High school away from home

The pressures and lessons that come with life at boarding school

Moving away for school, I found a second home.

When I was 14, I boarded a ferry with all of my possessions packed tightly in pink Rubbermaid storage boxes in the back of my father’s truck. 

It looked like something out of a movie. People were walking around the grassy fields and brick buildings in their pristine uniforms, all laughing together and carrying books or sports equipment. I had arrived at my home for the next three years: a boarding school in Nova Scotia. 

It was sunny out and a warm September breeze rustled the big trees that lined the front hill. Students were playing music and throwing a ball around. Every time a new student got out of their car and started moving boxes in, they would all stop and watch. 

Some came up to help or introduce themselves. There were teachers with clipboards who directed us to our rooms and greeted us with big smiles.  

After my father left, I didn’t have time to be sad. We had floor meetings where we met our new flatmates, we had dorm meetings where we learned the litany of rules and things that could get you expelled (“no boys in the girls dorm,” “no alcohol,” “no drugs,” “no plagiarism”) and all of the things that could get you in trouble (“no staying up after 10 p.m.,” “no talking during prep,” “don’t be late for breakfast”).

It was overwhelming. Students, teachers and staff stopped by every few minutes to introduce themselves, their position at the school, and remind me of a meeting I had to attend later that day.

The school nurse confiscated my Advil, with the instruction that I could go to her and she would determine if it should be administered. 

This move signified a change in my life. My high school experience became vastly different from that of my friends back home. I shared a bathroom with 20 girls every morning; ate breakfast in the same room as all my classmates; my teachers told me when to turn out my lights for bed, chaperoned our dances and knew about all our drama and relationships. 

The school, at first, signified a loss of freedom to me. I had to earn the right to leave campus during my first month there. I wasn’t allowed to go into the town unless I had successfully made it through September without causing trouble and having all my work done. 

I was required to tell the teachers where I was at all times, and sign in and out with a teacher who asked questions about my motives as if I were trying to break out of jail. 

We had room inspection every morning, during which the floor’s houseparent determined whether your room was clean. Items could be confiscated if they didn’t fit within the student code of conduct, such as posters that “would make the inspector uncomfortable” or a kettle. 

I constantly interacted with teachers who asked a lot of me. Not only were my teachers the instructors of my courses, but they also coached the sports teams, lead various clubs and volunteer organizations and were on duty every night to make sure you did your work and went to bed. While at first being around teachers that much seemed oppressive, we got to know each other and respected each other.

Although there were a lot of hiccups during my first few weeks at school, I slowly acclimatized. By June of my first year, I couldn’t wait to go back. I missed waking up every day to my friends and being surrounded by them at all times. 

My home in Newfoundland seemed quiet and slow compared to the hustle of boarding school. 

The interesting thing about boarding school that most people don’t realize is that it’s a lot like a business. They offer the parents who send their kids there a service: they’ll get your kid into university, get them a good resume, teach them to be self-sufficient and turn them into the classic conception of an overachiever. My graduating class had a 100 per cent university acceptance rate. 

The schools put its students under a lot of pressure to be overachievers. You had to be on three different sports teams (one a semester), take a full course load and were highly encouraged to be a part of the clubs on campus. 

They ensured that you spent time volunteering and monitored your university application process. Students had to be in army cadets — where you marched in platoons and had parades around town — and through that program, they volunteered in the community once a week. There were also opportunities to volunteer at the school’s chapel and write for the school’s newsletter.

While we were being molded into model students,  the mold used was the same for every other student there. Individual talents were appreciated, but deviation from the norm was not.  

It took me and many of my classmates some time to foster our individualities after graduation. 

Coming to university, a place filled with diverse people, I can definitely say I came into my own more quickly than I could’ve imagined. 

I’m glad that I had structure when I was growing up, but on reflection, I sometimes wish that we had been more encouraged to experiment and learn what it meant to be ourselves, whatever that might have looked like.

It could be a tense environment for a teenager to live in. I pulled more all-nighters in my twelfth grade year than I have in my entire university career. I was constantly monitored by staff who would advise each other of any “issues” in my life.

There was no such thing as a private life. The school also taught me a lot of important lessons. I became a fairly independent person; so moving away to university after living away from my family for three years was a breeze. 

It taught me how to get along with people that I likely wouldn’t have been friends with in junior high. Because we lived together, we had to find common ground and get along. 

We all came to respect each other, and I realized that the one-dimensional characterization that we often attribute to highschoolers is unfair. 

One of my friends was a successful rugby player and wrestler who was one of the biggest, and most intimidating, guys at school. He was also intelligent, thoughtful, funny and kind. He always had my back and watched out for my younger brother for me. If we hadn’t lived together, I would have thought of him as a jock, and assumed that we never could have anything in common. 

Boarding school also teaches loyalty. The friends that I made at boarding school would have done anything for me and I would have done anything for them. Even now, four years after I graduated, I call or text them whenever I need them and they’re there for me. 

We’re always rooting for each other’s successes and when we’re reunited, it feels like we only left each other last week. 

Although I occasionally resented my experience at the time and couldn’t wait to graduate when I was in the twelfth grade, I’m grateful for the experience and happy I did it. When I crossed the stage at graduation, I was a far different person than the scared 14-year-old girl that showed up with her headband and leggings on that fateful September morning. 

I believed in myself and I confidently went in my own direction, once again to a new place where I didn’t know a soul. I knew that I had a support system and friends that loved me and while my life hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows since I graduated high school, I’ve continued to grow into the person I am today. 

I know that I can handle change, I know that I can take on a busy workload, I know I can make friends in new places and I know that I’ll be okay, no  matter how scary and alone things can feel. I’m very thankful for that. 

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