By Shari Bunks Geller, parent of Blair Academy
I survey my son's room. High school graduation is just two weeks away. College is no longer on the horizon, but our next step forward. I am looking to see what he will need to take with him and what he will leave behind. Looking around his room I am keenly aware of how our worlds have expanded more than we could have imagined just four years ago when we applied Michael to high school. Boarding school was consciously not on our radar when we began our high school search.
At the start of his eighth grade year our son announced that would he like to apply to boarding school. My husband and I had a serious conversation about boarding school as an option. We both attended good public schools growing up. We had decided against our public high school as an option for our four children and were committed to sending them to an independent day school. While neither my husband nor I came from families with a boarding school culture, we had many friends whose children attended boarding schools across the country. We had been frequently cautioned that once a child visits a boarding school all day schools will pale in comparison. The facilities, the campus and the notion of a different level of independence are very alluring to a fourteen year old. Although our conversation was serious, we quickly agreed that we would not consider boarding school.
We investigated our local day schools. We toured, we visited, we spoke with friends and we compared college acceptance rates. We left each school visit grasping for strengths at each school that would be valuable to Michael. None of the day schools felt “right”. We had heard about the “warmth and integrity” of Blair Academy. Blair was less than an hour from our home and we decided to visit the school... initially without Michael. After we finished our meeting with the Director of Admissions, we ran into some students in the hallway who stopped to talk to us. They were bright, courteous, well spoken and possessed a quiet confidence that spared the veiled arrogance we found at some schools. Blair was the only school we both walked away from and said “I can see Michael here”.
As I anticipate packing up Michael's dorm room, I am almost overwhelmed with how invaluable an experience his four years of boarding at Blair Academy have been for him and the immense positive impact it will have on his successes in the years to come. But my enthusiasm for the value of these boarding school years is that much greater when set against my own transition as a first time boarding school mom. We knew instinctively that Blair was the right place, but that meant allowing him to board.
The day before Michael started as a freshman at Blair, I called my friend whose son had started boarding school the year before. Through tears I lamented that he was too young and I couldn't let him go. My friend offered words of wisdom and experience and the next morning I stood tall and calm as I moved him into high school. For the next two weeks I would tear up when anyone asked how Michael was doing. My other three children slowly adapted to the extra space in our daily dynamic. As the weeks progressed I realized that I could see Michael frequently at his games and he that was home every 2-3 weekends. We all established a routine and I found a certainty that our relationship would not be lost or diminished. Each time I picked him up at school I was so proud of myself that I had “let go” just enough and it was obvious how much he was thriving. But I would be lying if I didn't admit that even into his junior year there were nights when I would drive him back to school and the separation still gave me a stomachache. And this was with the certainty that he was in a good and safe place, and thriving in spades.
I laugh as I think back on my hesitation to consider boarding school and the misperceptions I had, despite all the families I knew with children at boarding school. The most egregious misperceptions flood my mind as I plan Michael's departure.
Myth #1: You are sending your child away.
I recall saying this to a friend when Michael was in fourth grade. This was my perspective as the parent of an 8 year old. Boarding meant packing up your child and leaving them in someone else's care. Even at fourteen, I worried that contemplating boarding school would mean giving up my input and influence in my child's life to strangers who would live with them and teach them. We were such hands on parents and wanted to remain a critical influence in Michael's life. I wasn't ready to relinquish that control.
Reality #1: I have as much if not more influence on the important decisions in my child's life than I might have had he elected to attend day school. My time and conversations with my son are not about nagging him to do his homework or not be late for the school bus. Most boarding schools have mandatory evening study hall, sign in for breakfast and carefully enforced curfews. During study hall faculty members are in the dorm to answer questions and oversee an orderly study period. Someone else is nagging them about homework and good study habits. All the kids in the dorm have the same curfew and it is uniformly enforced. We don't waste time together debating that Johnny's mom lets him stay out two hours later and Mary's mom doesn't ground her if she misses curfew or forgets to call to say that she is late (and not on a stretcher in the emergency room!). There is weekly room inspection and someone else is suggesting they get the dirty clothes up off the floor and empty the trash can!
We do talk about the experiences he has had at school, the thoughtful questions a teenager should have about right and wrong and tough decisions that teach them to navigate through the grey issues in life. We talk about his latest passion, how his favorite team is playing or how he handled an issue with a teacher or classmate. We talk more because he hasn't tuned me out after what a teenager perceives as hours of nagging.
Myth #2: When a child has attended boarding school, starting college is anti-climatic.
Boarding school means living in a dorm and navigating a campus. Learning to manage your time, your social life and your laundry will be old hat by the time they get to college.
Reality #2: When Michael received his first college acceptance this past January, I fully understood how significant this myth was for both my son and for me. Boarding schools, at least Blair Academy, are structured and very nurturing environments. At Blair the faculty and staff know each child. The personal advisor program and the academic monitor program provide effortless opportunity for the student to connect with the faculty members. The personal advisor is a faculty member selected by the student as someone he feels comfortable to approach with personal matters. The academic monitor is assigned to the student to oversee the student's course selection, his progress throughout the year and to help with any academic issues. The ease with which a parent can communicate with the advisor and monitor creates a circle of cooperation and support for the student from both home and school.
