I started Boarding School at age 13. My Mother was in finance and her big company had a toll free 800 number which allowed me to call from anywhere at no charge on my end. As long as I didn’t have class and she didn’t have a client in front of her, we could talk forever.
There was also this thing called a pay phone – it wasn’t a pre-paid mobile device. It was a large rectangular box with a handset, shaped sort of like a banana with a round part to talk through on one end and another round part to listen through on the other. Roughly twice the size of the iPhone 6. You held it in the middle. The handset was connected by a thick armored cord to the rectangular box that had a raised key pad and a slot into which you put dimes – a small round metal currency – later quarters. The contraption was usually mounted to a wall and sometimes in a small closet for privacy. (Long ago, there were things called phone booths which were free-standing vertical closets with windows and a pay phone inside. These were an excellent place – if you happened to be from outer space and your average skill set turned out to be supernatural on this planet – to rip open your button down oxford, shake off your glasses and emerge faster than a speeding bullet into the sky with your cape billowing behind you.)
For me, I simply used the pay phone. With the 800 number, no coinage needed. That thick armored cord was my umbilical cord.
I didn’t really miss home. I was up for the adventure. But so many things happened every day at boarding school that I felt my mother needed to know about all of them. There were a million things to say. Things she didn’t even understand like why we had to play The Ramones before going to the Saturday night dance instead of The Rolling Stones because we were all wearing striped socks like in Rock n Roll High School or that the variable that isn’t squared will determine which direction a parabola will open up on the xyz axis. But she knew about a lot of stuff – obviously – and she listened.
I got in trouble my first month at school for talking too loudly – and after hours – on the basement pay phone to my Mom. To my Mom!! How can you get in trouble for talking to your Mom!?
The phone was right under the dorm mother’s apartment. Check. But which Mom was in charge here?
A funny thing about boarding school is that you’re still a kid and your domestic life gets split between two locales with very different systems of governance. You’ve now got school, with the rules and regulations, procedures, schedules and mores among your peers. And you still have home, with whatever your family configuration is, your familial rules or traditions, relationships, who says yes or no about what, how you do things. You are now a part of two communities. And you are subject to both.
Si fueris Rōmae, Rōmānō vīvitō mōre; si fueris alibī, vīvitō sicut ibi. Or more commonly: when in Rome do as the Romans do. But the full translation – in case you’re not taking Latin this term – if you should be in Rome, live in the Roman manner; if you should be elsewhere, live as they do there. As a kid at boarding school, you are living both in Rome and elsewhere. You have the school world and your family world. As if you have Caesars. That’s a lot of salad. And when it all gets tossed together, funny things can happen… (ok, enough of that metaphor.) A few examples.
My birthday is in the fall. I was about to turn 14. My mother secretly contacted my new best friend (who remained my best friend) to have a little party for me with a cake and orange juice she ordered from the dining hall. I loved orange juice. In sixth grade, I drank so much I broke out in hives, but at the wise age of almost 14, I had learned to pace myself. Birthday party organized by Mom for kids and friends. Pretty straight-forward family world stuff. But what kind of cake and orange juice do you get from the dining hall?
A one-layer flat sheet cake that could feed 45 people and a milk crate filled with so many miniature cartons of orange juice even I was overwhelmed. I reported on the phone that after we stuffed ourselves as much as we could, a boy fell into the rest of the cake. And I broke out in hives. School world standards gone awry due to Mom’s good intentions.
By the end of my freshman year I had stopped calling as much and telling my mother everything. One, there just wasn’t the time. You know how it is. But also, things that happened in my school world, just didn’t make sense in my family world. They were too different. Too much to explain how it all worked.
With a week left of my first year, I got a message from the dorm mother to call my mother immediately. I raced to the pay phone.
“How are you feeling?” my Mom asked.
“I’m feeling fine. How are you feeling?”
After a little more poking around we quickly got to the source of the inquiry. It turned out that whoever received our dorm’s end-of-year, clothing donation bag, discovered that I had given away what looked like all my clothes, including an innumerable number of long white tube socks with my name sewn in to each one. The school was concerned. If I were getting rid of so much clothing, including such a fundamental category in my wardrobe, was I ok? Was I planning to leave school? Run away? Take an unplanned trip to the Sahara?
Reasonable questions. Unless you had seen these socks.
Enough to outfit the soccer team. Long stretched tubes of cotton. Nubbly now on both sides. Name tags that should have belonged to a summer camp flunky in a Neil Simon play. I wasn’t planning an escape or taking a mystery trip, but suddenly it was important to me that these socks did. The donation bag seemed like a great opportunity to 14 year old me. Someone else might like these clothes. And could use the socks to wash their car!
I don’t recall being made fun of for wearing these things. Maybe my roommate had the same taste. But now I had undergone a fundamental change, leaving home at 13 and surviving – thriving – in my new world. We just have to get me cooler stuff, Mom. Had I lived at home, I would have told her that before giving away – pretty much all my clothes.
I needed to dress for the school world now. Not that this was a radical shift, but it did not include socks I wore when I was 12. After talking so much about everything, I had kept this to myself and thought no one would know a thing until I went home and my Mom took me shopping, but… School world investigating, and not knowing about what would happen in family world, and family world not knowing what I was thinking in school world, lead to alarm. Being a teenager is great.
Things can happen in the strangest ways but that they happen at all is what pushes the seed to the rose. The blending of the two worlds became easier (and less goofy) term by term, year by year. My family quickly had a handle on life at school – and the dining hall – and I learned what was important to communicate directly.
Boarding school gives you a great ability to adapt, to expand and to individuate from your family into a community with solid values, strong direction and excellent study habits. The best part is that you end up with two places to call home.
Courtney Williams is a graduate of Choate Rosemary Hall and Harvard Radcliffe College, like JFK and Charles Emerson Winchester III on M*A*S*H. She lived and worked in New York City as an actress, assistant director and motion picture development executive for 20 years and at last retreated to Southern Oregon where there are more trees than people. She is a writer; director and producer of narrative, documentary and industrial film; and guest lecturer on film production at Southern Oregon University.