Alumni Reflect on Lifelong Friendships from Boarding School

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Green. Green. Green. Clustering, rolling, expanding. Cresting up and gliding down little hills, dancing criss-cross with a quiet river. Up where history gives way to leafy-fingered growth, the Taconic State Parkway is a beautiful drive that seems to be leading somewhere special, to the precipice of a great quest.

I love the journey but am relieved to arrive at manicured playing fields and little pathways winding between brick and wooden buildings. Familiar, yet totally unpredictable, like the ocean. I climb an old staircase to my room, pick my bed and put my computer on a desk. I know it so well and yet I’ve never seen this place before. I am not starting a new year at boarding school. It’s summer, decades later, and I’m a bridesmaid at one of my closest friend’s wedding, at the school where she now teaches.

We’ve been friends since we were 14 and shared all the crooks and straight-aways of the road so far. I’ve often wondered why boarding school friendships, for many of us, are the longest and the deepest. I have other classmates with whom I am not constantly in touch, but I would do whatever I could for them. My senior yearbook quote from The Rolling Stones still applies. For these folks, “there will always be a space in my parking lot.”

Students in DormsWe all say boarding school friends are like family, but what does that really mean and how does it come to be? Aside from the big thing – love – what about these friendships is so precious and enduring? I couldn’t really tackle this question by myself, so fittingly, I asked a few friends, and true to the nature of these relationships, they came through.

A friend who lives abroad emailed me this: “Boarding School is a time of formative experiences and these people who become our close friends are not only catalysts, but also witnesses to our formation and transformation. So not only were they the very catalyzers but also the ones who by witnessing, know what we were and what we were becoming and we became. They are like the proof of continuity of ourselves. They are the anchors who are connected to our deepest fears and our greatest achievements of growth. So much happens in those years, so much is learned and absorbed, that these “characters” we encounter in our adolescence become like archetypes to our very own history.”

That friend, who is often in my dreams and thoughts, when not in my living room, is indeed a living archetype for me. As life continues after boarding school, I think we continue to hold each other in the same regard, still seeing each other as catalysts of growth and ones we trust to witness our breakthroughs – or breakdowns – and hold our personal evolution gently in their hands. Not without a fair amount of ribbing and the odd joke, of course.

We’ve grown so significantly with each other that we continue to spur each other forward, long after graduation. That is the dynamic of the relationship. It’s like a secret pact we are not aware of.  An old dorm mate and long time bosom buddy added, “a bond with someone who helped define you is an incredibly strong bond.”

Another friend commented that growing up together in such a close-knit setting, boarding school friends become de facto siblings and added, “Ironically people associate boarding school with entitlement, but you are less entitled in some ways, because you have to share everything. You don’t really have a whole lot of privacy because you are always with people, and that communal vibe serves you well. You learn to navigate complex social situations in a way that you don’t at a day school.”

Though we’ve all been nutty teenagers and could tell some stories, we also learned, by necessity, a kind of self-responsibility not to burn bridges and to keep the peace the best we could. Because not only would you see these people in class, you’d see them everywhere – every time you go to eat, when you walk down the path, maybe even in the shower. We learned to take care of our environment, our community, by taking care of our relationships.

And we learned forgiveness too, because it might have been you who made a mistake, did something dumb, and had to face the music for the next six months. Or four years. We were together at boarding school for such a long time that resentments got dissolved or resolved, joyful surprises occurred. During that formative time, we learned how to have relationships that evolve because they must endure. Believe it or not, now we can have such relationships with people who didn’t even go to boarding school!

Though nestled in the very carefully engineered culture and structure of the school, we developed a strong sense of social independence and confidence – that we did it. Yes…my friends, I made them myself!
My friend the bride expanded this notion: “I think it’s the living with each other during that formative time. Friends become like family, but it’s even more empowering because we chose our friends, so they are a family of choice. And it’s a magical space – neutral space – often full of nature and fun, with plenty of opportunities to have adventures and bond.”

My friend abroad continued… “then I think there is something about living with people who are not your family that communicates to that subconscious part of the mind that absorbs vital identity information, that tells us that they are our family, however extended. When you live with someone, you absorb information about them not only on a mind and heart level, but also on a somatic level. Smells become a conversation – we know who is stressed just by smelling how sour their room is. (She always knew I was coming down the hall by the way my feet crack.) The level of communal intimacy we share forces a kind of getting in the same vibe, thus fine tuning our instruments to work in harmony. Each class becomes a symphony of its own.”

To me, part of what she describes is what happens in the spaces in between. The downtime, the staring out the window, the eruption of laughter in the middle of the night, the tears in the dining hall that come out of nowhere. We were together when the things that have no reason, just happen. After enough simply being with each other, you come to know each others’ subtle music. Knowing my bride friend for so long – and knowing myself – I knew just how I could be of help at the momentous event of her wedding. Others have done the same for me – even surprised me. When I’ve forgotten myself – my young, possible, wild, elastic self – they remember.

Then there are the larger bonding moments, whatever they were, even if simply the culture of the school.  Facebook – which when I “grew up” was a physical book called Facebook (Zuckerberg went to boarding school too) with pictures of each student listed by first name alphabetically. Classmates I’ve only gotten to know in recent years, via the Fb, I have an immediate bond with. There’s trust because we are still part of an ongoing community. We have the same references and I think, that same expectation of possibility and growth.

Though I still don’t grasp all the dynamics, and maybe it’s better to leave some mystery, I think facing the challenge of living away from home during those formative years, embeds in us the skills to create home – a home that is by its nature formative, transformational, dynamic. Our friends bring that alive for a lifetime.

A college friend who went to my rival boarding school – an outstanding institution nonetheless – said of his daughter after her first year at his alma mater:

“I now have a daughter who just completed a terrific freshman year. Her freshman roommate will likely be a best-friend for life.  Part of that is certainly compatibility, but another important piece is sharing a bond forged in tough times and such a formative age. They navigated together through the fear, homesickness, insecurity, stress and social awkwardness of those first few months, came through it and are now more confident, self-assured young women. That journey can happen anywhere, but at boarding school it is more condensed and intense, and the shared experience – lows and highs – lays a foundation for lifelong friendship.”

Reaching into our mutual, well-worn references, my friend abroad signed off: “Sharing life with you has always been a gasgasgas xxxxx.”

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