High school experiences are about students learning to advocate for themselves. When a child has exhausted his arsenal of skills to address a situation, they have the resources of adults at the school as well as parents, to help them think through and solve problems. They learn to trust the safety net of adults while learning how much they can rely on themselves. Few professors at college will be invested in whether a student attends class or if he is working to his best ability. Going off to college is a very different experience. While our kids have learned to manage their clean laundry and live with a roommate who isn't a sibling, they will be held to a new level of personal responsibility and few boundaries in a new world of independence.
College means a change for boarding parents as well. I have been a partner with my son's advisor, monitors, teachers and coaches for the past four years. As an example, I heard something in Michael's voice on one of our nightly phone calls his freshman year. I felt so far away and called his advisor. I asked if he could check in on Michael over the next day or so and make sure he was ok. His advisor went over to visit Michael in his dorm that very night and reported back that all was well. During Michael's junior year I emailed the same advisor. I was concerned something was wrong but from my telephone I couldn't sit down on the chair next to him and find out in person what was really troubling him. I sensed he was having growing pains, but wanted to be sure it was nothing serious. It turned out he was reconciling a disappointed heart, something I believe he felt more readily comfortable sharing with the personal advisor he had established a relationship with over three years time. A day school experience can't offer the same opportunities for that type of bonding between teachers and students. Boarding school faculty live in the dorms, they live on campus and they share meals with the students. I will miss my own relationship with Michael's advisor. I have had the benefit of the wisdom and insight of others who have also been invested in Michael's success. I will navigate the role of college parent without the support I have enjoyed during his years at Blair Academy.
Myth #3: You lose your child and your relationship will change. You won't know your children's friends.
I was concerned that with Michael being at boarding school I would miss the spontaneous interaction with my son. I wouldn't be part of his daily routine. His friends wouldn't hang out at our house and I wouldn't get to know them.
Reality #3: I have “more” of my children having them at boarding school than if they had stayed home and attended day school. My friends whose children are in day school drop them to the bus at 6:45 am. Their children return home after athletics on the late bus at 7:45 pm, quickly eat dinner and disappear to their bedrooms to tackle the heavy homework load. On weekends their children are at sports practice during the day and out with their friends at night. When my child comes home for a long weekend or his extended breaks, he is all mine. His friends, if they happen to live in the area, are busy with their own families. On long breaks (6 days to three weeks at a time) he doesn't have homework to slog through every night. He is relaxed, appreciative of our time together and WITH us.
I now have two sons at Blair Academy, and a third will begin in September. I have gotten to know many of their friends during my time on campus. Many parents who live within driving distance of the school attend games, meets, matches, etc. Much to my surprise I have also gotten to know many of the other parents from my time on campus. My children's friends come over to me, say hello and visit. They will sit with me and my other son while we watch my son play sports. I invite them to join our family for dinner near campus. Their friends will sometimes come to our home overnight or travel with us. If my sons had attended a local day school their friends would live within a one-hour radius of our home. I don't expect I would have had any greater opportunity to get to know their friends any better than I have at boarding school. Between sports, commuting and the heavy homework load all high school students seem to have, there would be little time to hang out and talk to someone else's mom.
Reality #4: Unexpected bonuses that I realized after we signed onto boarding school life:
Bonus #1: My children have friends from around the country and all over the world. They will have many homes away from home in their life's travels. They truly live in a diverse community, twenty-four hours a day. They don't just see friends from different backgrounds and cultures for a few hours a day and then head home to a homogenous neighborhood.
Bonus #2: My friends complain that their weekends are now defined by dropping off and picking up high school children from weekend athletic practices and social engagements. They long for their children to have driver's licenses. I did appreciate from the beginning that living at boarding school my children's friends would all live in the “same neighborhood”. I had not considered that high school parties and dances necessitate driving hither and yond at all hours, just inconvenient enough to preclude any other activity in between. At boarding school the dances, activities, parties and just hanging out with friends are all within walking distance. I do not need to worry about who might be driving my child. Which brings me to my next wonderful realization.
Bonus # 3: There is little or no need for my child who has just earned his driver's license to be driving on dark, snowy or icy winter roads. My child walks to class each morning and doesn't need to climb into the car with another new driver still building the experience to react safely to dangerous or unexpected driving conditions. When they are at school I can fall asleep at night not listening for the car to pull safely into the driveway.
Bonus #4: I do not need to worry if there will be a responsible parent at home when my child shows up to a school party, or to hang out with friends on campus. While the kids are given a healthy degree of freedom and personal space, there are adults (faculty) at every “party”.
Bonus #5: Teenage years are about self-discovery, learning who you are and defining who you want to be. That is difficult enough even when you don't have two strong parents. Bright, talented children often have parents with strong personalities of their own. While all children define themselves to some degree in their parents' eyes, boarding school gives children a little extra space to develop beyond their parents' vision. They take the best of what we have taught and given them and mix it with their own ideas and strengths. They grow to be comfortable in their own skin with a sense of confidence and self that will be a solid foundation for their successes in life.
I am awed by how my son has grown, and proud that I had the courage to give him the experience of boarding school. He will take with him a superior, well-rounded education and leave behind his imprint on the Blair Academy community. I saw boarding school as “letting go” but in reality it is keeping your child close and letting him grow.