Tunneling through a mountain to see your kiddo
In less than two weeks, Nerd Child will be graduating from high school. (I suppose I’ll have to change his Fringie name at that point–the current one doesn’t feel so right anymore.) It’s a big deal, not just for him, but for me, and not only in a two-down-one-to-go kind of way. It will mark the end of an era for this mama as a boarding school (bs) parent. The other night a friend of mine asked me about boarding schools because her child is interested. These two things coming up together made me think it made sense to post about our experiences. Disclaimer, I do not and cannot speak for all boarding families, all scholarship boarding families, or all boarding schools. I will try to hit points that I think are fairly universal in the world of being a scholarship family at fancy shmancy boarding schools, but of course, this is all just our experience–and really, my perspective. I know exactly zero about therapeutic, military, or single sex boarding schools (though I’ve heard great things about several of the all-girls schools), or even being a full-pay family at a selective bs. After two kiddos attending two different boarding schools, visiting/touring/interviewing at approximately 30, and 9 years, I’m not an expert.
If you mentioned boarding school to me fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have known what you were talking about. As far as I was concerned, the term was either a polite euphemism for “juvie” or part of the fictional realm of glam and glitz novels. Ten years ago I had a glimmer, but if you asked if my child would attend, I would have laughed. Actually, I’m pretty sure I did laugh. So how is it that I’m about to see my second child graduate from boarding school? It wasn’t an accident, it didn’t just happen. It was the result of tons of campaigning by Man Child, research and hard work done by me, Husband, Man Child, Nerd Child, and the middle school both boys attended. That and the fact that our home had become the center of medical doom and gloom. Husband wasn’t well, then Art Child wasn’t well, I had a bag permanently packed and at the ready for a hospital admit.
Both my boys went to a small, private middle school here in the city, a prep school that involved ties and dress codes, but not what jumps to mind when you think prep school. This school is bare bones, for gifted, economically disadvantaged inner city kids, with an emphasis on personal responsibility and responsibility to the greater community. Oh, and a no-dating policy. Sound silly? Not at all. Remember, this is middle school. Half the kids are relieved to put off dealing with romantic entanglements. Half aren’t, it’s true. But trust me, the kids don’t ruin their social lives forever by waiting and focusing on an inclusionary community. Dating, by its very definition is exclusionary. The staff/school has connections with the top high schools in the country; parochial, private day, and boarding, and they work hard to make sure each child gets into the schools with the greatest chance of success–and enough financial aid to make it possible.
Kids in NYC, particularly Manhattan, are well versed in the concept of applying to, interviewing for, and being rejected by schools by the time they reach high school admissions. I realize this isn’t the case for much of the country. Is it stressful? Of course it is. But it’s manageable, especially if you, as the parent, keep your balance and don’t convey to your child that any one school, or even one type of school, is the only option. Their chances of getting into a “good” college, their lives aren’t ruined if they don’t get into school A (or B or C), regardless of how glossy the brochure is. So. What’s it like, opening to the possibility of boarding school? It’s exciting, it’s an adventure, it’s a lot of road trips, it’s eight gazillion essays written by you the parent, and 32 gazillion written by your child, it’s fucking terrifying.
I’ve said it before but this can’t be said too many times. BS isn’t for everyone. Not for every family, not for every kid. Your child has to want it. You have to want it for them. You have to know your child. You have to believe your child is going to get up on time, and do their homework without you standing over them. In my opinion, they have to already be doing these things–but I have heard from many parents whose kids weren’t already doing these things, but they figured it out and managed, with time very successfully. You have to be able to take a breath when your child calls, upset over x happening, and figure out whether this is a boarding school upset, a high school upset, something that requires a call to their advisor, or an unplanned trip to eyeball them in person. When/if you go tour, ask the staff, they’ll be honest about how quick they will/won’t be to contact you, it differs with different schools.
Boarding schools do offer tremendous opportunities. Academics are top–in a way I couldn’t have imagined, ten years ago. The teachers are truly passionate and caring. They live there, with your kids, so believe me, they care. Not just in the classrooms, but onstage, in the dorms, on the athletic fields, in the dining hall. Class size is generally not an issue, they’re small. The schools want kids engaged, working, interested, happy, and successful. Trust me, there are many more applicants than seats available. When we’re talking about kids on full scholarships, we’re talking about major investments, averaging btw $40-50,000 per year, per kid–and they expect these kids to stay all four years, do well, contribute to the community, and need the same money every year. Your kiddo won’t be bored. Ever. Not to say there are never problems, they’re kids, life happens–but these kids are kept busy–a lot less room to get into trouble. Your kiddo has been breezing through school? So has every other kid in their class. They stop breezing, and are challenged, while still being supported. Your child’s dorm mates will likely be from all over the country, maybe their closest friend will from Beijing. Or Jamaica. Or Korea or Nigeria. And I mean the friend, not just where the family is from. Most of these highly selective boarding schools have large endowments, allowing them to offer generous financial aid packages–more than their equivalent day schools. Your child will become independent, in amazing and wonderful ways. That said, your kiddo won’t be 13 forever, growth and maturity happens regardless of what type of high school they attend.
