An open letter …
On coping with the opposite sex
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.