught it to me.  Her school teaches it still.

In all this impossible aspiration, there was, thankfully, a lot of humor. Her message was to take oneself extremely seriously on one level—yet not too seriously at all on another.  In one of her talks she described a gravestone she had come across once on Cape Cod that read:  “He lived his life gaily.  His work he took seriously.  Himself never.”  That was Mrs. Hall.  On her birthday each year she would ask us to sing to her “Nearer My God to Thee,” to remind her, she said, that she was yet another year closer to death. That wry, light sense of irony infected the whole place.  We still feel it.

There was no pretension. There was only one school rule: that we were expected “to do the right thing.”  We were taught self reliance.  We were trusted.  And as she explained in one of her assembly talks, this was hard, because, as she said, “finding out for yourself is far more difficult than following directions … Rules … giv[e] you an escape from thinking.  But rules are a luxury you cannot afford, because the world will expect you to do right without being told how to do it.  You will be expected to figure it out for yourself.”

Even our punishments were unorthodox.  She was known to take disciplinary cases for an outing at Crane’s Beach, giving the message that she liked them, but not their behavior. And there was of course the woodpile and sawhorse near her office, where she set latecomers to work sawing logs for campus fireplaces, making themselves useful as they atoned for their tardiness.

That woodpile, silent, elemental, always visible, reminding us that we had a choice, and that even an ill-advised choice contributed to the community, embodied her down-to-earth school and its values—just as Elizabeth Hall embodied them

The poet Archibald MacLeish once said in an address here, “It is not advice we need when we are young—or when we are old either.  It is truth about the human experience—the experience of being human.  That kind of truth, Henry Thoreau would be happy to hear, is still available in Concord.”  He was referring to Mrs. Hall and her weekly talks.  The same words apply to Concord Academy today, to its young women and men, whenever current students describe their experience of the school and its values—the tenet of common trust that is more a guideline than a rule, the dry humor of a favorite teacher that also pervades the campus and relieves the stresses of such serious and rigorous work, the feeling of community alive in your head of school and faculty, in the weekly chapels of senior students, in your dance and music and art-making, in your academic exploration, in the athletic contests that inspire and unite you.

This very afternoon you will dedicate the new Moriarty Athletic Facility. I know that there, in front of the new field house on a granite post, is a big black bell, rung for the first time by your assembled team captains a few weeks ago, and rung since then to announce every hard-fought school victory. I cannot imagine a better complement to another campus bell, that at the Elizabeth B. Hall Chapel, added in May of my junior year, the same spring Mrs. Hall announced she was leaving Concord Academy, trading her hat as Head Mischief for the hat of a dutiful daughter, to care for her elderly and ailing parents.

The feeling of community that animates the new athletic fields ties directly back to the feeling Mrs. Hall had for the chapel.  She described its inaugural vespers in December of 1956, before the building was quite completed, in a way that reflected her vision of the school.  As she put it, “The congregation came voluntarily, almost the entire school, dressed in old clothes for warmth,” tiptoeing, “bearing a lighted candle…seated on the floor, in the scaffolding, along the edge of the unfinished gallery, legs swinging, in the shadows.”  “Other services might follow, more formal, more conventional, but none more appropriate or more moving…  Not a word was spoken above a whisper.  Yet no one had requested silence.  And when it was over, each went silently away, to remember.”  The chapel remains a place to enter and leave in silence, a place that still embodies this shared sense of value, the habit of attention, the voluntary community that Mrs. Hall hoped education to be.

Forty years ago, when she spoke at Concord Academy’s fiftieth anniversary celebration, Mrs. Hall referred to this feeling of community as a rare thing, saying “I did not realize how hard it is to create nor how easily lost.” You sustain it still.  And you sustain, nearly 50 years after her departure, the commitment to education’s largest purposes. Keep talking about revolution on Fridays, and on Wednesdays, be sure to talk about life.