You know you went to an all-girls’ school when…

So, someone at the Huffington Post has done one of those lists masquerading as journalism, chronicling the ’19 signs you went to an all girls school’. I was intrigued, being the alumnus of not one but two such establishments, but sadly I could only recognise half of them – probably because the author then went to a US college and as a result, the list is rather Americanised.

But, the joys of girls’ school life came back to me in our Monday morning lecture this week, on the subject of gender. On the one hand, there’s not an awful lot a girl educated in a school where ‘Herstory’ was a thing (as opposed to History, obviously) needs to learn about the history of the feminist movement. On the other hand, it became clear that my fellow feminists (we were sat in a line along the back row) looked on with disdain as younger men in the lecture giggled over words like ‘vagina’ and ‘penis’. Hilarious. These men need to get themselves in a room with the fabulous God Loves Women, who’s usually capable of using these words within minutes of a meeting beginning. [My favourite meeting of 2013 was one such gathering, where I was sat next to one of only two men in the room. There was definite squirming and an awful lot of feminine hilarity.]

Anyway, I want to put the record straight about graduates of female-only establishments. Obviously, based on my experiences only – that of a central London CofE comprehensive & a grammar in Gloucester, just for variation:

1. Yes, you will have perfected the art of putting on tights. (Huffington Post is correct in this regard.)
However, you will have got to the end of your school days loathing them with a passion; having a belief that wearing them underneath your jogging bottoms during PE would give you thrush; knowing that wooden school chairs live to snag black opaque tights; and, as an adult, will have realised that it really is worth spending good money on good tights (M&S for preference).

2. You will not be comfortable around female nudity.
If this has occurred at all, it will have been in your late 20’s when you realised that no one in the gym cares what you look like while changing – unlike most of year 10 before and after PE.

3. You will have been taught that the glass ceiling exists so that well-educated young ladies can smash it to pieces.
References to the ‘glass ceiling’ were seemingly compulsory in my grammar school’s speech days. In my CofE school, this also came out in reference to the Church. On the day General Synod voted in favour of ordaining women as priests, a girl was sent to pass on the news to each class. They would be very proud of my current adventures.

4. You still consider wearing a black bra under a pale shirt an act of rebellion.
Now, this may be peculiar to my alma-mater, but on important occasions (concerts, cathedral services, speech days…) we were always reminded that wearing a black bra under our yellow (gorgeous) blouses was NOT acceptable. One of my best friends consistently wore one deliberately, what a rebel.

5. You don’t ‘secretly’ suspect that girls are smarter than boys – you know we are.
That’s what seven years of single-sex education gives you. Be told it enough and you’ll believe it! You’ll have a high level of respect for intelligence, and believe that men who don’t value it as a character trait aren’t worth bothering with.

6. You still wish achievements were marked with some form of enamelled badge worn on your jumper.
You may not have received sporting colours (but led a campaign for musical achievements to be marked in the same way – which never succeeded), but you did have merit badges and proudly bore the label of ‘Library Assistant’. [Just me?!?] You made up for your lack of colours in 6th form with a prefect badge, worn proudly right at the V of your regulation jumper.

7. Bodily fluids are not an issue.
Yes, you may still re-tell the story of the girl who fainted off a lab stool during a smear test video in Biology, but conversations about periods, Mooncups, pregnancy and birth will not throw you. You will often forget this when in the company of men. Male friends who know you well will learn to deal with this.

8. You will find it odd when men giggle at things unnecessarily.
See above point about this week’s gender lecture. When you’ve done sex ed without idiotic boys in the room, it comes as a shock to discover that some guys still can’t talk about body parts without some level of immaturity.

9. Male friends did not exist until university.
At school, the lack of boys meant the only friends of the opposite sex were likely not to be actual friends, but more the siblings of your own, female friends or, occasionally, the boyfriends of friends who’d managed to acquire one. At university, men were a curious, somewhat unknown breed, around which one was unbearably awkward. The effects of this absence of the opposite sex will still affect your relationships over a decade later. (Miranda Hart spoke of this in her recent Desert Island Discs – it’s a genuine thing.)

10. Male teachers were prime for crushes.
Or, at least the ones that weren’t considered ancient. You’ll have had a least one crush on a newly qualified teacher who had the misfortune of ending up at a girls’ school prior to losing their looks. You might even have tried to get sent home early from a field trip solely because anyone who did so would have had to travel with the ‘hot’ teacher. [This was not me, promise. We only wrote a parody A-level exam paper about our favourite male teacher. ‘Only’…]

11. Your knowledge of women’s role in history will be excellent.
You will have submitted extra-credit reports on Emily Davison (or again, was that just me?); looked up to Elizabeth I; frequently used women’s suffrage as an illustration of why voting at every election is important; had a lot of sympathy for the women tried as witches; and generally held the opinion that if women had been more involved, men wouldn’t have made such a mess of the world.

