Movies and TV love to portray high school — and often in the same way: Bright-eyed, varsity letter-clad boys, hallways lined with spray-painted lockers and glass cases of sports trophies, Friday night football games with bleachers full of spirited students. My high school experience was nowhere close to this: Substitute varsity jackets with our sky blue pleated skirts and navy blue polos. Replace the hallways of lockers with an AstroTurf circle that everyone lounged on during sunny afternoons. Instead of watching football games, the school gathered to watch our robotics team navigate its creation through a maze.
For seven years, I went to Castilleja School, a tiny, all-girls institution in the heart of Silicon Valley. When people ask me what it was like to go to an all-girls school, I don’t have an answer. How do you quantify or describe something so central to your identity and development? Finding your voice as an adolescent girl is an entirely different experience at an all-girls school. When you grow up with 60 girls who have seen you through some of the most developmentally challenging years of your life, you find your identity and place in the community faster than the idealized tropes depicted on screen. For me, there was no fear of being lost in the crowd when everyone had been a part of my life since I was 11 years old.
In small, seminar-style classes, I learned the value of questioning entrenched beliefs. Understanding the danger of complacency and apathy. My school, specifically, was very community and social change oriented. Our teachers and mentors tried as much as possible to push us out of the bubble of the Silicon Valley — whether that be through inviting speakers like Condoleezza Rice or Nicholas Kristof speaking to the school, or taking each junior to a foreign country, paid for by the school.
It was also secular, which was different from several other all-girls schools. This meant a comparatively progressive mindset, especially when it came to the topics of sexual education and women’s health. Discussion about resources, body positivity and sexual health were all at the forefront. While my school prided itself in being traditional and we had our fair share of parents who preferred that their children be shielded from these topics, conversation was often the first priority. Every year, an OB-GYN would talk to the senior class about contraception, tell us about resources in their new home states and initiate open conversations about party culture in college.
More than anything, my school was intent on fostering pride in being a strong woman. The values we celebrated were intelligence, curiosity and conviction. Because we grew up in an environment that granted us the latitude to challenge and argue, we had confidence in our beliefs and abilities when leaving Castilleja. We didn’t have to face the inherent differences in the way we were treated compared to our male counterparts. Some may call that naivete, but in reality, we were able to build our self-worth within the confines of a nurturing, yet challenging environment. Most Castilleja girls say that when attending college, they find themselves as some of the most opinionated and vocal students in the conversation. We weren’t taught how to “be a girl”— we were taught how to shatter the molds that had been made. Tradition and progress can be balanced — and they were.
Castilleja was far from perfect. Attending an incredibly competitive school located in the Bay Area was not easy in the slightest. And there are things to be said about the kind of person that can succeed at Castilleja, where certain characteristics, personality traits and even career choices are favored. But when you have a student body that has been taught to question, rebuild and improve the world around them, you immediately build a community that is dedicated to bettering itself. A community that wants to maintain its essence, while still adapting to the times and learning from its students.
As single-gender schools begin to adapt to different definitions of gender identity, I have thought a lot about what made Castilleja the place it was. Accepting people across genders will not fundamentally change the lessons and environment that made me who I am, and single-gender schools must explore what being “all-girls” means in the 21st century. Intellectual development, confidence and celebration of strength are not lost when we become more inclusive. I have faith that my school and other schools like it will be able to adapt and maintain their strengths as they continue to listen to their students and learn from the changing world.
Nayanika Kapoor is a sophomore majoring in journalism and political economy. Her column, “In-Transit,” runs every other Friday.