There are commonalities among the highly selective BS, but there are many differences. Some things to look at: what are the dorms like? nice? cramped? mixed ages? are there Saturday classes? every week or just a few times a year? are parents always welcome to visit? kids able to come home (if within a reasonable distance) for the weekend if they need/want to touch base or are there many “closed weekends?” is there a way for the child to leave campus and come home by public transportation? is there a dress code? how strict? are meals formal? assigned seating? how is the food, anyway? is there a religious affiliation/how prevalent? how large is the school? some schools are very small, with a total of 300 kids or so, “large” bs are about 1200 kids, not that large compared to many public high schools. what percentage of kiddos are receiving financial aid? Is it needs-blind (needs-blind means the decision to accept or deny is made without looking at financial need, if they believe the child is a good fit/they want them, they offer enough financial aid)? what is the percentage of kids of color? –how does that break down (so called under/over represented minorities), and how much do you/does your child care? are there day students? what percentage? a few schools are 100% boarding, but most are mixed to varying degrees. what is the academic range? are the kids friendly as you pass them on your tour? how strict/what are the rules? different schools expect varying degrees of independence, and offer varying degrees of structure. all BS have active athletic programs, and all kids are expected to participate–how much? do they have to participate in 3 sports each year, can they take a season off, do they have alternatives for kids who aren’t athletic by allowing theater to count as a sport, basic instructional classes, etc? Can your child see themselves there?
Are you ready for the judgement, assumptions, and hairy eyeballs of…everyone? Seriously, everyone. Some will assume you’ve been hiding the fact that you’re a bazillionaire. Many will assume that your kiddo has in fact gotten into serious trouble with the law/drugs and are in juvie or a residential treatment facility. People who have known you as a parent for years (including family members) will assume you are “sending your kid away,” don’t want to parent anymore, aren’t parenting anymore, and/or kiddo hates you–either because you “sent them away” or that’s why they wanted to go in the first place. You can try to explain, but not too much because then it sounds like you’re making excuses or they’ll hear it as you judging them. (I’ve even heard stories of teachers being openly judgmental when asked for recommendations for the applications, the assumption being you either hate your kid or think the local teachers are incompetent.) If you have more than one child and they don’t all go boarding the assumption is you dislike one of them (either the one who stayed or the one who went, take your pick). When friends/family talk about issues with their kiddo attending the local high school, it’s oh-those-teenaged-years; if you talk about the same issue with your kiddo, it’s clearly the result of your horrible parenting that enabled you to send your kid away. This doesn’t ease up, by the way. Most who don’t “get it” still don’t get it 4 years or 4 kids later, with luck they just learn to be quieter about what a horrible and unfeeling bitch you are.
Money. It can’t be ignored, not in life, and not in bs. I thought my boys were well prepared. The staff at their middle school addressed this head on; and we live in Manhattan, in a building that is part of a program designed to keep working class people in the city, on a block that includes 9 million dollar brownstones and project housing. Public school classmates that included families with country houses in the Hamptons, immigrants living in SROs, and families living in homeless shelters. Yeah, no. The level of wealth that can be found in these schools is a whole different playing field. Not that every full pay family is a family of billionaires, many make significant sacrifices so their kiddos can attend, but seriously, some live in a world so different that even after being a part of the boarding school world for 9 years, I can’t grasp it. But your kiddo will. They will when they hear what the other kids are doing with their breaks, hear about familial residences, names they’ve read about in the papers/seen on tv, and when they realize those $20 music lessons you scrimped and finagled don’t mean shit compared to the opportunities and lessons some of their classmates have not only experienced, but live. They may visit classmate’s homes, and then not feel comfortable inviting classmates back to their home, because now they feel the difference. (maybe, depends on the kiddo) Financial aid only goes so far. Speaking of, check those offered packages carefully, there’s a wide difference in how different schools define full scholarship, and those extras can add up quickly, you don’t want to be sitting in a dark house with an unpaid electric bill while your bs kiddo is taking notes in a $12 notebook he charged to your account at the school’s bookstore.
It isn’t about the end game. If you’re only looking at bs because you think that will guarantee your kiddo admission to an Ivy, forget it. First of all, the days of “feeder schools” are long gone. Second, Precious Brilliant Talented Snowflake will be one of 3-1200 precious brilliant talented snowflakes, no one college is taking all of them. Diversity, it’s a good thing–in high schools, in colleges, in life. Third, boarding school is an end game unto itself. The experiences, the growth, the opportunities, the relationships, the way it shapes the way your child sees themselves, others, the world and their place in it; these are valuable unto themselves, to say the least. Bonus: If you’ve done the boarding school application process, by the time they’re applying to colleges the stress is greatly decreased, you and your kiddo have had tons of practice! The flip side is that college tours are harder to schedule and frankly, less impressive.
Most of all, you miss them. Even when you 100 % believe it was the best decision, at the best possible school for them, you miss them. Some kiddos will call/text/Facetime/Skype all the time, and tell you all about their days, some won’t–it’s basic personality, they are individuals, it’s just how it is. And you miss out. Whether it’s a dance or a show or a game or a trip to the ER or an argument. Even when you live close enough, if the financial aid office works with you to help you get there for a visit on parents’ weekend, even if you have a job with enough flexibility to go see the big moments, you miss out on a million small moments. When we dropped Man Child off for the first time, I sobbed all the way home. Heh. I had no idea how much I would/could miss him. Every drop off after that was harder, I think I stopped breathing when Nerd Child left for the first time. I couldn’t go with him, because Art Child had just started middle school the day before, and for the very first time in her school career, she wanted to go to school the next day. He was fine with it, I couldn’t comprehend how I was still walking around.
There are many, many things I wish I could do over in life, different paths, different choices. But given the parameters I have, the life we live, I do not regret allowing my boys to go to boarding schools. They each took exciting, interesting classes, pursued extra curricular interests we couldn’t offer here at home, enjoyed successes and failures they wouldn’t have experienced here. They were safe, loved, and supported. They each had fabulous opportunities, cultivated real and wonderful friendships, received high school educations many colleges can’t match. I didn’t send them away. We let them go, each with a clear safety net and connections to home.
Good grief, this is the longest post I’ve ever written!
Our children; individual human beings, with or without boarding school.