12. Singing tenor isn’t a problem, because you had to do it at school.
The downside of all-girls’ schools is that music becomes a little limited in the absence of male voices. One of my schools came up with the solution of teaching year 7 soprano parts; year 8 alto; and year 9 tenor. Be a low enough alto higher up the school and tenor parts would wing their way to you. (It’s just stuck me that one of my friends may have only demonstrated her skill at this so she could sit with boys at rare joint school choral events. Sly thing!) You might have got lucky and been in a joint school musical – or, you might have been banned from such a production while in 6th form because of the impact it might have had on your studies and may still be bitter about this years later because it was your only chance at ever being in a musical and you’d have been perfect as Rizzo. (Ok, yes, that may just be me.)

Year 11 RibstonObligatory poor quality photo of my school days. This would be the last day of year 11 in 1997. If you can spot me I’ll be quite impressed. Note the excellent 1990’s perms – a lot of hairspray and mousse went into those… 

Not an exhaustive or accurate list by any means – but I’d like to think that the schools I went to genuinely did a lot to build up the confidence of its girls [always pronounced ‘gals’, obviously] and set them on the road to being feminists, even if not all of them made it. Despite some of the negatives, I’m still quite a fan of single-sex secondary education – although if ever I have the need to educate daughters, I’ll be ensuring that their social activities extends beyonds the similarly gender specific Guides. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today (good and bad) without it.


Laying ghosts to rest

Yesterday was Carol Service Sunday – aka a very, very long day in the church calendar that sees early starts, massive mince pie consumption, mulled wine aplenty and plenty of carols. Yesterday also saw me lay to rest a ghost that has bothered me for fourteen years…

When I was an idealistic Sixth Former, I wanted little more in life than a Prefect’s badge. [Ok, who am I trying to kid, I really wanted to be Head Girl.] I got one, and in addition, acquired the visual monstrosity that was the Choir Captain badge – ironically, my co-captain and I fought for several months for a badge that identified our status, once we got them, we refused to wear them except on formal occasions. The job of Choir Captain was essential to be the Music department’s dogsbody – taking choir registers, chivvying no-shows, cataloguing the music library (actually, I chose to do that for funsies). At Christmas, there was a specific role: to prepare and perform with a choir of juniors (known as the Pippin Choir – don’t ask, it’s to do with apples) at the annual concert – this proved to be my first, and until this year, only experience of choir conducting. 
This year, through a chapter of accidents, there was no one available to conduct the Christmas gospel choir at the morning carol service and thus, I think because I am a choir nerd, I was asked if I’d step up. The prospect was terrifying. I can remember little of my Pippin Choir conducting of 1998, other than that I was anxious about the fact that school rules dictated that my shirt had to be tucked into my skirt and thus, I could do little to hide my posterior from the audience. (I was 17, of course that’s what I was concerned about!) I do remember that I wasn’t eager to repeat the process. But thankfully, the church choir was accommodating and all went smoothly yesterday morning, in fact, I rather enjoyed myself.
In action during the rehearsal. 
See the baby? That was the only time he wasn’t watching the conductor, 
he’s going to be a singer for sure! 
However, that wasn’t the only Choir Captain task that was being repeated yesterday. Fourteen years ago, I missed a couple of days of school in order to spend 24 hours being grilled at the University of Cambridge (it did not go well). The night I arrived home, I received a message saying that, as Choir Captain, I’d been picked to sing the Once in Royal solo that would begin the school carol service the following morning. I was rather proud and excited, but partly thanks to nerves and an absence of rehearsal, when it came to the service I fluffed the high notes and was mortified. 
It says something about my personality that I’ve held on to my failure in this performance for nearly half of my life. (I’m also virtually certain that no one who was there remembers my error at all.) In fact, I could probably tell you of every single mistake I’ve ever made in my not particularly impressive solo singing career – in fact I did tell you about one I took five years to recover from. I possibly ought to look into this. Occasionally, there have been opportunities to redeem myself, but they’re rare. Sometimes, such redemptive opportunities take fourteen years to come along…
Last week I was asked to sing Once in Royal at the start of the evening carol service (and only because the other contenders were already down to sing solos in the rest of the service). I said I’d think about it, genuinely considering refusing because of what had happened all those years ago. In the end, I agreed, but was racked with nerves as the clock ticked towards 6pm last night. Screwing up the opening of the biggest service of the year was just not an option. 
Never have I been more pleased that I’m no longer the angst-ridden 17 year old I once was. Last night, I held my nerve, remembered to breathe and successfully hit the high notes. Four simple lines of music were sung and a ghost was lain to rest. 
This is not me blowing my own trumpet. I didn’t really care what people thought of my singing, what mattered was that I proved to myself that I could do it. That I didn’t give in to my fear. That I didn’t let myself believe that I couldn’t do it. I don’t need to do it again (though I probably will be at Wednesday’s service). It is done.
The moral of this story is simple: just because you got something wrong at the age of 17 doesn’t mean that you’ll still get it wrong when you’re 31…

