Learning to unlearn

Hopping the Pond

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Until the age of 16, I’d spent half of my life at a school that labeled itself a boys’ school. In England, this is relatively common.

When I tell this to Berkeleyans, who are perhaps less familiar with the antiquated delights of the British educational system and more familiar with California’s coeducational campuses, I’m usually met with one of two questions.

The first question: “Did you have to wear a uniform?” The answer to that is an emphatic yes. And before you ask, it looked exactly how you would imagine. The tie was even color-coded to “house” or “prefect status.” Think budget Harry Potter without wands or women. 

The second question: “What on Earth was that like?” My answer this time is tentative — and much less emphatic.

From a mahogany-paneled masculine microcosm of Great Halls and Cricket Pavilions, one correctly predicts a certain laddishness.

My classrooms and canteens were for boys. I played sports against other schools in teams of only boys. In my 10 years at school, I never had a female-identifying teacher supervise my homeroom. Even at our annual disco hosted for the local girls’ school, the boys huddled themselves in the corner, distancing themselves as far from their guests as possible. It’s bizarre now to think how rare it was for me, until 16 years old, to see a girl my age on a weekday.

For ages 16-18, my school labeled itself as coed. With a quarter of students in the final grades female-identifying, you’d expect the prevailing virility to be extinguished. But I found that the new coeducational contrast stoked the already raging fire of maleness.

Though such a masculine-centric environment didn’t fully suit me personally, I am not here to criticize it. Many of my classmates will admit that they thrived in such an environment and this is entirely fair.

Nonetheless, for me, it felt infinitely disconnected from my home. I grew up in a household without a father figure — as an only child with two wonderful lesbian mothers. So, from as early as I can remember, school was a “male” space and the home was a “female” space.

Career fairs, university applications, the concept of grading, the pursuit of academic knowledge. Uniformity, ambition, competition. In my head, these school-learned qualities were compartmentalized; they were for men. Masculinity was inseparable from my idea of a school education.

Instead, dinner table chat with my parents was the closest we got to a career fair. University meetings gave way to tales of their nights out at university. It was impossible to grade my mothers’ cooking or hugs. The knowledge pursued was emotional, not academic. Uniformity became candidness. Ambition became tranquility. Competition became empathy. And given that I shared this space with two women, these qualities seemed inseparable from femininity.

I am not here to rank the particular qualities I learned from these worlds. The issue was in how I saw these qualities as “female” or “male” depending on where I learned them, and that was unproductive.

On the train journey between school and home, all genders sat together. Whatever your identity, it was irrelevant to the qualities you had as a person. Whisking over the Victorian rooftops of London, this rattling carriage was the only space of my weekdays where all genders mixed. And the most wonderful part was that this was how the real world worked.

When I arrived at university this was the norm; I found myself in a fully nonbinary educational space. In particular, UC Berkeley made me realize how unlike the real world my upbringing was. I had a lot of unlearning to do.

After picking apart essays in a majority female-identifying seminar — something I’d have never experienced before 16 — I’ll return home to the smell of dinner cooking in the home I share with two men, not two women. Not only is there more space at Berkeley for nonbinary gendering, but the gendered connotations I developed in high school have been dismantled; everyone can be both professional and domestic, ambitious and sentimental. This feels good. It feels like the real world. And why else am I here, if not to prepare myself for the real world?

Please don’t misconstrue my words as an argument against same-gender parenting or education. Trust me, I am more qualified than anyone to give an opinion on those and I confirm that both have made my life wonderful.

Instead, I’m questioning the resulting gendering of environments, qualities and activities. We’re more than entitled to place our children in single-gender spaces. However, if we do, the first lesson we should teach them is that in the real world, these spaces are for all genders.

So in answer to your second question, instead of boring you with the above, I’ll probably resign with a shrug: “It was pretty cool.”

This isn’t a lie — I’m grateful for my past because it gave me something to unlearn. And yes, it was pretty cool to unlearn the past because, for me, it was the best way to learn.

Stanley Stott-Hall writes about finding his Berkeley bearings as a Brit. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.