52% intelligent. 9% modest. More monkey than bear.

Friday, December 03, 2004

No dark sarcasm in the classroom....

I had a private education. I started at boarding school when I was 7 years old in 1981. This meant that from sunday night through to saturday afternoon I spent all day every day at school. I slept in a dormitory with a number of other boys of a similar age, and spent my days either in the classroom or playing sport.

According to my hazy memory, one sunny afternoon in September I was playing in the garden at home. The next thing I know, I was in the car with a big trunk and was being deposited at a rather large manor house in the Northamptonshire countryside.

At the time, I didn't think that this was too much of a big deal. Plenty of my colleagues got terribly homesick, and sometimes cried themselves to sleep, but I never did.

In 1987 I was awarded a scholarship to attend a well known English public school. Now I only went home at half-term, for school holidays and for two other weekends each term.

When I was there, girls attended the school, but only in the sixth form (ages 17-18). For about 800 boys, there were perhaps 100 girls. This meant that for the first 3 years I was there, I had no girls in any of my classes. As I began to study for A-levels, there was a big change in my life. Not only were girls now appearing in my classroom, but they also began to appear at mealtimes. Perhaps I should explain. My school was organised into a number of houses. Every pupil was assigned to a house (think Harry Potter). Each house was single sex and was the place where you ate and slept - you left your house to go to classes and to play sport, but that was about it. Girls had their own houses, but they were assigned a boys house when they arrived at the school, and this was where they ate their lunch and their dinner.

God, this sounds ridiculous just talking about it.

Anyway. At 17, I entered the sixth form, and at lunch on that first day, I arrived in the dining room to meet the four girls who had been assigned to my house for their mealtimes. Sarah, Catherine, Zoe and Liz. At this point my year in my house consisted of 14 boys. We had met at 13 and had spent the last 3 years living in each other's pockets. We knew each other pretty well (and don't believe everything you read about public schools, by the way). The arrival of the girls into our lives had an immediate effect, and our year split in half. Some acted in a way I would consider typical of public schoolboys - they treated the girls as objects. They only spoke to the girls they considered to be good looking, and they were basically only interested in getting into their pants. The other half, the half including me, tried to treat the girls as human beings. Zoe and Sarah were accepted by one side, and Catherine and Liz were accepted by the other. This pattern was repeated in all of the houses at the school.

This fucks you up.

I was taken away from my mother at the age of 7. Until I was 17, I had very little direct contact with girls. Then, suddenly they appeared in my life, and frankly I didn't know what to do. I had no idea how to talk to a girl (I have two brothers and no sisters). I hated the way that the typical schoolboy treated women --- 13 year olds in their first year would walk behind a group of girls walking to chapel, and would make wretching noises, and loudly mark them out of 10. They were treated like shit. Some girls thrived. The girls that were considered beautiful were generally okay - they dated the guys from the 1st XV rugby team. The girls that were considered ugly, or non-conformist, were just treated as non-people.... at best they were ignored, and at worst they were roundly abused and insulted. I hated all of this, and yet I had no idea how to deal with these girls. For a couple of weeks I thought I had a mad crush on a girl called Petra. I didn't know what a crush was. I thought it meant staring into space a bit, and having my friends laugh at me. I was 17 years old for God's sake!

My school is now fully co-educational. This probably makes an enormous difference, but I tell you this - if I ever have a daughter, there is no way in this world that I would ever take the chance and send them to this school.

This environment cannot be good for you. Lots of the "cool" guys that I knew, the guys who I actively go out of my way to avoid, spend their lives treating women like shit, as objects. Worse. A lot of the guys I went to school with, the people who I was close to, the people who I am far closer to than any of the friends that I made at university - these guys seem unable to form a stable relationship. I was 21 before I had my first proper relationship. I am now 30, and a fair number of my friends are still resolutely single. I don't think this is a coincidence. My friend Mik got married on Saturday. At the wedding, there is that bit where the bride and groom kiss. A lovely moment. When this happened on Saturday, one of my friends leaned over to me and whispered "That's the first time I have seen Mik kiss a girl". I have never seen some of my friends kiss a woman. Never. At times I despaired that I ever would.

