For centuries British public schools kept the sexes apart—until the 1970s, when a handful of boys’ schools began to admit girls at 16. In the first of three memoirs by women who were among those early guinea-pigs, Rebecca Willis gives a candid view of life at Charterhouse ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2009
* Now Associate editor of Intelligent Life
* Then Sixth-former at Charterhouse, 1977-79
After the brightness of the corridor the room was very dark. The door shut behind me. Enough light filtered through the torn curtain over the Gothic window for me to make out about eight or ten seated figures facing me. “Sit down!” a male voice said. The chair was broken and it was hard to balance on it. Then the questions began. I can’t remember all of them, but they were either intrusively personal or full of innuendo, and designed to humiliate me. I forced myself to answer. “Have you got your period?” asked a voice, to much laughter. At one point a phallic object was held up a few inches from my face—“What does this remind you of?” They asked again and again until eventually I said “A penis”. Perhaps the interrogation lasted five or ten minutes, I don’t know; but at last it was over.
I was in my second week of the sixth form at a boys’ public school, and this was the “new hops’ test”. After being an enclosed order of maleness for centuries, the school was in its fifth year of accepting girls—in strictly limited quantities. There were about 40 girls to 700 boys, so it wasn’t exactly as nature intended. Each house had two, occasionally three, girls in each A-level year, so if your study mate wasn’t a kindred spirit you were effectively on your own. There was no girls’ house (you had to live either at home or in digs nearby), there wasn’t a single female member of staff, and there was no apparent thought for pastoral care. It hadn’t occurred to anyone that this might need to be different from the system already in place for the boys—house tutors who functioned as policemen-cum-smoke-detectors. The girls were given physical room—a shared study, a seat in class—but the system for turning boys into men did not seem to have been altered to accommodate them in any broader sense.
This supposedly enlightened 1970s experiment was to allow girls to reap the benefits of the first-class education and the fantastic facilities that were available, for a price, to boys. Or was it to civilise the boys in their ivory towers, to prepare them for real life? Or to boost the academic results? Or because the schools needed to broaden their appeal for financial and political reasons? Whatever the motivation—and I don’t doubt that it looked like a good idea on paper—the practical result was that a handful of girls were cast onto a sea of teenage testosterone and left to sink or swim.
The new hops’ test was a tradition that allowed the older boys to give forfeits to new ones who didn’t know that “grid” was the word for bike or how many tiles were on the chapel roof, but it had been adapted and taken as licence to torment the arriving girls. In some houses it got more out of hand than others, and I was unlucky to be in a house where the housemaster was a homosexual alcoholic, the boys knew too much and had a hold over him, and it was like “Lord of the Flies”. The boys interrogating me were a year or two older than I was, and several were prefects, but that didn’t make them feel responsible, it just made them feel invincible.
Traumatised as I was, I didn’t want to leave the school. What fascinates me still is how I had bought into this brutal male system so quickly, why I wanted somehow to be part of it. It could have been a primeval need to belong, or a stubborn pride that wouldn’t let them think they’d beaten me. Or the silent contract that exists between victims and bullies. I already knew I wanted more of the teaching that had started to open my eyes. Perhaps for a teenage girl any attention is better than no attention. Or perhaps it was, more simply, that I had already fallen in urgent teenage love with a beautiful, damaged boy called Mathew. At the time the reasons didn’t matter. I’d learnt the first lesson of survival: put on a mask so they can’t see you’re hurt, and get back out there.
The new hops’ test was an induction into the dominant culture of the house I was in, and of much of the school. Such bullying was merely the most obvious example of what went on unchecked every day: the only time you escaped it entirely was during lessons. The boys felt entitled to make personal comments—about your features, your figure, your clothes, your choice of friends—and to make them to your face. I still hear these comments in my head sometimes when I am getting dressed.
It was relentless, the sense of being watched and assessed and commented on, and this non-stop critical attention was compounded by isolation and by there being no one sympathetic to turn to. Beating up—the school word for teasing—was the chief recreational activity for many boys, and it was so merciless that even some of the new teachers did not last long. A Chinese boy arrived in my house and left after a year because he couldn’t take the racist abuse. A couple of the girls had breakdowns. One girl was expelled, along with her boyfriend, for having sex; they were found out because the teacher who was her house tutor read her diary. My only real friend and my saviour at that time was a handsome, slightly effeminate redheaded boy with a fantastic sense of humour who was as bitterly teased as the girls. It was the time of punk and it was cool to be apathetic, to pierce one ear with a safety pin and an ice-cube, and to sneer; “keen” was the ultimate term of abuse.
