I was sorting some old files when I came across this letter which was published in the year 2000. This letter started my writing career.
I have followed the co-education debate with interest and would like to offer my personal perspective on this multifaceted issue.
I returned to Combermere a few years ago to participate during the Old Scholars’ week of events. We met with our headmistress, Ms Pile, in her office, and then proceeded to the auditorium. I recall the combined chatter of hundreds of students as we drew closer, then as Ms Pile led the procession of old scholars into the auditorium, all of the students ceased talking and rose to their feet – I was almost overcome with emotion.
Once the Headmistress had invited the executive members of the CSOSA to be seated on the platform, she approached the microphone. “Sit please”, and we all sat. The notices were read, the prayers were said, and the hymn was sung. Nothing had changed. My beloved Combermere had retained its character and culture. Then it was time for the school song. I could hardly contain myself, for I used to sing in the school choir, and the school song held a special meaning for me then.
Lives are in the making here
Hearts are in the waking here
Mighty undertaking here
Up and on, up and on.
I can attest that these words are true, and what meaning they hold for me now. As we sang the chorus, I could control my emotion no longer and wept for the first time in 15 years.
Up then! Truest fame lies in high endeavour
Play the game, keep the flame burning brightly ever
It is out of my love for this school, and its current and former students and teachers, and because I deeply treasure the memories and appreciate its culture that I feel compelled to provide my perspective. To those who would hitherto be offended I offer my sincerest apologies.
I entered Combermere one year prior to the arrival of the girls and was placed in Lower 1D. I vividly remember the authoritative yet simple manner in which teachers like Mr Roach who taught me English, and was affectionately known as Spoon (however not called that to his face by anyone who respected him), and Mr Sealy who taught me mathematics, were able to convey information. Then there was our lone female teacher, Ms Jebodsingh from whom I learnt geography and integrity.
I distinctly remember the final day of the second term, happening upon young Hugh, who was weeping. I inquired the reason for his apparent distress to which he replied that he had placed 8th in class. I queried what was wrong with that, seeing as how I had placed 27th out of a class of 29 boys. He bemoaned the fact that the previous term, he had placed 3rd. There was also young Riley who I believe placed first, however both Riley and Hugh retook the 11+ Common Entrance exam later that year and subsequently left Combermere for HC.
Those were the days when boys seemed eager to learn. When our teachers asked a question, one answered without hesitation. Regardless of the answer, something was learnt, and even if I was incorrect, to be called upon was an honour, and the attempt itself was an achievement.
From Lower 1D, we went to form Upper 1F. The school song was changed from “Up boys” to “Up then”, new bathrooms had been constructed for the girls, and although there were no girls in our class, the subject of much of the conversation centred around them. However, learning continued and I distinctly remember the feelings of accomplishment in finally grasping the fundamentals of set theory and algebra, which I have not forgotten to this day.
For 2 years, whenever my father drove past Combermere, usually on our way to church, I would sit up and salute the school. Why would an 11-year-old boy do such a thing that some may deem lunatic? I suppose that I just loved the school.
We graduated to form 2G where the girls joined us. They abolished the lower/upper first forms that year, and with the girls sitting so close, learning for me was difficult. Puberty found me fascinated with these girls. I can recall little of what I learned from forms 2 to 5, but I clearly recall being unable to concentrate in any of my classes except technical drawing and industrial arts.
I had no problem running around at lunchtime and entering the class perspiring. A favourite sport would be to run behind a football with a few hundred other boys from first to sixth forms, all hoping to kick it. It was like a stampede, and for the whole lunch period I only managed to kick the ball two or three times, but what satisfaction each kick provided. I suppose the satisfaction was partially derived from just playing with the 5th and 6th formers, the men of the school.
I don’t recall being ridiculed much for answering a question incorrectly, but I know that I stopped asking questions after Upper 1F, even when I desperately wanted to. Many times I was completely out to sea but was afraid to reveal my ignorance to the girls, some of whom I found rather attractive.
To sit next to a girl who I found attractive was a pleasurable yet painful experience. For our eyes to make contact resulted in my heart feeling as if it were literally melting, and I had to look away. Of course nothing was learned during that class period as I struggled to keep my heart rate down. If she would happen to talk to me, then the whole day was lost, for I was usually too shocked and afraid to respond intelligently, and spent the rest of the day rehearsing some words to tell her – although I never had the courage to.
There were some boys who seemed to have no fear of revealing their ignorance to, or conversing with the girls. They were generally the ones who also boasted about tasting the forbidden fruit. Having not tasted such fruit untill I was married, I now understand the confidence and boldness such fruit provides a man; however, tasting such fruit before the proper time appeared to only provide illusionary achievement for those boys. Those boys who boasted in 2nd and 3rd form were notably absent from 5th form. Those who boasted in 5th form were not with me in 6th form. Those who succumbed to the temptation in 6th were not with me at University. And those who succumbed while pursuing their Bachelor’s degree were not with me while I pursued my Masters.
The temptations were real enough. Some girls seemed bent on provoking the boys. In 4th and 5th form, some would walk around without bras on, which effectively negated any serious study that day or night, followed by much anxiety the following day as one hurried to school hoping for a repeat performance.
Admittedly, such temptations were also present at university, where some girls (usually arts students) seemed determined to have intimate relations. One turned up outside my dormitory room at 3:00am scantly clad and proposed sexual intercourse; however, by this time I was emotionally mature enough to respond properly – I politely declined. However to force boys and girls to go through puberty in a sexually explosive environment, with the sorry excuse that they must all learn to get along, is just not right.
I believe that co-education may have an appearance of success for those studying the literary arts, where the general understanding of such material requires more personal study outside of the classroom. For one does not need to read the entire English literature or foreign language text in the classroom to grasp the meaning. However, every fundamental of mathematics, chemistry, and physics must be grasped to understand the more advanced subject matter derived from it. To understand the rudiments of geometry and algebra require undivided attention, and the only way that I have survived to tell the tale is that from 3rd to 5th form, I spent my summer holidays reading the assigned science text books at home.
It is my opinion that this issue of co-education, while multi-faceted, is much less complex than some are proposing. For at the end of the day, it is about a boy going through puberty, struggling to grasp the fundamentals of algebra, with an attractive girl sitting next to him, fascinating his heightened sense with her perfume, and distracting him with her skirt raised half way up her thigh. Do we seriously expect our lads to learn anything?
I respect the learned opinions of Dean Critchlow, former Principal Blackman, and Principal Keith Griffith, and I hope that my perspective can be of some value to the debate. Perhaps some thought can given to segregating the classrooms in September 2000, and if this seems too bold a step, then perhaps at least the science classes can be segregated.
Permit me to offer my apologies the current students of Combermere, for if someone would have recommended segregating the classes while I was a student, I would have deemed him a spoilsport.
Foes in plenty we shall meet
Hearts courageous scorn defeat
So we press with eager feet
Up and on, up and on.
Ever upward to the fight
Ever upward to the light
Ever true to God and Right
Up and on, up and on.