From your pen / Miscellaneous / Noteworthy Nellies / Solidarity and Sisterhood

Herstory: the private school diaries

Feature image courtesy of The Bishop Strachan School 

Ophelie Zalcmanis-Lai 

From junior kindergarten to Grade 3, I went to an all-girls private school called The Bishop Strachan School (BSS). I was devastated when I switched to public school. On my first day of Grade 4, I said to my mother, “Mum, there are a lot of boys here.” It wasn’t just about, cooties; it was that I was entering a totally foreign environment.

Initially, I didn’t recognize that BSS was working to empower young women. After a while, I realized it does this through a history of always trying to push girls to break down boundaries.

BSS was founded in 1867 out of the need to provide more opportunities for higher education to young women in Toronto. Named after Toronto’s first bishop, John Strachan, the school is Canada’s oldest day and boarding school.

Ophelie, at the BSS

The author as a student at The Bishop Strachan School

Its tag line of “girls can do anything” was introduced to me early. By age five I was experiencing individualized learning for girls that had no intention of falling victim to stereotypes. I played at the building centre just as much as I played dress-up. I had all the tools and materials I needed to be a little architect without the activity being defined by gender.

“When they’re trying to figure how to make things we’ll say: ‘Well what have you tried?’ but we would never tell them how to do it,” says Mary Murray, kindergarten teacher at BSS.  

For example, Marianne Chilco, director of communications at BSS, describes the school’s state of the art 3d printer and laser cutter. The math students created clocks, but had to design the face to reflect their personalities. “The project was a lesson in self-awareness and individuality as well as the use of math formulas to make something work,” says Chilco.

At BSS there aren’t any boys to dissuade girls from going up to a learning centre or make them feel that are limited to certain work areas. This autonomy eventually manifests itself in greater ways as the children develop. Mary Favret, the mother of my best friend Elena from BSS, said that one day, Elena told her she wanted to get married at the school’s chapel but was asked what would happen if her husband didn’t want that.

“Without missing a beat, she replied she would just get a new husband! That is empowerment!” says Mary.

My teachers’ efforts to tailor the environment specifically for girls made for a common ground of collaboration. Elena Favret, BSS graduate, said this helped her focus. “Our teenage years are full of distractions, and having the discipline and focus of a single-sex environment relieved a lot of the stress of worrying about socializing with the opposite sex,” says Favret. Rather than worrying about boys, the girls can discuss their thinking processes in a relatable environment, which is essential to girls’ learning.

The most important thing BSS provided was a source of inspiration through resources. “At BSS our vision is to be an inspirational force for women to become transformational leaders in the world today,” says Deryn Lavell, head of school. “A lofty vision, but one we believe is necessary.”

Mary Murphy, head of BSS with students. Photo by:

Kindergarten teacher, Mary Murray, with students. Photo courtesy of The Bishop Strachan School.

But there’s a price to all this privilege. The current tuition at BSS is $29,470. This doesn’t include extra costs like uniforms. That’s how much my four years at Ryerson will cost. While it’s evident where this money is going, it makes for an air of exclusivity. Moreover, scholarships aren’t available until Grade 7. Education should be accessible, not determined by tax bracket.

Perhaps a more unsettling problem is that researchers are finding “collateral damage of segregation by sex” in single-sex schools. Psychology professor Rebecca Bigler from the University of Texas Austin was involved in a study that found students developed stereotypical attitudes in single-sex environments.

“When you go in and label a social group…children start to think that the group is really important,” explains Bigler. “They start to think ‘Well you’re…sorting us because we really must be different.” Her point is that removing one sex doesn’t make the other do better, especially in the realm of social interaction.

When the sexes are separated, the ability to develop flexibility in character is weakened. Bigler feels that there are “deficits in interests and abilities” where boys can become more aggressive and girls lose their competitiveness. The students in single-sex schools are lacking preparation for the real world. 

Neuroscience has also discredited the idea that boys and girls learn differently. Physically, there’s no evidence that the brains of boys and girls differ and thus need to be separated. Both sexes have high plasticity and girls need just as much experience to compete in sports as boys do. Most of the research done on this topic has used adult subjects in which differences between brains were attributed to years of simply choosing different life paths.

Both arguments are valid. I didn’t come out of BSS a social introvert that didn’t know how to exist on a co-ed level, but that’s not to say single-sex schools are the epitome of education; I happened to succeed in both environments. Yet in the end, it was BSS that planted the seed of my assertive nature. I got to build with my hammer while wearing a tiara and no one ever told me I couldn’t do it; instead, they said “go ahead Ophelie, see what you can build.” 

Ophelie Notebook

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