Overcoming a hoarding mentality

Perhaps the was the vast pile of stuff I realised I’d accumulated when I moved flats last year should have indicated something to me, but no. It wasn’t until my sister criticised me via Twitter in the autumn that I had an inkling that I might possibly be something of a hoarder. [I had discovered the letter sent to me informing me of the prizes I won at my school speech day the summer after my A-levels. Apparently ‘people’ just don’t keep ‘those things’…]

Obviously, I insisted she was wrong. I only keep the important things. Doesn’t everyone keep important correspondence, photos, diaries and travel journals? What about tickets to plays, programmes, random notes and cinema ticket stubs? [She continually brings up the fact that when we moved house in 2004, I discovered cinema tickets going back to 1996. I, on the other hand, was impressed to find one that revealed that I’d been watching Romeo + Juliet the day our neighbour gave birth to their third child.]

However, a couple of weeks ago I noticed a tissue on my bedside table. I moved to throw it in the bin and paused, realising I knew exactly when, where and who had given me it. I hesitated and left it there for sentimental reasons. When you discover you’re hoarding tissues, something has become an issue! [This is loosely true. I have now thrown that tissue away, but the thought process was there, which is terrifying.]

A tissue is one thing. Two archive boxes full of five years’ worth of academic work is quite another. I’d planned, while in Belfast, to locate my A-level RS notes and see if there was anything that might be worth keeping for my current theology degree. Of couse, those notes were right at the bottom of the box and by the time I’d got there I’d reached the conclusion that if I hadn’t needed any of it for 13 years, it probably wasn’t worth keeping. Once I’d rescued the RS notes, I figured I’d move on to my box of undergraduate notes. All I kept was marked essays and my dissertation notes – it was incredibly cathartic and produced a massive pile of recycling:

Along the way, I discovered a few things:

  • I’d actually gone to the effort of creating A1 size revision notes for my European History course. 
  • My multi-coloured revision timetable pointed towards a misspent study leave. 
  • Over the years, I have learnt a lot of stuff that I simply have no recollection of. My only essay to receive a 1st was on the Congo – honestly, I had no idea we’d ever covered the Congo in my degree! (On reflection, I suspect I wrote it the same year I read the Poisonwood Bible.) 
  • Essay comments were a major source of amusement. One lecturer remarked (on an essay that was slightly below par) that I had the makings of a good writer, if only I could learn not to waffle – not entirely sure if that lesson’s been learnt yet. Another began their comment with the statement: “You have clearly read Augustine’s City of God thoroughly…” – I can guarantee that this was almost certainly not the case!
  • The most interesting things were the bits of paper found amongst the files and the files themselves. I discovered the ‘Prefect Code of Conduct’ I’d had to sign before I could accept my Prefect badge and various bits of graffiti – most telling of all, the ornately designed ‘HELP!’ just inside the cover of my Philosophy & Ethics file.
  • I apparently go for men who have nearly identical handwriting. Spooky.

Best of all, the RS notes that may be useful were located in a ring binder that is typical of a teenage girl’s stationery c.1998 – surely all of us experienced the joy that was file collage? This was actually the only one of my folders to get this attention (though I believe at the time I had a matching notebook and pencil case), so at least I had some concept of time management aged 16…

Yes, basically all my 16 year old self cared about was Friends and Brad Pitt. 
I don’t think that was necessarily a bad thing.

This great purge now leaves me with virtually nothing left in my parents’ under-the-stairs cupboard. Literally, all that’s there now is: a small box of teenage memories; a larger box of primary school stuff [I chucked some of it last night, but didn’t have time to sort it totally]; a wicker basket of ‘sentimentally significant or culturally interesting’ toys; and a box of children’s books. I mean that’s practically nothing, right? 

History on a tea towel

A photo challenge for you – can you identify me (and my sister, for those that know her) on the tea towel below:

In case you’re wondering, that’s a tea towel with a self-portrait of every member of my primary school in the 1990-91 academic year. It’s one of those things primary schools produce at Christmas which are then bestowed upon beloved relatives as gifts – relatives who probably smile sweetly and then put it away in a drawer.

