An open let­ter …

On cop­ing with the op­po­site sex

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - MEGAN NICOL REED - Do write. megan­ni­col­

It freaks them out. Some of the lo­cals. They make as­sump­tions. About sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll. They see them loi­ter­ing and imag­ine in­tent. They see pink hair and shaved heads, torn jeans and tiny shorts. No good, they reckon. They’re up to no good. They see them frater­nising, boys, girls, hold­ing hands, hug­ging. Tut, they say. Tut, tut. What are they be­ing taught?

When were you born, I think? 1873? I see the kids go­ing in and out of our high school, my son’s school, I see them, the geeks and the gamers and the Goths, and I am glad. Glad they are not sep­a­rated by gen­der. Glad they are not forced to dress alike. Glad they can be, can hang out with, who­ever the hell they damn well please.

I went to an all-girls school, wore a uni­form, and re­ceived a won­der­ful ed­u­ca­tion. A dear friend of mine works at one of the coun­try’s top girls’ schools and I know her to be one of the most for­ward­think­ing, ex­tra­or­di­nary teach­ers. So it’s not that I think sin­gle-sex schools are nec­es­sar­ily bad, that the wear­ing of uni­forms is by def­i­ni­tion detri­men­tal, it’s just that the more I think about it, the weirder it all seems. The other night my daugh­ter’s pri­mary school opened up the class­rooms and in­vited par­ents to come and cel­e­brate their child’s learn­ing with them. I watched as my al­most 10-year-old daugh­ter blithely and en­thu­si­as­ti­cally en­gaged with the boys she had worked on her project with. And I thought how grotesque, how an­ti­quated, that in a few short years any­one would so sud­denly and sum­mar­ily seg­re­gate them. It is as if, for all our moder­nity, we can­not let go of these Vic­to­rian no­tions around ado­les­cence and sex, of need­ing to pro­tect them from not only each other, but them­selves, from their own vul­gar de­sires. If school is about pre­par­ing you to en­ter the adult world, surely it should re­flect that world, not some oddly se­questered uni­verse.

My first mufti day at high school weighs stoutly on my mem­ory. I un­der­stood that by what I chose to wear I was ef­fec­tively declar­ing my­self. And the girls I had hun­gered af­ter, but to whom, in my uni­form, I had been largely in­vis­i­ble, took no­tice. Af­ter a few false starts I even­tu­ally found my niche, forg­ing life­long friend­ships. How­ever, when it came to boys I re­mained res­o­lutely stupid. Awk­ward and ob­sessed. Ter­ri­fied and pro­mis­cu­ous. My hus­band, who went to an all-boys school, de­scribes his deal­ings with the op­po­site sex as be­ing sim­i­larly fraught. And while there are many men, my hus­band’s friends, my friends’ hus­bands, who I am aw­fully fond of, I was 28 be­fore I made my first male friend who wasn’t gay. My first male friend who I nei­ther wanted to snog or shag.

My son counts many girls among his friend­ship group. In fact one of his best friends is a girl. I envy them their ease with each other. The rich­ness of their in­ter­ac­tions. When I see my friends’ daugh­ters’ ball pho­tos, how im­mac­u­lately groomed they are, how they look just like the red car­pet pho­tos of the celebri­ties they fol­low on In­sta­gram, I am glad my son is around girls on a daily ba­sis. That he sees them with pim­ples and greasy hair. That he is made to run around the field with them, sweaty and red-faced. That he knows them as hu­man and not some rar­efied be­ings, brought out for him to ogle on spe­cial oc­ca­sions.

Most of what we have held to be true about gen­der, ideas around mas­culin­ity and fem­i­nin­ity to which we have so stub­bornly clung, is be­ing chal­lenged, dis­proved even. In a fu­ture in which iden­tity and sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion will be more fluid than fixed, the tra­di­tion of sep­a­rat­ing chil­dren ac­cord­ing to what’s in their pants will surely be­come lu­di­crous, if not im­pos­si­ble. Re­gard­ing home im­prove­ments, Gill got it. “Have ren­o­vated once and that was def­i­nitely enough. The pain of early builders’ starts, gap­ing holes to frigid air, and dust ev­ery­where is only ex­ceeded by the reg­u­lar in­voices scream­ing cost ex­plo­sion. Never again, prob­a­bly…” Kevin had some stern words of ad­vice. “As I see your prob­lem, your hus­band and chil­dren leave you to man­age the ren­o­va­tions while they hap­pily go off to work/school and you deal with the mess. That I’m afraid is your lot, so pull your socks up and get stuck in or, as an un­cle said to me at my late fa­ther’s funeral, ‘Learn to del­e­gate.’”

I am glad my son is around girls on a daily ba­sis. That he sees them with pim­ples and greasy hair. That he knows them as hu­man and not some rar­efied be­ings.

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