Last night a woman told me about a good friend, mother of a fourteen-year-old who goes to an all girls' school, and the untimely death of her friend's husband, the girl's father. The woman said she and her friends rallied around the widow with casseroles and coffee cake and gossipy camaraderie, while in the back bedroom scores of teenage girls consoled their classmate. The students seemed to be there 24/7, their sympathy masked by grooming behavior, styling each other's hair, painting lips and nails, trying scarves and hats like chimps comforting other chimps, with the additional balm of scandals, rumors, electronic music and bowls of popcorn.
This woman's own daughter is eight, she told me, and the behavior of these teenagers was not lost on the younger girl: They are really friends deep down, she told her mom. This is why I want to go to (that school) some day.
The school she cites is the Archer School for Girls on Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles. The story is one I've heard again an again in various versions since three of us (Vicky Shorr, Megan Callaway and I) founded the school 13 years ago. Once it was the untimely death of a mother whose child was the bereaved young woman in her first semester of college; another year it was a beloved grandmother, the sole guardian of a senior taking her SATs and applying to colleges; another year it was another father; another a brother killed in a car crash near campus.
Sometimes it has not been a death but another disaster (date rape, disease, eating disorder or the private angst of losing a scholarship -- or a boyfriend) that activates the adolescent impulse to come together from wherever one is, to hang (as they call it) and to hug each other like life depended on it. Among most teens but most especially among those from a girls' school.
When I researched single sex schools for a book about the subject (Learning Like a Girl), I found the phenomenon to be common. In Chicago's YWLCS' school a conversation in art class about supporting each other yielded this dramatic adolescent assertion: I mean, we'd go into a burning building for each other. Nods all around.
Almie, who had come from a large, public school, was impressed with the sense of camaraderie she found when she came here. "I couldn't fully grasp the idea of an entire school eating lunch together in a sunny courtyard. But lo and behold, there it was in front of me."
She adds with a glimmer of a grin, "Everyone at Archer seemed so happy that I expected them to join hands and break out into Kumbyah."
The sense of community comes from shared values, experiences, beliefs and from an inter-dependence; Ibsen said it's like a ship -- everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm (some girl-mates would add, and the galley). For girls, community is the context that gives meaning to competition. And the competition they enjoy isn't between girls over boys and male attention, it's productive team efforts for the soccer game, science project, community service.
Alumnae from girls' schools typically remember their experiences fondly, their friendships as enduring, their bonds of connection as stronger than those of co-ed schools. I wonder, are they? Is there, as Cailin maintains in her blog, "An ease to these relationships"? Or is it just the memory of a simpler, sweeter time of life?
(Diana Meehan's Learning Like a Girl, Public Affairs, 2007).