Unless, it seems, you are my grandparents. I received this photo this morning from my mother who (presumably) had just been washing up in my grandparents’ kitchen. I reckon it’s in pretty good condition for a twenty year old towel…

Oh, and in case you can’t find me, I’m on the fourth row from the bottom, second from right. (For Mim fans, she’s five rows down from the title, fifth in from right and has a very big head.) I’m rather impressed with the level of detail a 9 year old me includes – down to the crest on my sweatshirt and my bunches. The only downside (and I suspect this irked me at the time) is that we had to use black pen to draw our pictures, thus meaning that my hair was depicted a lot darker than it naturally is.

The best days of our lives?

Perhaps it’s because they’re such a sharp contrast to my own school days, but for some reason I’ve always been drawn to American high school movies. From the moment I first watched Grease (July 18th 1993), I was intrigued by this world so different to my own – the lack of uniforms, the presence of boys, the hordes of students, strange cliques, tall lockers – it was like another planet.

RIP Heath…

Many of my all-time favourite films fit into the genre, with several coming out in 1999 –  the year I left school forever. It was a particularly good year for the genre, producing three classics:
Cruel Intentions  – for years I argued with a friend about this being a good film, he always insistent that Dangerous Liaisons was vastly superior. Having finally seen it, I agree that the latter is an excellent film, but of a different genre and therefore doesn’t need to be superior.
10 Things I Hate About You – an utter classic and featuring the scene for which Heath Ledger will always be remembered in my mind. Plus, it sparked an ambition to play drums on the top of a very tall building overlooking the ocean. To quote a Twitter friend for whom it’s also a favourite: “one day a man will commission a brass band for me too…” – my hopes exactly!
Election – A much darker example of the genre, containing possibly the best performance by Reese Witherspoon until Walk the Line came along. Her character is mean and manipulative, masked by a goody-goody exterior, and drives her Civics teacher (Matthew Broderick) into a mid-life crisis.

The 1980s obviously brought us John Hughes’ classics – if you’ve only seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off then watching the rest of his work is essential. The Breakfast Club is possibly THE high school movie of the decade and has inspired so many take-offs and re-interpretations (Dawson’s Creek and ER both have episodes inspired by it and I vaguely recall a Family Guy involving a flannel shirted Judd Nelson); Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles are grittier and more realistic than the somewhat fantastical Bueller and help you understand why Molly Ringwald was so highly regarded at the time. An honourable 80’s mention should also go to Heathers, truly the darkest of all high school movies and possibly Winona Ryder’s finest moment – any film that manages to combine croquet with multiple teenage deaths ranks highly in my book!

Others that would be up there include:
Mean Girls
Bring it On (possibly the best cheerleading film ever).
Say Anything (can’t believe I only saw this for the first time last year).

Scream & Scream 2

Anyway, there was a point to this listing – last week I found a new film to add to the list. Easy A was an early addition to my LoveFilm rental list thanks to an enthusiastic review by Mark Kermode. A Dr K approval on a high school movie meant that I had high expectations that I hoped to be realised – and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s clever, it’s a bit offbeat, it has potential to be ‘worthy’ yet doesn’t overdo it, it has Lisa Kudrow in the cast and has some dorky Christians – fabulous. Olive suddenly finds herself portrayed as the school slut after rumour gets round about how she spent her weekend – they think she slept with a college guy when in fact she was home alone being the nerd that she is. It spirals out of control and leads to some interesting ethical situations that are dealt with in an unusually non-schmaltzy American way.

The main reason why Easy A got me reminiscing about my favourite genre is because it deliberately references several of the classics. For example:

“Whatever happened to chivalry? Does it only exist in 80’s movies? I want John Cusack holding a boombox outside my window. I wanna ride off on a lawnmower with Patrick Dempsey. I want Jake from Sixteen Candles waiting outside the church for me. I want Judd Nelson thrusting his fist into the air because he knows he got me. Just once I want my life to be like an 80’s movie, preferably one with a really awesome musical number for no apparent reason. But no, no, John Hughes did not direct my life.” [I concur]

The sharp intelligent wit reminded me of Juno, but I enjoyed the film a whole lot more. Similarly serious issues, yet handled in a very different way. [This is a controversial opinion, but I’m really not a fan of Juno. Perhaps I shouldn’t have watched it for the first time in an edited form on a Royal Brunei Airways flight, but I’ve now watched it four times and still haven’t been converted. Love the soundtrack though.]

High school movies remind us of the best of times and the worst of times. We remember why we don’t really ever want to be a teenager again and that people were always lying when they said our time at school would be ‘the best days of your life’; and ultimately, we convince ourselves that we’d probably have had a much more interesting time of it had we grown up State-side – we wouldn’t, none of it is real.