A Vote for Mixing the Sexes at Mills
On the front page of the Los Angeles Times last week, there was a shocking photograph of young women clutching one another and shrieking in pain.
This was not the scene of a mass murder, the aftermath of a plane crash or any other physical disaster. It was a picture from the campus of Mills College, and the agony we saw on these women’s faces was the result of an announcement that the school planned to admit men.
I know something about single-sex schools. I have attended two of them: a girls’ school and a boys’ school. And I do not understand the reaction of these Mills College students. Let me explain.
I am a graduate of the once all-male Deerfield Academy, a college preparatory school in western Massachusetts. But, for three months, I was a student at another single-sex school, the all-female Emma Willard school in Troy, N.Y.
During the winter of 1981, about 20 boys from Deerfield settled at Emma Willard as part of an exchange program. We traded our Deerfield neckties and mandatory sit-down meals for the blue jeans and buffets of Emma Willard.
For 12 weeks, classroom learning was less important than learning how we would adapt and prosper in an alien, albeit friendly, environment.
Although the change frightened me, it seemed better than the alternative. Despite New England’s autumn beauty, the previous fall at Deerfield had been disastrous for me. I had played poorly on an intramural soccer team, found out I was among the lowest ranked students in my class, and had been told my chances of getting into the colleges I liked were slim.
So I flew to Troy in Upstate New York that winter. I was shy and insecure, and immediately became more so when classes started.
I was entranced by a senior classmate named Nancy Low. My roommate offered to play matchmaker and invited her to visit us in our room one Friday evening.
We knew the rules during visiting period: Lights on, door open, feet on the floor. As it turned out, I didn’t need the rules. Even before Nancy arrived, my feet fled through the open door and rushed me to the laundry room.
I spent the entire visiting hour next to the dryers, rationalizing to myself why I needed to do my wash on Friday night. Nancy’s friend stuffed her bureau drawers with packages of Sweet and Low, but the chance for a meaningful relationship had been destroyed.
Romance aside, I quickly became involved in other activities at my new school. Surprisingly, I found I was involved in many activities I was too timid to try at Deerfield.
The presence of girls, who were less likely to laugh at shortcomings, and the fact the exchange didn’t last long enough for me to develop an unalterably horrible reputation, inspired me to join a singing group.
We visited campus dining halls once and sang “Twist and Shout.” I earned a part, a small one, in “Our Town.” I stuck out my hand, said “Looks like rain,” and opened an umbrella. And four of us from Deerfield entered the talent show as The Who. Mimicking Pete Townshend, I played a shamelessly ear-splitting, decibel-shattering, previously recorded version of “Baba O’Riley.”
My metamorphosis was so dramatic that in my new environment, I even became a disciplinary problem.
The boys’ floor of the dormitory had bath tubs instead of showers. But one floor up on the girls’ floor, there were plenty of showers. Sick of pushing my nose against the drain to wash my hair, I crept upstairs to the showers.
Joyously, I lathered and rinsed like a prisoner freed from solitary confinement. But as I snuck back downstairs, the corridor master caught me and sentenced me to “hard labor,” cleaning at a nearby pre-school.
As spring arrived, I strolled about the campus, thinking of how much my mother said she’d liked Emma Willard when she attended the school in the 1940s.
In those days, maids cleaned the girls’ rooms, and scurried after them with pots of hot tea when the girls ice skated in the winter. I didn’t receive such service, but I felt special being the only son of an alumna to attend Emma Willard.
My final semester back with the boys at Deerfield Academy was pleasant, but I also returned for visits to Emma Willard.
During my first visit back, I was part of a group from the boys’ school coming for a dance. When our bus pulled up to the Gothic campus, the girls gathered around. “This is great!” my roommate said of our reception.
The reception men get at Mills College probably won’t be so generous. And that’s too bad.
Take it from one who’s been on both sides: Mixing the sexes isn’t a matter to get so upset about. Mass murders and plane crashes are.