Private School Life, A Student Essay

by Emily Cherry

After entering college, I came to realize that two reactions exist when I tell a new acquaintance that I attended private schools for 13 years. The first is an unimpressed acceptance of my announcement as nothing out of the ordinary. The second reaction—a not uncommon reaction—holds much more of a punch. In this reaction there is a mixture of pity and disgust, usually accompanied by a disdainful glance that says, “Oh, I didn’t realize she was that type of girl.” These reactions usually come from people who have accepted what I have come to know as the stigmas of the private school education: our fathers are all abnormally successful doctors and lawyers who give 75% of their incomes to their daughters; we are snobs; we are elitist; we are every bad, superiority-complex-ridden adjective in the book. It is this reaction that, frankly, dumbfounds me. Some people benefit from a larger, public school environment, while others prefer a more intimate classroom experience. During my grade school and high school years, I definitely fell into the latter category.

I spent kindergarten through eighth grade at a co-ed Catholic school in Richmond, Virginia. I never questioned my parents’ decision: school was school, and mine just happened to be a private one. Sure, I had friends who attended public schools, but in the end I hardly noticed a difference.

By the time I reached middle school, though, I began to have doubts: could there be more to life than private schools had to offer me? Would I not benefit more (and, perhaps, have more fun and meet more boys) were I to attend the “alternative” public school where no grades were given and students called teachers by their first names? My parent’s answer was no, and the private school journey thus continued on into my high school years.

But even though I attended private school all my life, I could not help but notice a transition period upon my graduation from eighth-grade superiority into freshman year nervousness.

Step one, for me, was the most traumatic: the move from a co-ed to an all-girls school. Friends of mine who went to “normal” schools gasped and gawked at the prospect of such an extremely feminine environment. How would I date? How would I learn to be a socially functional human being? In other words, how could I survive four years without a boy in sight?

To my extremely pleasant surprise, however, the pity woefully doled out to me by my public school friends was, to say the least, unjustified. In fact, they were 100% off mark. I absolutely loved my new single sex environment. If I woke too late in the morning to put on make-up, so what? If I was having a bad hair day, it made no difference. And if I needed to escape the 300 plus girls crammed into one not-extensively-large building, I could take a walk two blocks down the street to visit our brother military school. All-girls, for me at least, provided just the right balance of sanity and normalcy.

Step two in the adjustment process, for many of my new classmates, was the switch to the uniform. I had the luck of being completely assimilated in my nine years of uniform wearing in grade school, but for other girls such an easy transition was simply not the case. The required attire consisted of: plaid kilt, no more than one inch above the knee; white oxford button-up shirt, collar buttoned down; brown tie shoes; white crew socks (knee socks and tights permitted in the coldest of cold weather); green crew neck or cardigan sweater, NEVER to be tied around the waist or shoulders. Now, I am not saying that once in a while I never wished to tie my sweater around my waist, or unbutton the collar of my starched white oxford shirt, but looking back I would not change my uniform-wearing years. I am just as much of a clothes horse as the next girl, but when I wake up at six a.m. on a weekday morning the last thing I am ready to do is create an intricate and stunning yet casually sophisticated outfit to wear to a long day of classes. Some might argue that uniforms stifle the individuality, but I found the opposite to be true. What better way to be yourself than when you do not have to worry about what “image” your clothes portray to the rest of your classmates?

Maybe once in a while I would complain about the uniforms, or the extreme lack of testosterone, but such things were easily forgotten. For my classmates and me, the idea of private school was not a foreign thing but a very comfortable way of life. Friends of mine would laugh at the idea that I had daily theology classes and monthly masses to attend. Others cringed at the prospect of surrendering their freedom of dress. And while I did not readily embrace these aspects of school life initially, I came to accept and even, at times, enjoy them.

Now here I am at a public university, my private education shelved in the past but definitely not forgotten. I thrived in private school because of the all-girl environment, the small class size, the teachers’ attention, and the closeness between the girls in my class. Maybe not everybody is cut out for a small student body, all-girls all the time, or a uniform regulated by a nun, but my little all-girls Catholic school was just what I needed to make me ready for the great-big public university experience.

Emily Cherry, who attended private schools in Richmond, Virginia, is a fourth year student studying English and French at the University of Virginia.

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