I don't think any of this is a coincidence.

I don't want anybody's pity - I have been in a stable relationship now for nearly 6 years - I just find it a little sad that such an expensive education (and we are talking over £10,000 a year) can leave you so deficient in such an important aspect of your life.


  • At 1:30 am, Blogger OLS said…

    I'm not so sure that it's all that different in co-ed or state-based schools. I certainly know plenty of guys who had girls in their school the whole way through who are much the same as the guys you describe.

    I went to a co-ed primary school. For the first couple of years (age 6 to 7), girls and boys mixed fairly well, though your "best friend" tended to be a person of the same sex as you. By age 8, most friendship groups are girl only or boy only, and this seems to last through until the later years of high school (age 15 or 17). Even when you were going out with a guy, you often still hung out with your own friends. It was weird.

    My brother and I were both exceptions to this rule. I grew up as a tomboy in an almost all-boy neighbourhood. My friends were boys because that was all there was to be friends with. I still went through the stage around 8 to 11 when my "group" was all girls, but I tended to keep a few outside-of-school male friends. So when we all started dating around 14 or 15, I was used to being "one of the boys" and fit in quite well.

    On the other hand, my brother just seemed to have that natural charm. I guess it probably came from the fact that my Dad is the biggest feminist I know, so my brother grew up with no interest in sport, but an deep interest in women as people. Unfortunately, he grew out of it, but he could still turn on the charm when needed.

    So he was a real ladies man from a young age. All the girls had crushes on him because he knew how to talk to them. He went to co-ed schools until he was 17, but he was still one of the few in his class who had female friends.

    So the moral of this (very long) story? I think the ability to talk to the opposite sex has more to do with the attitudes of your parents and who you mix with before you even reach school than whether you go to a co-ed school or not. *shrugs*

    (By the way, both of your schools look amazing! Mine were nowhere near that impressive.)

    - OLS

  • At 4:41 am, Blogger Jenni said…

    I agree somewhat with OLS, in that a lot of how I learned to interact with the opposite sex was outside of the classroom. However, I suppose if you are shipped off to an all boys boarding school at the age of seven, that doesn't give you much chance of interacting with girls outside the classroom either, does it?

    I especially liked that you ended by saying that relationships are such an important aspect of life. I think that too often in our haste to make sure the next generation is improving their scores in math and science, we overlook that kids sometimes just need a chance to be kids and genuinely interact with the real world they'll end up living in.

  • At 8:44 am, Blogger Soaring said…

    I went to an all girl day school (two differnet ones) from the age of 5 until the age of 18. Talk about traumatised, but perhaps this is a product of a sheltered upbringing. I was always embarassing myself by having unashamedly transparent crushes on anything in a pair of trousers, and didn't have my first real boyfriend until the age of 21. We dated for 3 months. I haven't had a boyfriend since.

    My brother is 26 and went to a mixed primary school. I remember he had a crush on a girl called Anne Marie and would send her love notes when the teacher wasn't looking (bless), but that all changed once he hit 11 as he went to an all boys day school. We don't even know if he has a girlfriend, although I'm sure he went out with a girl in his university dorm - for about 9 days.

    What bothers me is that if you have such a selective upbringing (and most of your social life revolves around your school friends) you miss out on the innocent hand holding and learning to interact with the opposite sex. By the time I got to university, I was expected to be in a full blown sexual relationship with a bloke. If I'd only ever snogged two people, this is a bit demanding. How are you supposed to socialise with the opposite sex in a non-threatening and age appropriate way?

    Having said that, I think that enough inappropriate interaction goes on between boys and girls from mixed education.

