The Biology Lesson

Loreto College, St Albans, Hertfordshire, England – once a private convent school, now a comprehensive – celebrates its centenary this year. ‘Old girls’ were invited to send in stories of their experience. I was a pupil there from the age of 11 to 18; this is a memoir from around 1958.

We were in the Fourth Form now and rather excited. Today’s topic, we were told, was going to be about – reproduction. The Birds and the Bees! At 14, I was more excited than most. With no men or boys in the family, the Opposite Sex was something of a mystery…. but when the lesson was over, I was none the wiser.

The nun who taught us had shown a series of slides and diagrams, but not about the male and female Bits and Bobs, let alone how they fitted together and made Babies…. Instead, her face an interesting shade of pink, Mother Annunciata talked at tedious length about the distasteful habits of – rabbits. Which made a change from frogspawn and the parts of a plant, but shed no light on what It was all about. Married Love and children went together, everyone knew that – unless you were the Virgin Mary – but the mechanics of it all remained a puzzle.

There were clues, of course. I made a happy discovery in the school library: books with paintings of scenes suggesting intimate activity, but the artists were all foreign and dead, so not to be trusted. There was also a much-thumbed paperback in secret circulation about the adventures of a naughty nun called Maria Monk, but there weren’t any pictures in that – or any juicy details about what she actually got up to with the frisky friars in the cells and the cloisters….

When I asked my mother about the Facts of Life, she was equally vague and talked in romantic terms about men sowing seeds in fertile fields, which reminded me of the rampant rabbits, but didn’t really explain anything.

Sometimes the lay teachers would make the odd promising remark, about ‘boys getting more excited than girls’ and how you mustn’t kiss one unless you were engaged, but didn’t say why. And anyway, I wasn’t a Catholic so maybe the Rules didn’t apply to me…

Half-way through another biology lesson, Mother A went an even redder shade of pink. ‘Will you girls stop staring out of the window?’ Outside the classroom, a new building was under construction and some workmen were moving about on some scaffolding, looking a lot more interesting than photosynthesis. We bet they knew a thing or two…

But our teacher had other ideas. Marching over to the windows, she pulled down all the shutters so we couldn’t look out, plunging the classroom into shadow.

Curiosity seemed to be a sin – and two years later, it nearly got me expelled. The Sixth Form had a Discussion Group, where we could talk about worldly things a little more freely, provided a teacher was present. Our topic one month was Relationships, so I padded into the local chemist’s to ask for some literature, which he refused to give me – but said he’d post it to the school.

Which was why I was summoned to the headteacher’s office. Mother Francis Xavier, a tall and imposing figure, was apoplectic. Fingers quivering with fury, she pointed to a pile of Family Planning leaflets on her desk. She seemed to think it was some depraved attempt on my part to embarrass her, a Bride of Christ alone. I wasn’t entirely sure that inside the encompassing habit of black and white, there was really a woman at all – but in that room then, with its scent of polished wood, Mother F was a Supreme Being, her power over me absolute. I was innocent, but there was only one way out: Extreme Contrition. A long pause, when something was said about forgiving the sinner but not the sin, then I was allowed to escape down the stairs and through the corridors of the old building and past the big picture of Jesus hanging high on a wall, pointing to his exposed and Sacred Heart.

1960 had just begun; the Pill was on the horizon. But the botanical approach to human biology was to hold fast till the late 1970s, when sex education in schools became national policy.

If the nuns at Loreto sometimes seemed a species apart, the opposite sex were like Martians to me for years. Until a glorious truth gradually dawned – that they hadn’t a clue what life was all about either! They were only people too.

2 thoughts on “The Biology Lesson

  1. I enjoyed reading that , it reminded me of my days at my convent school. Convent of the sacred hearts
    If we did not have the little 6 inch zip at the back of our dress done right up to the top we had committed an actual sin ! I wonder what they hoped to achieve ?


  2. I enjoyed reading that , it reminded me of my days at my convent school. Convent of the sacred hearts
    If we did not have the little 6 inch zip at the back of our dress done right up to the top we had committed an actual sin ! I wonder what they hoped to achieve ?


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