In the company of men

On Saturday night I went to my high school reunion. Which means it’s been twenty years since we all endured the HSC. Twenty years of noses at the grindstone in many cases, dramatic shifts in careers for others and for others still, escaping the rat race entirely. Twenty years of relationships, marriages, children – even divorces in some cases. And we can no longer claim to be young, even if some of us still act like it.

On my way to the event, I ran through the school reunion clichés in my head. Based on Hollywood efforts like Peggy Sue Got Married, Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion and Grosse Point Blank, some people would drink too much, some would not have moved on from the glory days of high school, and others would dance cheek-to-cheek with their high school sweethearts before kissing passionately underneath the mirror ball in the high school gym and finally achieving the fulfilment they’d been craving since they were teenagers. And fade out.

Except that the last bit was pretty unlikely, at least for most of us. Because I went to a single-sex school.

So, on Saturday, I walked into a room containing eighty guys, all of whom I knew, and no women. That felt weird. Really weird. And yet, this was how school had been every day for six years.

Well, in the interests of accuracy, there was one woman in attendance last Saturday.  In other words, the gender breakdown was roughly that of the Federal Cabinet. One of my schoolmates, either via bold non-conformism or a misinterpretation of the invitation, had brought his fiancée, who nobly conducted small talk with lots of men she’d never met before.

After half an hour of wandering round in a daze, I settled back into the old male milieu. Once I did, I had a great time. So many of those old social divisions, which I’d felt so keenly in the early years of school when I was bracketed as a nerd, had melted away after twenty years. There were lots of people working in finance, law and IT, and it no longer mattered how they’d gotten there, or how cool they’d been along the way.

Let’s face it, practically no guy besides Robert Downey Jr or Jay-Z can pull off being cool at 37, a fact my classmates and I went on to demonstrate by heading to a bar with a dance floor which every single one of us avoided as though, with apologies to Sophie Ellis Bextor, there had genuinely been a murder there.

All this week, though, I keep thinking about how different my life was when I went to a single-sex school. Having attended co-ed primary schools, I’d enrolled in an all-male high school with great trepidation. Girls had been of huge importance to me since my first ridiculously intense crush in Year Four, and my growing interest in women had been exceeded only by my growing shyness around them. The prospect of six years cloistered away with my own sex was a concerning prospect.

I remember my mother asking the Master of the Lower School (yes, it was that kind of institution) how we were supposed to socialise with girls. He said, with an entirely straight face, that we could meet them on the train.

To be fair, my school was full of were always tales of CityRail Lotharios from the leafy Upper North Shore. But I lived a mere two stops from school, and was horrifyingly timid. How was I going to charm one of the brown-clad students catching the train to Sydney Girls’ High in five minutes each morning day?

In short, I wasn’t. The most I ever got was an occasional embarrassed hello to some far-too-cool-for-me type I’d known in primary school. And so it went for most of my schooldays.

We did the occasional drama production with girls’ schools, but due to a notorious cast party in Year Nine, the years of bigger roles for which I’d endured dozens of ignominious walk-ons happened without women on stage at all. It was only at university that I began to build a solid group of genuine female friends.

My parents and I agonised over same-sex education. Ultimately we felt the opportunities on offer were just too compelling, and I haven’t yet really regretted that. My school, though, would have been so very much better if it had been co-ed. The overemphasis on sport, the victimisation of vulnerable kids, the emphasis on maths and science over humanities, the rampant homophobia – I suspect my school was better than some in most of these areas than others, but my friends and I agreed on Saturday night that it hadn’t quite been good enough. I’d like to think all of these areas, and more, would have been significantly better with girls in the classrooms and playgrounds.

There are endless debates over co-education. Some say it benefits boys to the exclusion of girls. This may be so, although there are plenty of co-ed selective schools in NSW with exceptional results  But surely such concerns can be addressed by good teaching, and must be weighted up against the social impact of single-sex education, which is far deeper than just a few shy, scared teenage boys like I was.

Boys’ clubs have survived in Australia to a remarkable extent. I don’t mean those all-male institutions like the Savage Club that boasts Senator Brandis among its members – they, clearly, are on the wane.  I mean informal, cosy coteries of “good blokes” who drink and banter together, and are always happy to do one another a favour. I often enjoy those interactions, but they trouble me when they become a means of hoarding and exercising power.

Boys’ schools condition men to be instinctively comfortable in such environments – mine certainly did for me. Surely it’s not a coincidence that a government which has drawn criticism for the lack of women in its ministry is full of men who attended the kinds of schools I did?

And while there were more women in the last government, especially its final incarnation, they were still nowhere near parity. The union movement has traditionally been just as full of boys’ clubs as their political opponents. And has the word “powerbroker” ever been attached to the name of any women from Labor’s dominant NSW Right? There’s a reason why the term “faceless men” is gender-specific.

It’s not just politics, of course. We still have boys’ clubs throughout our workplaces, sporting and cultural institutions and religions. The attitude that led to my high school, one of Australia’s earliest, being founded to train future leaders and therefore only admitting men still prevails more than it should.

But the biggest problem with limiting oneself to the company of men is that while it can be fun as a one-off for a bucks’ or reunion, ultimately all-male environments often aren’t simply as interesting. As a rule, there’s too much discussion of sport (which men often default to when they can’t think of anything else to discuss) and not enough making fun of The Bachelor.

Conversations about just about every aspect of life suffer when they don’t include a female perspective, just as they do when everyone speaking is from the same cultural background. Spending time exclusively with your male friends is the social equivalent of eating only pub food – and it’s not a coincidence that the two things so often go together.

Thinking about it this week, I’d need a lot of convincing to send a child to a single-sex school. Of course it depends what’s on offer, as it did for me – but single-sex education reinforces artificial, archaic divisions. It seemed pretty old fashioned when I started in 1989; it’ll seem much more so by the time my hypothetical kids are in school.

And while I had a great time at my reunion, I’m sure I’d have enjoyed it even more if I’d had lots of old female schoolfriends there, too. Because life is co-ed, after all, and if our schools are preparing us for it, they should be too.

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