    The funny thing is, that even though I may have grown up and out of my awkward teenage phase, and contrary to evidence that supports this, I still mark myself as the ugly fat girl who no one wanted to get off with. In a horrible way, I still believe that I have to be a waiflike sexpot in order to finally feel at peace with myself. How can we go around believing these lies? Damn you, Britney Spears! Stop giving into the deception!!!! Clearly I have discovered a new mission.

  • At 9:10 am, Blogger Teresa Bowman said…

    If it's any consolation, you don't have to have been sent to a single-sex school to have problems forming relationships with the opposite sex. I went to two co-educational schools and have only ever had one proper relationship with a bloke.

    Let's hear it for the emotionally stunted! Whoo!

    Actually, not that I'm any kind of puritan or anything (don't let the big black hat and stern features fool you) but I think it's absolutely ridiculous the way that teenagers are encouraged, in fact more or less *expected* (certainly by their peers, and also to some extent by the media - just look at any magazine aimed at teenage girls) to have an active sex life by the age of about 16. Shouldn't people be allowed to develop at their own pace, without being thought of as some kind of loser if they haven't had sex with at least 5 people by the time they leave school?

    Yes, Soaring, I blame Britney too. Let's go and beat her up.

  • At 9:56 am, Blogger Soaring said…

    Good idea. I agree with what you say about the magazines encouraging pre-teens to have sex (containing articles that teach you how to kiss and 'sexual position of the week' HORROR! I don't want my 11 year old reading that and thinking she has to do it! - not that I have an 11 year old, but by the time I do, she'll probably be 8 and reading the same stuff) as well as concurring with the peer pressure things.

    I'm not only for all developing at our own pace, but didn't you notice the black hat and the stern expression? I'm all for protecting one's virginity as long as possible (preferably until marriage) for religious reasons as much as anything else. It also makes damn good sense in this day and age what with sexually transmitted diseases, and post modernism. I'm wary of any bloke who wants to interfere with me. If he's not interested in marriage, then I'm not interested in hanky panky. (Hence the stern expression - Although I'm quite looking forward to hanky panky within marriage.)

    I just don't see how we're all buying into this 'looking good is the only thing that matters, the only way that you're going to be judged and the only thing that is important in this superficial material world' philosophy.

    I've commandeered a jet if you're interested in forming a hit squad.

  • At 11:58 am, Blogger the urban fox said…

    What a great post, ST.

    I went to one of the worst comprehensives in the country, so my experiences are completely different. Actually, probably not literally one of the worst in Britain, but not far off. I just checked the 2003 league tables and it's still in the bottom 3 in the county.

    One thing about school for which I've always been grateful is the fact that I was exposed to both sexes, some different social backgrounds (up to a point; obviously nobody whose parents could afford private school fees was there) and the cultural and religious variety of the average state school in a large town. Our sports and music facilities were woeful, our classrooms were dilapidated and our teachers couldn't have cared less. But we had no racial tension and no religious intolerance. There was a touch of classist antagonism, both ways, between council estate kids and kids from professional families. But some adult friends of mine who went to well-reputed public schools say they were brought up to feel poor people were almost a different breed, whereas we felt that 'posh' people were just people with more privileges, not aliens. My secondary education gave me very little in the way of academic stimuli, but I suppose it did give me a valuable ability to integrate and identify with different people.

    There was an annual school exchange where one girl from our school would spend a week at Cheltenham Ladies' College, and one Cheltenham girl would spend a week at our comprehensive. I can still remember the horrified look on every exchangee's face when she was asked to share a dog-eared, tatty textbook with two other people.

    What you say about the negative side of single sex education is really interesting. One of my female friends who went to a single sex private school - an intelligent, serious woman - always puts on a giggly 'dizzy girl' front around men she likes. She notices herself doing it and complains later that she can't seem to help herself. I wonder if this is another example of that school-induced inability to relate easily to the opposite sex?

