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“All Girls” by Emily Layden: The Blessings and the Risks of Insular Organizations

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Original photo: Classroom at Annie Wright Schools via Flickr

Did you ever fantasize about going to boarding school?

All Girls illustrates some of the joys along with the pitfalls and the weird contradictions of both.

All Girls, by Emily Layden, is the story of a year in the life of an all girls boarding school, one in which the school’s insular world is rocked by the resurfacing of a 20 year old accusation of the rape of a student by a teacher.

The school is placed in a weird situation in which they are expected to respond to charges that were never filed of the rape of an 18 year old student.  She had not charged the teacher when it happened, and 20 years later, she can’t, according to state law in Connecticut.  What she does is file a civil suit against the school, and compounds the problem by posting signs about the rape where all of the families will see it as they bring their daughters to school for the fall term.

Ok, as a former teacher, I can tell you that things like this absolutely do happen, as bizarre as it all sounds. Former students do bring charges against teachers years, even decades, after the fact. The school is absolutely stuck in a “no win” situation because the accused has rights and the case is so old, it’s difficult to solve.  Yet, at the same time, the school absolutely has to respond, and they absolutely have to keep their reputation.

 

And they absolutely have an obligation, ethical, and legal, to protect their students.

Boarding schools have it the worst, for obvious reasons.

Author Emily Layden frames the story by devoting a chapter to the varying perspectives of different students keyed to the main school traditions through out the year, with one or two in each season.  As the plot unfolds, the reader gets an idea about what going to a school like this might be like…I’ve certainly seen similar traditions in independent schools I’ve worked in…which is entertaining.  I’m sure I’m not alone in imagining what it might be like to have gone away to high school! Layden rounds out the story by concocting documents, including communications sent to families and staff and a few e-mails in between staff members.

What’s Great about All Girls

The key strength of this book is Layden’s ability to get into the minds of teenage girls and show their perspective.  They know they are privileged, and many are driven, but at the same time they are like any other teenagers who are trying to figure it all  out.

I have taught at an all girls school myself, a school from which my daughter also graduated.  From that experience, I am a staunch supporter of all-female education.  As soon as I arrived at my school, I could see how strong the girls’ leadership skills were, and I thought it was cool that the younger girls looked up to the older ones in a way that I do not remember from my suburban public high school. 

Many of the negative issues Layden raises in the book, however, are absolutely on target.  In fact, she may understate some of them.  When you are in a smaller school, the students benefit from having teachers who get to know them very well.  We might teach them multiple times and have them in sports or activities as well. In most cases, that’s good.  Most of the adults in the school know most of the students as individuals, and the reverse is true as well.

But when it goes wrong, it can go very wrong.  If a student has a problem with a teacher in a small school, it can be difficult for the student to “get away”. In some cases, such as the one in this book, the teacher might be the only one in the school in a niche subject, so avoiding the teacher might also mean giving up an interest, sometimes a career interest.

In some cases, the passion may be the specific reason the student is at the school, and it can compound the issue when the family is sacrificing to have the student there.

The main point of All Girls, and where the book is the strongest, is in highlighting some of the problems of being in closed systems like this type of school, and also some of the confusion that can arise from having adults and students living and working together.  I never worked in a boarding school, and I certainly was taken aback by the school having young married couples living in a dorm, as depicted here. I can see how it might be weird and confusing for all involved. 

The truth is, however, costs being what they are and teachers’ pay being what it is, that the school’s providing housing is possibly the only realistic solution.  And they do need to have some sort of adult supervision in the dorms.

What’s Not So Great About All Girls

There are several realities of schools and school law that Layden completely misses.  For example, the book never mentions that ALL school employees in the U.S. are legally considered “mandated reporters”, which means that technically, every staff member who suspects a problem in the school regarding student safety and fails to report it can be charged (including support staff).  She also doesn’t mention the other thing that doesn’t get talked about: many if not most (depending on the school) independent school teachers are not licensed teachers.

Any staff member who ever heard any whisper of inappropriate relationships between students and teachers would have been required to report what they knew, whether they could prove it or not. That point alone would have been the basis of the civil case and possibly a criminal one.

 

The point about the student having been 18 is important because it means she doesn’t get the advantage of a longer statute of limitations, but for the record, American law applies to relationships between teachers and students the same way it applies to supervisors and staff members in the workplace: there is no such thing as consent because it’s inherently an unequal relationship.

Emily Layden has taught in several American girls’ schools. The fact that she doesn’t mention these laws at all illustrate my point: she doesn’t appear to be aware of them.

A further flaw in the book is that Layden can’t resist undermining the astute understanding of teenage girls she demonstrates through most of the book by shoving a rather sophisticated understanding of the politics and obligations of consent into the mouth of a 14 year old girl in closing chapters of the novel and ending on a cheap, sentimental note.

Ok, I can forgive her the ending because high school commencements are pretty cheesy and sentimental, and even so, I have teared up at my share of them.  But the novel still ends weakly, which is a disappointment.

For most of All Girls, Layden manages to keep us safely on the literary side of what I term as “issue fiction”, but when she drifts to the other side, the whole thing goes south quickly. 

Summary 

Until you get there, you will enjoy “reliving” a school year with these characters, and, even better, this book might help you understand a lot about a difficult issue: just don’t say you weren’t warned.

Related Books The Lois Level Loves

  1. Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld

    My favorite portrait of boarding school life.

2. Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

If you want dark, this is DARK! But also brilliant.

3. Love Story, by Erich Segal

You have to be in the right mood for this, but the Harvard/Radcliffe dynamic is a key part of the story that people forget.

4. The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier

Also DARK…boys’ school, Catholic education, peer pressure. If you never read it in middle school, pick it up and ask yourself once again where were all the adults in the 70’s when we were buying this stuff at the mall?

5. A Separate Peace by John Knowles

The boarding school classic that you should read if you haven’t.

 

Share your thoughts! We want to hear your perspective and most definitely your reading recommendations!

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