By Scott Farwell
The Dallas Morning News.
The Hockaday School was founded in 1913 with a lofty purpose — to teach girls confidence and resilience, to fight for what they deserve, and to respect “the ideals of human worth and dignity.
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At graduation last month, a group of students said the school betrayed the values it teaches and instead reinforced time-worn views of what it means to be a woman.
It all began last fall, when seniors Anesu Nyatanga and Ascencion Lilia Ramirez requested a meeting with the school’s former headmistress, Kim Wargo, who resigned this month.
They said Hockaday’s 101-year-old graduation dress code — flowing white dresses and summer hats adorned with fresh flowers — made some students feel uncomfortable, especially those who identify their gender as something other than female.
“We wanted another option for people so they could feel comfortable on this beautiful day that’s supposed to celebrate all the hard work they’ve done at school,” said Ramirez, who was vice president of the Gender and Sexuality Awareness Club last school year. “They should feel like themselves.”
Hockaday commencement ceremonies, some say, look like a finishing school procession from the antebellum South — young, fresh-scrubbed debutantes, sashaying their way into high society.
But in this case, looks are deceiving.
While the school is a prestigious rite of passage for scion of the city’s wealthy and well-connected — think names like Perot, Hunt, Cuban and Bush — it is also widely considered one of the most academically rigorous private schools in the country.
Hockaday has a 100 percent college acceptance rate, its student body is diverse, and its graduates routinely thrive in the fields of academia, art, medicine and law.
But Nyatanga, who will be attending New York University in the fall, and Ramirez, who is going to the University of Texas at Austin, say the school’s traditions need a tweak to keep up with the times.
They suggested students be allowed to wear white suits or tuxedos to graduation.
Wargo seemed sympathetic, they said, but suggested a debate over clothing was too narrow of a window to view transgender issues. She also said parents and donors are not ready to see girls dressed in ties and slacks at the formal ceremony.
“She essentially explained to us that while there is a lot of support in the student body and from teachers for a change like this,” Ramirez said, “for supporters of Hockaday, it would be a really big change and it wouldn’t be something they would easily accept.”
Wargo resigned two weeks ago after four years as the Eugene McDermott headmistress, and the school has said that trustees have created a group to review and develop policies related to gender identity.
Hockaday officials would not say publicly whether Wargo’s departure was related to the dust-up over the dress code. A news release announcing her departure gave no hint of acrimony.
But trustees, school employees and parents said off the record that the school’s leaders were unhappy with how Wargo handled the controversy.
One trustee said Wargo seemed to be lobbying for a relaxed graduation dress code, but many board members were committed to the traditional dresses.
“You can’t let four or five students push everybody else around,” said a board member who requested anonymity. “I like Kim, but she got caught in a tough situation.”
Neither Wargo nor Maryann Sarris Mihalopoulos, chairwoman of Hockaday’s board, responded to interview requests.
Mihalopoulos wrote that a search committee will look for “the person who will best continue to embrace Hockaday’s wonderful history, traditions and values, meet and resolve challenges resolutely, and possess the necessary skills and experience to lead Hockaday to even greater successes.”
Graduation dresses were ordered in November for the 121-student senior class, but discontent simmered through the spring.
During LGBTQ Week at the beginning of April, members of the Gender and Sexuality Awareness Club hung posters in the school’s cafeteria honoring historical figures and celebrities who identify along the non-straight spectrum.
But the placards were taken down before lunch the first day and John Ashton, head of Hockaday’s upper school (or high school), called an emergency meeting of the GSA Club. He told students the posters were removed because the content was too mature for young students.
But that seemed odd to Kenya Roy, co-president of Umoja, an advocacy group for black students.
She said a few of the posters were recycled from Black History Month in February, and nothing was changed. Roy said there wasn’t anything sexually explicit on the signs, just a photograph and text about what the person contributed to society.
Students said Ashton later explained that the posters weren’t taken down because they were gay-related; they were removed because students didn’t clear the content with administrators. Roy said the Black History Month posters were not pre-approved.
Ashton did not return phone calls to his home or office.
Hockaday previously announced that he would be leaving the school to become associate headmaster at St. Mark’s School of Texas in July.
The administration’s decision to forbid LGBTQ posters in the school led to wider protests, students said. One of the campaigns involved signs that read, “(____) exists at Hockaday.”
“People wrote, ‘Racism exists at Hockaday,’ or ‘Microaggression exists at Hockaday’ or ‘Transphobia exists at Hockaday'” in the blanks, said Nyatanga, who was the only student nominated by her classmates to speak at graduation.
Soon after, an anonymous letter was emailed to alumnae saying that major donors were refusing to contribute to fundraising campaigns and parents were threatening to move their children to other schools.
“Make no mistake this has nothing to do with heterosexuals vs homosexuals or bisexuals or transgenders,” read the letter, which also appeared on the windshields of cars in the Hockaday parking lot. “This is about our school embarking on a huge revolt. These kinds of protests are undermining the last 100 years, and at this point there is no stopping them.”
An opposing petition was posted by a Hockaday student at change.org weeks later. So far, almost 1,000 people have signed the digital document. It argues that Hockaday’s students and teachers support the idea of graduating seniors having a tasteful alternative to the ceremonial white dress.
“If tradition is the only reasoning for continuing to hurt an oppressed and abused people, it is a bad motivator,” the petition reads. “It used to be a tradition for Hockaday to not admit black students or allow clubs for affinity groups.
Segregation was tradition, the illegality of interracial marriage was a tradition, and women not being able to vote was a tradition. Sometimes ‘tradition’ gets in the way of progress.”
Despite the discord, current and former Hockaday students say the school offers a top-notch education.
“The day-to-day philosophy, the study materials and the attitude represented by the teachers is very well-rounded, empowering and made me think a lot about different things,” said Aaron Flynn, a transgender man who lives in Austin. He graduated from Hockaday in 2001. “It’s never been a how-to-hold-your-teacup and ride sidesaddle kinda place.”
Flynn was a punk rocker in high school, but teachers and administrators seemed to take his rebellious flourishes in stride — a spiked collar here, a pair of high-top boots there. And since he didn’t resolve his transition until college, Flynn felt comfortable within the homogeneity of a dress code.
But despite the tolerant atmosphere and progressive academics, he said a curtain of pomp and circumstance would descend any time parents, alumnae or donors were around.
“There is this thing where they stand on ceremony for these public appearances,” he said, “and suddenly all their talking is about the trustees and how it’s going to look and how we have to be proper.”
Graduates from Ursuline Academy, another prestigious private girls’ school in Dallas, must also wear long white dresses during commencement ceremonies. At St. Mark’s School of Texas, Hockaday’s brother school, white tuxedos are required at graduation.
Nyantanga said her school’s leaders shouldn’t have been surprised — and perhaps should have been proud — when she and other students challenged the status quo. Hockaday taught them to do it.
“You can’t say we support uplifting a gender that has traditionally been oppressed. But at the end of all that education, the end of all that hard work, say we should go back and subscribe to these very rigid traditional rules of femininity — you’re a woman, so you have to graduate in this dress.”