I can’t speak to the dynamics when this was the prevailing way of most top-tier schools in the US, especially in the Northeast, but I can say that for the few remaining, er, bastions, again mainly on the East Coast, calling them distinctive would be an understatement, and often a euphemism as well. There was another all-boys school in Boston, and we shared a sister school between us, for the few encounters we were allowed with the opposite sex, namely a glee club performance once every season and a play, if you were so lucky as to be cast in it. Perhaps fitting that the arts provided the principal setting for coed communication: the area of learning where ideas were most grounded in emotion.
There are a thousand observations and/or generalizations I could make about it, but I’ll spare most of them for the same reason that moment of mutual acknowledgement was usually just a bemused nod: we’re still a bit bewildered by the eccentricities of where we learned and feeling askew trying to reconcile it to everything else. What hovers above in the memory is the sheer intensity of the experience: the unbridled competitiveness, and, in the land of the Pilgrims, a puritanical view of one’s adolescent years as a passage of suffering in pursuit of later-life greatness. However, the abrasive directness and uninhibited bawdiness of the male domain stuck out to me in a way that they didn’t in my limited time at our sister school. The fun parts were akin to an extended South Park episode. The less fun parts felt somewhere between Full Metal Jacket and A Separate Peace.
And then in adult life most of us learned what a civilizing counterpoint the opposite sex could be. I don’t know if veterans of all-girls schools would say the same of their own emergence into dual-sex adult life. Even so, most of my high school classmates joined fraternities in college, taking comfort in the knowledge that at least a few hours of the week could descend back into the vernacular of their former lives.
And sometimes, I wonder who I would be if I had had a normal upbringing. I wince a little reaching back, mainly from an unmistakably male authoritarianism that made most of us feel insignificant or inadequate. Some of these things don’t fade away when the setting shifts and the sexes are mingling – they’re subtly etched inside us.