A Man Amongst Men

How going to an all-boys high school made it harder to live in the real world


Words || Patrick Gifford

Adjusting to life outside of high school tends to be a fairly difficult experience. When you’re thrust into education at around age five and spend up to 13 years of your life learning in a heavily disciplined and structured environment, you generally become pretty accustomed to it. Growing pains are typical at this transitory point in people’s lives, but what I think is overlooked is how drastic this transition is for people who go to single-sex high schools.

High school is a heavily disciplined environment, with a deeply inlaid authoritarian structure. If you’re even passingly familiar with the philosopher Michel Foucault then you probably know of the comparison between prisons and schools in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975). However, I find more commonality in the conduct of the student body and prisoners when recalling my own high school experience. I’m not going to identify my high school (Grapeshot doesn’t have any lawyers on staff and I don’t want to go down for defamation). We were by and large outliers because we were generally more ‘rowdy’ than other years.

When I say ‘rowdy,’ I mean mischievous and violent. Petty crime wasn’t uncommon across my year group, we had a nice selection of drug dealers who got bailed up for selling on school grounds. Students were constantly at odds with teachers; the authority of the position had next to no respect unless a specific teacher was liked enough as a person. Fights weren’t overly common, there was a lot more posing and posturing than actual conflict. But we played rough and fought dirty. Even still, only two fights actually drew blood. The school banned muck-up day specifically for our year and the bathrooms still ended up getting trashed with fake blood. In one of my favourite moments to recall, someone set off a flare at our graduation which exploded in a bin and nearly started a fire.

By the time we were all in Year 12 we pretty much universally got along and there was relative peace between the different gangs. I’m using the word gangs because the friend groups we hung around in were honestly more like prison gangs than what I think most people would see as a bunch of mates. We were largely ethnically/racially divided in these gangs, something that only clicked for me at 15 and has been puzzling me ever since. The blonde haired, blue eyed kids all sat together at lunch, same as most of the kids from Asian backgrounds. The Lebanese kids, Greek kids, and Italian kids mostly congregated together in their own groups as well. There were only two gangs which didn’t really fit this formula, a smaller one filled with guys who liked to play Halo but still played footy on the weekends, and the larger one was where I called my home. There were semi-designated problem solvers or leaders in these groups as well and if there was ever any trouble between two groups, such as a fight over seating area, then it would usually be negotiated and sorted out by these people, generally either through discourse or threats of violence.

Leaving this environment and coming to university was quite a big shock to me. Different things were valued for social inclusion and cohesion, violence was gone from any equation of social interaction, and almost seemingly by divine intervention, women existed in the place where I was learning with my peers. As I’ve grown older, I’ve been wondering what going through my adolescent years and entering the beginnings of adulthood in this environment might have done to form my world view, and how it similarly affected my friends. Brendan, Con and I were incredibly close back then, and still are today, which is why it was alarming to see how their experiences differed from mine.

What made you fit in at our high school was generally a heavy interest in sport of some kind. For the three of us, this wasn’t the case. Sports, for my two friends, were occasional pots of interest and physical activity. They dipped into and out of them as they needed to for social or fitness reasons, but their true passions laid in music and art respectively. For this reason, neither of them fit into what they saw as the conventional distinction of masculine behaviour within our cohort.

“From my perspective the primary focuses were women and sport,” said Con “and I wasn’t straight or athletic. I found myself often trying to stay under the radar to avoid bad attention.”

For my part, I wasn’t interested in anything physical other than martial arts, so the three of us were isolated from what was a large part of the social norm for most of high school. When we found each other, and others who were isolated like us, we stuck together in a fairly tight-knit group. However, this isolation and sectarianism was common across the entire year group. Remarking on the way that toxic ideas of masculinity spread across our year group, Brendan pointed out that “All of these guys come together and share their ideas, and keep to themselves a lot. It’s a very good breeding ground for [toxic masculinity]… A lot of the time people would express what they were feeling with either their words or their fists. It got the message across.”

Violence was fairly well respected at our school; it proved you had a backbone if you could use your hands to backup your mouth. I didn’t keep my head down as much as Con or Brendan and so I ended up falling into the trap of having to use aggression as a means of getting myself out of being bullied. You can earn a decent amount of respect challenging a guy double your size to a fight outside of a classroom, but that understanding of how to be noticed and how to fit in with your peers doesn’t translate well into the world outside of high school, which is what the institution is supposed to be preparing you for. This culture of aggression wasn’t lost on my friends either, with its absence, along with environmental change, being one of the more intense elements of leaving our high school and eventually going to our respective universities.

“I guess I wasn’t used to the absence of hostility,” Con said when I asked him how adjusting to university felt after coming from a single-sex high school, “but I guess more specifically the idea of mingling outside of a set group of friends that I knew I was comfortable with was strange to me.”

Brendan echoed this sentiment, but discussed it more in the context of socialising and meeting new people;  “I feel like I needed a lot of adjusting, coming out of [high school] and going into the real world,” he remarked, “There was just so much I needed to learn… and I needed to get myself out of bad habits. I was very quiet… You stay with your people and you’re not very outgoing coming out of that [environment]. Now I’m a lot more so; it feels like it’s been a learned skill since I’ve left.” I don’t think this is a particularly unique experience to people who went through single-sex schooling. It speaks more to the alien nature of the world outside of primary and secondary schooling, which are largely structured the same for social purposes.

When this sense of isolation and the need for its end becomes more interesting is how it impacts interactions with people who do not identify as male. Brendan hit on the paradox that this caused in his own life, where he was able to talk easily with his family but not with any new girls, or eventually women upon leaving high school, which he met; “I have these two sisters at home that I talk with all the time, but talking with strangers that are women is just… a very different thing.”

Con was a lot more forthright talking about what he saw as the fundamentally exclusionary underpinning of single-sex schooling, saying that it needlessly others the opposite sex and reinforces negative gender identities.

“As an example of how warped and intense it felt to present as a certain kind of man, I was objectifying women and I was gay,” he explained. “And in a weirder way later on I took comfort in the idea that I wouldn’t need to be good at sport and athleticism because no one expects that of a gay man. Therefore I don’t have to suffer that feeling of inadequacy.”

My sharing of these experiences isn’t meant as an indictment of single-sex schooling. For all the three of us know this could have been a series of incredibly localised phenomena specific to our high school. Ideally, though, some understanding can be had of the intensified difficulty that is transitioning from a single-sex schooling environment into the wider world, and the negative conceptions of masculinity that such an environment can foster.

“I can’t say that I wouldn’t have grown up with problematic views of masculinity if I didn’t go to an all-boys catholic school,” Con said, talking about how going to an all-boys school impacted his sense of masculinity in his teens, “but from my experience I always look back on [my high school] as a concentrated microcosm of toxic masculinity in the larger world.”