I sometimes think that it was a matter of simple logic for the boys. If you didn’t talk to the girls, you were beaten up for being gay. If you were nice to the girls, you were beaten up for being wet or, worse, in love. Ergo, you had to talk to the girls and be nasty to them. Most of the boys didn’t know how to behave towards girls, and the school didn’t give them any clues, so they treated the girls as they would a weak member of their own sex, but paid them more attention because there was an element of sexual curiosity in the mix. I’ve had time since—almost 30 years, in fact—to think about my experience at Charterhouse, and to get perspective on it. I’ve made mental lists of things that might explain what happened, like this:
• I am the firstborn child of gentle parents; I was too sensitive, and needed to toughen up a bit.
• I had come from an all-girls grammar school so I hadn’t spent much time with boys.
• The boys themselves felt threatened by and confused about the advent of girls who disrupted their existing friendships and got lots of attention.
• I was unlucky with the house I was in: the housemaster’s job depended on the boys not telling tales on him, so the boys had too much power.
• It came from the top—the headmaster’s wife was dying, then died, so his mind was elsewhere and he was prone to apoplectic rages. I was selected to make tea for his bereaved children, an honour not bestowed on any of the boys with whom I was meant to be so equal.
• I fell in love with a screwed-up kid who would speak to me one day but not the next, and ignored me for the whole of the second year.
Try as I might to let the years wash it all away, I am left holding onto this hard, dark, indissoluble nugget that I recognise as the truth: it was a cruel regime. Or perhaps, to be very strictly accurate, a regime in which pockets of cruelty were allowed to flourish.
I know lots of girls who went to boys’ schools and loved it, and some who loved Charterhouse. So perhaps I was just caught up in the educational equivalent of a perfect storm. And if you leave aside the social aspects, I did flourish at Charterhouse. I was made a school prefect, was head of the girls, got the right exam results and a scholarship to the right university. My love of drawing and painting and of reading and, well, thinking, grew out of the inspired teaching and
opportunities I had there. It looks fine on a CV. But between the lines are the emotional scars left by spending two of my formative years in an environment where not only were emotions buried, but it was positively dangerous to show your true feelings. To this day I can’t take a compliment in case it’s just a test to see whether I’m arrogant enough to believe it.
I won’t go into the effects of this on my intimate life. Suffice to say that over time I’ve learnt to be more trusting of mankind in general, and of one man in particular. With him I have two children—boys, of course.
The elder is at the age at which secondary education looms, which inevitably stirs up the past. How can I be sure I have let go of my own prejudices about boys and schools and make the right choices for him? It seems to me that the challenge of being a parent lies in consciously not trying to rewrite your own past through your children’s lives, in correcting but not over-correcting your own experience. But what does that mean in practice? I’m still trying to work it out (and of course I know that having a choice about schooling is a great luxury). Boys’ public schools have changed in three decades, I realise that. Many are now fully co-ed, with equal numbers. Even Charterhouse now has a girls’ house and a girls’ uniform. We live in an age where EQ is as valued as IQ, if not more so, and all the schools I’ve looked at for my son profess to make pastoral care a priority. Maybe social change and modern communications really do mean that brutal, sealed worlds can no longer exist.
Otherwise, I rarely think about my time at Charterhouse nowadays, despite the impression these words might give. I have digested it and it has become part of me. But when a copy of the Old Carthusian magazine comes through the letterbox, I do find myself turning past the headmaster’s letter and the upbeat match reports to the obituary pages. And I can’t help wondering how I’ll feel when I see the name of one of my old tormentors printed there.
This is the first in a series of three memoirs from women about their experiences in boys' schools as they went partly co-ed. See also Daisy Goodwin on Westminster and Tracey Camilleri on Bryanston. In light of the dramatic reader response to Rebecca Willis's piece, she wrote a follow-up article about the many letters and comments she received: "Some are full of anger, judgement and a sense of betrayal. Others have been sympathetic and supportive, including a courageous and touching admission from one of my teachers. A few, by former schoolmates who don't give their names, have been personal and quite nasty. And others, mostly e-mailed to me, confess to deep scars and still-open wounds."
Rebecca Willis is associate editor of Intelligent Life and a former travel editor of Vogue.
Illustration credit: John Holder