    Can't say I blame you for not wanting a daughter of yours to go to your old school. I feel the same about any child going to mine, but for different reasons. You've obviously emerged from your experiences pretty unscathed, so it must be possible to overcome single sex conditioning. I'm starting to wonder if the very nature of school is a bad thing for people's mental health. Somebody please jump in and say if they had a great, functional education, so I don't run away with the idea of homeschooling any future kids of my own.

  • At 12:31 pm, Blogger swisslet said…

    I don't think the quality of the education was that good, to be honest. The culture was not one that respected academic achievement, and as a scholar (which meant that the school paid a percentage of my fees and I got my name in capital letters in the school directory) I was often treated with suspicion. Sporting achievement was the thing. Heads of House were usually members of the first XV, and the head of school was usually the captain.

    If you were bright, you probably got decent results (I did ok), but everyone else tended to underachieve. My elder brother, for example, failed 2 of his 3 a-levels. When he resat them at a local (state) college he passed, went to university, got a first, was invited to do a PhD at Cambridge, did some post-doctoral research and is now a reseach biologist. Go figure.

    I think I would have done as well had I gone to my local comprehensive. The girl I sat next to in primary school did the same subjects as me at A-Level at this school and got 3 A grades and went to Cambridge.

    I do believe I learnt a massive amount from the whole thing generally though. University was great, but to be honest, a lot of the other first years seemed a bit immature to me in some ways because they were getting excited about being away from home for the first time etc. etc. and of course I had been doing all those things for years.

    I'm not sure I would have studied Latin at my comprehensive though, and I doubt I would have learnt to fence or play fives..... the latin is occasionally useful, mind you.

    My parents made a lot of sacrifices to send me to these schools, and in some ways I feel bad that I seem to be criticising their decision. They did what they thought was best for me, and for better or worse it has made me the person that I am today.

    Being a public schoolboy is like harbouring a dirty secret - I don't tell people generally, because they have so many preconceptions about what this means I am like (and frankly a lot of public schoolboys *are* like that).

    It wasn't all bad though. As I say in the post - my oldest friends, my best friends, the people who I know inside out, are all friends from school (including Justin actually, who I knew all the way from 1981. I grew up with these guys. I am hardly in contact with any of my friends from university.


  • At 5:16 pm, Blogger Mark said…

    I feel your pain Swiss.

    I went to an all boys school between 11 and 15. (one of my most recent posts was directly inspired by it). For five years I didn't talk to someone unless they were a Mum, one of my friend's Sister, a Teacher, or a Dinner Lady. I was retarded - I thought women were Aliens.


  • At 8:11 pm, Blogger Aravis said…

    Another interesting topic ST, and so many great comments.

    I live in the US so my experiences are a bit different. I was not sent away to school at an early age, although I'm sure my parents occasionally wished they could! *LOL* I have always gone to public schools, though as my grandfather worked in the mail room of a prestigious co-ed private school, I could have attended high school there. I chose not to. I didn't care for the arrogance of the kids there. I live in a New England town surrounded by these private schools and there's a lot of resentment for the preferential treatment they get. For example, if someone is arrested for drugs at the public high school it's reported in all the papers. If someone is caught using or selling drugs in a private school, the matter is hushed up and dealt with quietly. That's just one example. It isn't necessarily a class warfare type of thing either. Our public school contains children from some of the wealthiest families, as well as the poorest. It seems to be more about the elitism of private vs. public schools. I can't stand that sort of behavior. To be fair, my grandfather told us that he often put junk mail in kids' mailboxes just so they would have *something* in the mail, because they absolutely never got mail from home. Their faces would light up over anything they got. It sort of puts things into perspective for me a little. They may be rich and pampered, but I never had to wonder whether my parents loved me, or what I had done wrong.

