A Boys-School Alumnus Ruminates on the Girl Debate

My father (whose first name was Wilfrid) had an Uncle Adam. I have just made this entirely incidental discovery thanks to Louise Woolcock. Though she has never heard of me, Ms. Woolcock has recently acquired a not-inconsiderable fame. And fame, as this upstanding 17-year-old public schoolgirl is no doubt inferring, can spread its concentric ripples way beyond expectation or even awareness.

I mean, apart from not knowing me, she knows next to nothing about my Great Uncle Adam. (Which puts us almost in the same boat.) But what I know about her, is, by comparison, legion. I know, for instance, the names and professions of both her parents. I know which school she attended in Oxford until last summer and which school she now attends. It is Rugby School, one of England's most reputable private schools (though we call them "public" to confuse foreigners).

I know what Ms. Woolcock hopes to pursue as a career. I know she does not give in to opposition or debate. Above all, I know the reason for her exposure to the public gaze: It is that she has been chosen to be Head Girl - the first in Rugby School's four-to-five century history. And this appointment to a position of authority, trust, and honor has stirred at Rugby a certain rustling in the dovecote. A number of self-styled "traditionalist" boys at this longstandingly all-male establishment have risen up in obstreperous protest.

Yes, Ms. Woolcock has already become a legend. "Media interest," as they call it, can spread a reputation far and wide. And media interest is what she has indeed been subjected to. So far, she appears to be taking it all in her stride.

As for Great Uncle Adam, I have to assume or deduce what I do not know from the rather scant evidence before me. There he is, in the form of his rather blotchy handwritten inscription, on the title page of my father's old copy of "Tom Brown's Schooldays":

Wilfrid B. Andreae

from Uncle Adam. Xmas 1896.

I am not sure what age my dad was when his Uncle Adam gave him this book. But it would be fairly safe to assume that he was a schoolboy. "Tom Brown's Schooldays" is the classic English public school story. And the reason I took it down from the shelf was that about the only thing I knew about it was that its hero, the fictional Brown, went to Rugby School.

My father, however, did not go to Rugby, but to Bradfield. He subsequently sent my elder brother there also. When it was my turn, I was sent, instead, to a "gentler" public school in faraway Norfolk called Gresham's.

Gresham's may have been gentler, but in one respect it was the same as virtually all English public schools a few decades ago: It was all-male.

Since my time there, it has gone co-educational - and thus, presumably, has changed out of all recognition and is no longer the place it was. But Rugby has been a particularly late developer girl-wise, and only became genuinely coeducational in 1993. Even now, most of its girls are still relatively young, working their way up the school. So the boys at Rugby (some of them) are simply not used to the female element intruding on their bastion.

In theory, I am totally a supporter of coeducation. To subject growing boys to some 11 years of schooling devoid of feminine peers, as in my case, is monastic in its narrowness and grossly unrealistic, if one of the chief purposes of education is to give children a fully rounded outlook.

That's the theory. But the happenings at Rugby have made me ponder once again the issue, which I thought had long ceased to be an issue. And I have arrived at one or two peculiar thoughts.

First, looking back, I cannot say for certain that we ever really felt in our all-boys schools that anything essential was actually missing.

Second, I cannot say, hand on heart, that we would have been any more welcoming to an influx of girls than the Rugby traditionalists seem to be now. My evidence for this doubt is that there were, actually, two girls of about 16 who used to come to Gresham's a few times a week to take classes in, I think, physics or chemistry, subjects that their own nearby all-girls school, called Runton Hill, did not provide to a high enough standard.

And I have to admit, with some embarrassment, that we were not very pleasant about these visitations from Runton Hill. These two girls were - not to tell a lie - known by us as "the runts." (And Kipling says the female of the species is more deadly than the male!)

Third, I think that this stupid reaction was probably because we just did not know how to cope with girls in the school situation we had so long been used to.

I know the Rugby protesters say they are not "sexist" but "traditionalist." One of their slogans reads: "400 YEARS OF TRADITION DOWN THE DRAIN." In other words, they claim that it's simply change that they are against. Girls are fine. And my perusal of "Tom Brown's Schooldays" has turned up a telling passage that appears to support this contention.

The 19th century boys at Tom's Rugby were objecting to changes made by the then-new headmaster, Thomas Arnold. He had abolished some of the school's "prejudices and traditions." They did not like it at all. "For," writes the old boy of the school who is the book's author, "there are no such bigoted holders by established forms and customs, be they never so foolish or meaningless, as English schoolboys."


Yet at our school, we did not particularly feel ourselves to be traditionalists at all. We would (wouldn't we?) have been quite clear that the world was evidently populated with "sons and daughters of Adam," not to mention his nieces and nephews, and that every one of them was equal....

And yet, naggingly, with my mind's eye, I see those two girls from Runton Hill arriving in the morning for chemistry, and as I watch them I can only too vividly notice that there is not a single boy speaking to them. Not one.

What if the legendary Adam had given his newly arrived Eve the cold shoulder like that?

But then I suppose that ancient mythical couple probably did not go to Rugby - or Bradfield or Gresham's - when they were school age. There are some things even older than the English public school system.

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