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News > 35 Years of Co-education > Co-Education Memories from Bibi Berki, OH 1983-85

Co-Education Memories from Bibi Berki, OH 1983-85

Bibi joined in the Sixth Form with 13 other girls in 1983

I grew up on Hymers Avenue. For me – and for every resident – the rhythm of our weekday was marked by the stream of boys heading into school in the morning and pouring out again in the late afternoon. If I was at home, I stood at my parents’ bedroom window and watched. Grey or black uniforms, long trousers. Or, for the little ones, red blazers in the summer, caps and shorts. Both my brothers – older and younger – joined the stream and went through the permutation of uniform.

But there were always a few breaks in the grey, a surprising clash of colour when a girl came through the school gates. Teenage girls, here and there, dressed how they wanted, short or bobbed hair, make-up, shoulder bags, and heels. Just a few, but so conspicuous.

“Hymers takes girls in the Sixth Form,” was the mantra. I thought it must be strange. They must be brave or special in some way.

When I joined the Hymers Sixth Form from my all-girls’ school, it felt like I’d left one bear pit for another. From all girls to virtually all boys. My previous school had been a bruising experience but at least I had friends. Here, I sat alone at the back of the classroom, intensely shy, not at all brave or special. I went home at lunchtimes – grateful to escape – and in the evenings I told my father that I hated it and wanted to leave. Why? Now I have young people of my own, I know it’s because of the uncompromising melodrama of the teenage mind. Something is immediately unbearable and there’s no moderating that view. At the time the masculine teaching voices, the sense of discipline, and the unquestionably higher academic standards were all unnerving.  There were two other girls in my form, but I was as slow to befriend them as I was any of the boys. 

I look back on my two years at Hymers now with immense fondness and see those initial weeks as nothing more than the fear of change – a necessary transition. It’s the challenges that build us, as I now see, and parents look on helplessly as we pass through the ordeal. But we come out and, with luck, are the richer for it. I grew close to some of those girls, but I also loved being among boys. I had a very long thick plait of hair and the little ones used to shout “bellrope” as I walked past (God, it could have been far worse).

I loved that the boys I befriended were like me, funny semi-nerds who enjoyed learning but were inching towards maturity. In the end, we gravitate towards those we recognise, regardless of gender. I harboured secret acting dreams but wasn’t bold enough to raise an arm in class. My friend Fiona put my name down for the auditions and I found myself cast as Julia, the cardinal’s mistress, in The Duchess of Malfi. Magical weeks of rehearsal and the adventure of performance – these are still happy markers so many years later. I’m grateful to the school for having given me opportunities like that and the astonishingly high number of theatre and cultural trips we packed into two years.

I ask myself if being one of a handful of girls among hundreds of boys meant anything to me at the time. Maybe. In the end, we make friends and that’s what gives us pleasure. Once it adapts, the teenage brain can relax and get on with being droll and playful. I remember isolated moments… the headmaster waving frantically at me across the grounds one lunchtime, as I unknowingly trashed the cricket square by walking across it in my heels… a teacher being convinced by two boys, secretly in possession of a remote control, that you could turn the TV on and off by talking to it. And he did… talk to it. 

For me, two years of Sixth Form was such a sudden thwack of academic and social growth that the fact that I was in a gender minority barely registers. Anyway, I went straight into a university college where I was in the first year of women undergraduates and so it couldn’t have been much of an issue for me.

Our family home is long sold and I’ve lived in London now longer than anywhere else, but I imagine the weekday rhythm of life on Hymers Avenue still revolves around that vibrant stream of children – boys and girls – heading in and out of the school gates. 

Bibi Berki, OH 1983-1985

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