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What I learned from boarding school

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Altered State

 By Jamie Alter

I consider myself a fairly independent person. I take my own decisions, I don’t let others’ influence my views or choices – with perhaps a couple of rare occasions – and I do not regret decisions made. Life’s too short. This, predominantly, I owe to my time at boarding school and my parents’ decision to allow me to return as a boarder.

I consider myself blessed to have supportive and attentive parents who were kind with their time and who never discouraged me from doing what I wanted. Yes, there were of course rules and punishments for mistakes made, but I was granted an overall happy and free-thinking existence from a young age.

Among the choices I was allowed to make was to return to Woodstock School, in the foothills of the Himalayas, in 1995 for my last four years of school. I had studied there for most of elementary school, but three middle-school years in a claustrophobic American school in Bombay, as it was called back then, had left me disgruntled and yearning to return to the mountains and the school with which so many pleasant memories were attached.

I asked my parents – well, maybe it was more a demand – sometime during eighth grade if I could return to Woodstock. I was told that it would have to be as a boarder, and I readily agreed. Arrangements were made, and it was decided that I would enter as a ninth-grader.
I had previously spent one quarter of fifth grade – about two-odd months – as a boarder. All the other years had been as a day-scholar.

The first thing I learned while at Woodstock is the importance of taking your alone time when and where I could get it. It is an undeniable truth that when you study at a boarding school, you are rarely going to find me time. It is next to impossible to be alone at a boarding school. When you share a room with other students – sometimes a dozen, if you’re in one of those dormitory ‘long rooms’ – there is always someone around. When you walk to breakfast, or any meal for that matter, or to any social occasion or event on campus, you are surrounded by people.

One of the few things I am still ribbed about by some close schoolmates to this day is the fact that I would wake up early and walk up to the main school buildings – about an 800-metre uphill walk from the hostels – well before the daily 8:30 a.m. reporting time. To do so was the predicament of those students who played musical instruments; the ones who took pre-class lessons and who trained with the school orchestra or jazz band.

I did not play any instrument, nor did I sing. Neither was I a bookworm seeking solace in the quiet confines of the high school library. No, I just wanted to walk up to school at a time when there were not 200 boarders running up the hill to get to assembly. I liked the fact that an hour before school started, I had the chance to stroll leisurely under the awning of pine and baanj trees without being jostled by passersby or having to talk about the same topics that would anyway dominate my entire day ahead.

It was as closest to getting ‘me time’ as possible. My tenth-grade room-mate was in the band, and I would walk up to school with him. I got a rare chance to sit in the high school locker area without the distraction of noise. I loved it.

The second thing I learned is how to be independent. By this, I mean not having to rely on your parents for daily necessities. Quickly, as a boarder, you have to learn how to become independent and confident. You have dorm parents and supervisors and teachers and advisors and coaches and peers, but you need to start thinking on your own.

I remember, during my sophomore year of college in the US, one of my room-mates calling his mother back in India before our exams. He wanted reassurance that he would do well, and her best wishes. There is nothing wrong in doing that, but for me, hearing my friend talk to his mother with apprehension, I could not help but be grateful that I had studied in boarding school. It may sound cold to some, but not having the chance to confront a parent in a time of nervousness – such as exams – made me a tougher person.

The third thing I learned is how to accommodate and respect others. When you are in boarding school with students from many countries and backgrounds and religions, you have to get along. There is no other way. I learned quickly not to judge, and to be accommodating. I picked up fast what annoys and inconveniences a room-mate, how to give them space and share a tiny room. Sharing a bedroom with a sibling is one thing, having to do so with a Bangladeshi, a Korean and an American is another.

In those four years, my view of the world widened due to the conversations I had with my friends. Thanks to Woodstock, and my parents’ decision to allow me to return, when it came time to go to the US for college after twelfth grade I was ready. I had learned how to live with different people before college, and this proved pivotal in the next few years.
For this, I will always be indebted to boarding school.

(Jamie Alter is a sports writer, journalist, author and
actor).