Growing up on the Hilltop

Hackley Review Winter 2017-18: By Margie McNaughton Ford ’85: Hackley has been my home since I was an infant. I took my first steps in the Grille Room, rode my tricycle on the quad, had my first my kiss on Clark Oval, learned to drive a stick shift on the Hackley hills, was married in King Chapel, and it was there we joined Hackley friends in saying farewell to my dad this past June. Hackley and I have an intimate history.

They say it takes a village to raise a child and for me, and many faculty kids, it took a community of diverse, passionate people from differing backgrounds and personalities with a common love of education and community. Growing up in Allen’s Alley, the faculty housing above the tennis courts, our faculty neighbors were our family.

Returning to Hackley as an employee and a parent, I came to appreciate how deeply the residential community shaped the Hackley culture I knew and loved, and how profoundly it shapes it still. In the years since I graduated, I saw Hackley expand, grow and change through the decades, but the sense of family, which helps shape the student experience, remains consistent. The school doesn’t close its doors at 4:00, life continues through the evening and weekend. As many Hackley students have said through the years, Hackley is home -- even to those who don’t literally live here. John Van Leer ’65’s son Ed ’99 recently noted that living at Hackley “shaped my view of the world as one large community. When I think about my time at Hackley, I never think of it from the student perspective. To me, it’s simply my home.”

I was lucky to grow up with strong, resilient, incredible women who helped raise me. They were my role models and served as surrogate moms to many on-campus children as well as more than a few of our Hackley friends. When legendary Biology teacher Kathy Szabo cut six inches off my hair, without asking my mom, because she said my hair looked “ratty,” my mom simply shrugged and said it looked cute. Mrs. Szabo fed me when I looked hungry, yelled at me in Hungarian when I climbed too high in the pine tree in her front yard, and tutored me in her kitchen every Sunday night during my sophomore year to get me through biology. I would not be the person I am today without the influence of Mrs. Szabo and other Hackley faculty members I grew up with and their children.

When I was little, I took a great deal for granted that I now understand to be profoundly formative. It was a beautiful world in which to grow up. I knew every inch of the Hilltop like the back of my hand. I was always grateful for Mrs. Hackley for creating my world, and thought of her as a great aunt who looked after us. Our Hilltop was a place where there was always someone to play with. We played hide and seek in the halls and classrooms of the Upper School and snuck into the Chapel to ring the bell late at night (until they figured out how to lock us out!). The older kids made strict rules and we all followed them. If you brought food outside you had to share it with everyone, except for fruit. The strictest rule was you couldn’t tell your parents anything. (When my mom and dad asked why I had a huge bruise on the left side of my body, I couldn’t tell them that I was put at the end of the human whip and was accidently flung into a tree.) Every child was included in every game and adventure, and conflicts were settled amongst ourselves.

Maria Szabo ’82 and her sister Julie ’80 were my partners in crime and we remain like sisters to this day. Maria recalls “the beauty of the place. A wooded hill with a view of the mighty Hudson River that leant itself to sledding, bike riding, many forts, ice skating on little ponds and so many games, mischief and misdemeanors. Hide and seek, murder in the light, murder in the dark, capture the flag, running bases, kickball. We roamed the 88 acres with complete freedom. Parents would pop their heads out and holler for us if they wanted us to come home. We would show up bedraggled and scraped up and dirty for meals or to sneak snacks out.” Our imaginary games involved themes and stories interwoven with the landscape -- every tree, rock, stream and ditch participated. “My connection to the natural features of Hackley still warms my heart,” says Maria. “I sometimes dream of running down the hill on a bumpy dirt path [in] full sprint from my house to the soccer field.”

As Maria recalls, “All our neighbors were teachers, and they socialized quite a bit with each other. There were some characters from many backgrounds but all were extremely intelligent.” With no cell phones, internet, or cable TV, we learned about history and the world through the amazing people who surrounded us. Through Carl Buessow I traveled to New Guinea; Mort Dukehart instilled in me a love of art and European architecture; and I learned intimate details of European history from the Szabos and Pavel Litvinov. I embraced being a faculty child and loved taking classes with my faculty family members.

Ed Van Leer ’99 recently noted, however, that he didn’t fully appreciate until he became a teacher how challenging it was for the teachers to teach their co-workers’ children. He says, “Mr. Fritz would give me detention one day and then be at my house for dinner the next. The Clingens ate dinner with us most Sundays, and Chief Randy [McNaughton] would walk by with his box of rocks while I was out playing basketball in front of our shared parking area. These teachers taught classes that you would say I was ‘barely passing.’ Mercifully, they always separated the school experience from the personal, which allowed me to see the teachers as people too.”

And students who don’t live on campus come to see teachers as people too -- they knew “Mr. and Mrs. McNaughton” not just as teachers, but as my parents, and my parents, by extension, watched out for my friends and classmates in a way that was parental. Because of faculty housing, teachers were available to coach, run clubs, and support Hackley boarders, thus extending this spirit of family-oriented community to the wider school culture -- into the hallways, where Mr. Van Leer could (and would) say to a student, “I know your mother, and she wouldn’t like that.”

We were lucky to live among committed educators who focused on each of us as individuals. They taught us the importance of speaking our minds, of being true to ourselves, and of perseverance. Through them, we learned what it really means to “Enter here to be and find a friend,” and we learned the full value of “unreserved effort.” They supported us in everything we did and were our cheerleaders.

Because these smart, down to earth, irreverent, kind people, committed to this community, made homes here, raised families here, and mentored our friends here, it fundamentally shaped the nature of their teaching. It created a culture that holds a quality of community and sense of home at its core. That makes Hackley a very special place. It took my coming back as a parent raising my children in other places to fully understand the formative power of community on the Hilltop. It’s not a stretch to say that all our children -- all Hackley students -- grow up on the Hilltop.

Today, another 17 families are raising their children on the Hilltop, another generation of families shaping the Hackley experience for all. Annabelle ’20 and Colin ’22 Ives, children of teacher, coach and dean Jenny Leffler, live in the house I grew up in on campus. Allen’s Alley is still filled with kids of all ages who are in and out of each other’s homes and have the freedom to roam the campus as we did. Colin says that if he didn’t live on campus, he would be on his phone more. Instead, he is outside in the woods or the fields with fellow faculty kids. There is always someone to play with right outside his door. Annabelle has been exploring the woods since she was little; a few years ago, she discovered a water tower. She didn’t have a cell phone until she was 13. “My mom said all she had to do was open the door and yell for me.”

Hide and seek still takes place all over the Upper School building, and kids still have their favorite hiding spots. The same close knit community with the “it takes a village attitude” persists today.