    Our public schools are integrated. We grow up side by side. Sometimes boys and girls play together, and at times in their lives they think the opposite sex has "cooties," or contagious imaginary germs. *G* Some children are more gifted at interacting with each other than others, due most especially to home environment and also to how they have been received/perceived by their peers of both sexes. The awkwardness you mention ST is pretty universal I think. But there's a lot of middle ground discovered more easily perhaps by those who have always been around the opposite sex. There are plenty of popular girls who have grown up with boys who still do the giggly, eye-batting flirty routine, generally accompanied by a pretension to less intelligence than they actually have. Give me break! Always did annoy me. My problem with boys was- and I think it will come as a shock to no one here- I couldn't keep my mouth shut when they started to preen and act like chauvinists! *G* However I still dated, still had boyfriends over the years and remained a virgin until college. That was my choice. I would have had sex earlier (NOT at age 11 or 12!)if the right man had presented himself, but he didn't and I chose to wait. I lack the religious beliefs that Soaring feels, but respect the idea behind it of saving yourself and only giving yourself in a mutually loving relationship. I've had meaningless sex and arrived at the conclusion that it just wasn't that interesting.

    So I believe that it is helpful to send children to integrated schools, but you can't realistically expect their interactions with the opposite sex to always run smoothly. I do not think that home schooling is a good option, Fox. *G* While your child might actually come out of it with a better education, they lack social skills with either sex as a result. :0P

  • At 8:47 pm, Blogger The Num Num said…

    Interesting post. I hadn't realised to be honest, but now it all makes sense. The refined tastes and gentleman like demeanour. Rugger lad!

    Seems we all have some regrets about our schooling. I for one, *thought* I did a few years ago (wishing I had done this, that or the other), but now I wouldn't change a thing.

    You see, I am one of The Last Old Ealonians. We are an old and prestigous lot (seriously - http://www.oldmonoviansassociation.org.uk/text/barvaria1934.htm) but I urm, messed up. I lost interest in exams, totally muffed them. Made me realise, exams, IQ, prestige etc. is all kak. The person is what counts. If I had aced it all, I'd be a different person - a twat I guess (not that I may not be one right now :-/)

    So mate, as my old school motto said "Respite Prospice" -- which I think means learn from the past to look to the future.

    And don't pick up the bloody football!!!! - jeez you private school boys flouting rules, I dunno.

  • At 10:13 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    all I can say to that is wow

    got here by way of blogexplosion


  • At 12:10 am, Blogger Aravis said…

    chuckling at Birdie's post, and agreeing...

  • At 3:11 am, Blogger Me said…

    Been busy but still reading avidly. Very interesting post. A real insight into boarding school life.

  • At 6:23 pm, Blogger the urban fox said…

    ST, you're right about Latin. It wasn't until I got to university (to study literature) that I realised I was at a disadvantage compared with those who were privately educated. With no classical education whatsoever, interpreting the allusions of modernists like Joyce and Eliot, for example, was a nightmare. I didn't even know the basics of Roman or Greek mythology, let alone ancient languages like Latin.

    Aravis, I think you're right about the social side of education. Maybe the best of all worlds is for parents to send their children to school but make a point of stretching their education themselves. (Poor kids, all they want is to be left alone with GTA San Andreas and some Dairylea Lunchables...)

  • At 5:44 am, Blogger OLS said…

    Re home schooling - I tend to think that as long as you teach your kids to always question things and to enjoy reading for it's own sake, they'll educate themselves outside of school anyway.

    I'm a big believer in private (vs state) schools. I've blogged about it before.

    - OLS

  • At 11:40 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I go to a single sex private school, and behave perfectly normally around boys. However, I do think this has more to do with the fact that I have three older brothers, and a attended a co-educational private school for four years. I think single sex schools can be very useful for making the pupils focus- it's much easier to be distracted by the opposite sex than your own. I agree with ols, and think my ability to talk to the opposite sex comes from my parents- we frequently go out to dinner with our friends (whose children are nearly all male), and I have no problem talking to them!

  • At 12:26 pm, Blogger swisslet said…

    Ki - Cheltenham Ladies College by any chance? Welcome, but what kind of a search term is that for a young lady to use to end up on an ancient post here from 2004? Why is is a school for posh twats? Don't ask me!


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