She may have spent seven seasons on television as Ellie Nash in the fictional classrooms of Degrassi, but Stacey Farber’s real-life high school experience was much different from the one she portrayed in the critically acclaimed series.
A graduate of Toronto’s Branksome Hall, the young star credits her private-school, single-sex education with introducing her to the world outside both the fictional and actual classrooms of her teenage years. After completing high school in 2005 and wrapping up her regular stint on the popular television program, Ms. Farber eventually made her way to the New School in New York City to get a BA in creative writing — an area of study she first discovered and fell in love with at Branksome.
Now an intern with a Toronto-based online fashion magazine, the 24 -year-old took some time to chat with The Globe and Mail about how her four years as a private-school student helped shape the person she is today.
Q: What was the motivation behind choosing to attend an all-girls private school for your four years of high school?
A: I went to a public arts school from Grades 4 through 8. It totally shaped who I am today, and my involvement in the arts, but at the end of Grade 8, I was faced with a decision: Should I go to a public arts high school, or should I go somewhere else? My sister, who’s a year older than me in school, went to Branksome – so Branksome was already an option for me. And I think we went with it because while I was so involved in the arts, I didn’t need to continue on to an arts program in school, and my parents wanted me to focus more on academics in high school.
Q: It’s not always easy for girls to choose to attend a single-sex school at such a young age. Was the idea of an all-girls school something you were concerned about, or ready for?
A: I’m sure it thrilled my parents. I had a good co-ed group of friends already for my social life, so I don’t think it ever bothered me. I always enjoyed school, and I enjoyed being focused on learning – and I know that sounds nerdy, but there were so many wonderful elements of going to school with just girls. I wouldn’t brush my hair. I remember there were days when – and this is kind of gross – I would sleep in my uniform to save time in the morning and then get up and go to school ... it didn’t matter because I didn’t have to impress anyone and I didn’t have to look cute in class.
Q: Do you feel you experienced a more supportive and encouraging environment at Branksome than you might have had at a co-ed public high school?
A: I can’t really compare the two experiences. I have so many friends who are super-smart and successful and ambitious, and they didn’t go to private school, so it’s not anything about the difference in curriculum or education. But the girls ... I went to high school with are doing incredible things.
It’s encouraged ambition in general, I think. Our teachers were always on our side and wanted us to excel. We were encouraged to study things that we were interested in, and that led me to taking a writer’s craft class in Grade 12, which I loved, and then I went on to pursue a degree in New York in creative writing.
Q: Did you find school played an especially important role in terms of being a different outlet, separate from your work on Degrassi?
A: Most of the other kids who were on Degrassi went to a program that accommodates actors and athletes, and is just better for their schedules, and they didn’t have – I don’t think – that escape from work and from being on set. When I wasn’t working, I was back at Branksome and totally focused on my classes and exams. I had the same intense exam schedule as everyone else, and I had to deal with it in different ways.
But I’m so grateful that I had both of those things going at the same time. A lot of the kids I worked with didn’t go on to university; some of them knew they wanted to be professional actors and didn’t want to go to theatre school either, so they didn’t feel the need to or they didn’t have the interest to pursue something else. But I grew up in that academic world. Everyone I went to school with went to university, or took a year off and then went, and that was the norm – so I did the same thing.
Q: What has stuck with you most from your high school experience?
A: I learned to feel empowered. I guess it must be part of the curriculum to teach girls to be strong. I think it’s cool to be smart, and I think it’s sexy to be smart. I’m 24, and I go out to bars with my friends and I see how a lot of young women behave and sometimes I wonder if they had those same values instilled in them as we did at Branksome.
Q: Did anything in particular help instill those values?
A: The fact that you were rewarded for your achievements and celebrated for working hard and for pushing yourself further just encouraged us all to work hard and aim high and want better things for ourselves. I remember we would have these dances with boys’ schools, and I remember we were taught how to look someone in the eye and give them a firm handshake, and I think that’s brilliant to teach young girls how to do that.
Q: What would you say to a young girl who was in the same position you once were, considering going to an all-girls private school for high school?
A: I would say go for it, 100 per cent – and I think she would be better off for it.
Special to The Globe and Mail