“You know when you sit at a table and you see three or four forks and you’re not sure where to start, we teach you all that here,” school principal Margrét D. Sigfúsdóttir says primly from behind her desk at Hússtjórnarskólinn, the Icelandic home economics school where she has been at the helm for seventeen years now. “It’s very important you’re never allowed to just use a fork.”
She sits headmistressly upright, white hair tied back, peering at me over her glasses, listing all the things I really should know by now.
“What do you use to wash a wooden floor? What do you use on a concrete floor? How do you clean your furniture without destroying it? Because it’s very easy to destroy it you know,” she continues matter-of-factly. “People buy a leather sofa, a nice table, then they put their washing on it. I never understand that. Never. What’s it doing there?”
For a school principal, Margrét is surprisingly charismatic, down to earth and trendy. In her seventeen years as principal she’s made a point to keep Hússtjórnarskólinn relevant, while also honouring the school’s traditions. “When it started the school was very strict indeed, but we have changed with the times,” Margrét says. “Nowadays even men can enrol. You could come here if you wish,” she teases.
First days of school
The house on Sólvallagata which the school has occupied since it opened in 1942 has more the feeling of a museum than a school, with marble panelling and a grand wooden banister staircase.
When Hússtjórnarskólinn opened, it hosted 48 girls per nine-month term. Back then, the girls would board in neighbouring properties owned by the school and a teacher slept on the premises, supervising at all times. “No one had a key except the teacher and the headmaster,” Margrét says with disbelief. “Students were allowed to go outside for just 20 or 30 minutes per day. That’s it.”
A past student from this period whose home was in the next street but was boarding at the school recently recalled to Margrét that just once a month she was allowed to go home. “Only once,” she laughs.
Despite the strictness, Margrét speaks of this period of schooling admirably. “It was a wonderful life; they didn’t know anything else. And they became close friends.” So much so, that the class of women who graduated in 1945 still to this day meet every month to catch up. “It’s so nice. Especially now that they are older, because you never know,” Margrét says.
Additionally, in Iceland in the 1940s and 1950s, there were not many opportunities for girls to go to school, especially so for those from regional areas. “A man called me a few weeks ago. His elderly mother was one of the first students of the school. He said that she is always talking about the school,” Margrét says.
For the elderly mother in question, Hússtjórnarskólinn was the first school she ever went to as she grew up on one of the small remote islands in Breiðafjörður, where home-schooling was commonplace at the time. “The man, her son, said she is always talking about how wonderful it was and that the memories were so beautiful. He said his mother had lost her report card, and he asked if I could make a new one for her. I said sure and I sent it to her,” Margrét says smiling.
Milk from the cow, not the carton
“Oh my god, it has changed a lot,” Margrét says, rolling her eyes.
Nowadays, semesters at Hússtjórnarskólinn are just three months long and the school only accepts 24 students per semester from the hundreds who apply. The selection process is largely first come, first served, but age also plays a part in it.
“I can take them from the age of 16, but they’re too young. It’s a full-time load and at that age they’re not ready. They have to knit or sew in the evening, after being at school all day,” Margrét says. “They have to grow up a little bit first.” For the majority of girls who attend the school it is their decision to come and not their parents’. “I would never like to have girls who just came because their parents wanted them to come.”
Whereas in the early days Hússtjórnarskólinn taught skills ideal for girls wanting to be housewives, Margrét says today’s students want to acquire the skills necessary to live independently. “They want to learn how to buy proper meat and do something with it, and to make their own bread. Not just buy hamburgers and fried chicken and pizza every day,” she says.
The syllabus doesn’t skimp out on the processes behind food production either. Margrét believes it’s equally important to know what is inside the food as how to prepare it. “They learn about the nutrients and vitamins in the food and how much you need.” She tilts her head forward, peering over her glasses. “The milk doesn’t come from a carton; it comes from a cow, you know,” Margrét says.
A sleepover at school
Traditionally, many of the students come from the countryside, but lately there have been more and more enrolling from Reykjavík. “They love to come and stay here, because they’ve never done this kind of thing before. They’ve never had the opportunity to do it,” she says.
The students all have keys to their rooms and have the freedom to come and go on their own time. Despite the students being under her care, Margrét is very much an advocate for building trust by treating them as adults.
“They can sleep where they want. I’m not going to tell one of the girls that she cannot sleep with Jón or something. It’s not my problem,” Margrét says. “You are over eighteen, if you are not going to sleep in the house, you just write it in the book down the hall, so if you don’t turn up we know where you are. It’s just like when you’re living at home, you tell your mother ‘I’m at my boyfriend’s house or at my friend’s house.’”
Still, there are a few other solid ground rules to respect if you wish to study at Hússtjórnarskólinn.
“You’re not allowed to smoke or drink in the house,” Margrét says. “We have a housekeeper in the basement, a woman of my age, and she is here during the night. So if something happens, she can call the doctor. And to make sure they’re not going to host a party,” she says to me sternly, as though I’d contemplated it.
Can all this be a culture shock for new students? “Yes, it can be,” she says. “Not for all, but for some.”
“We learn to make it work. What is most important is to make a schedule. They have to be organised to be able to finish everything,” she says. “This takes time to learn, you know. But it prepares them for university, and beyond.”