One of the great truths about boarding school is, our students learn a lot of things that their parents would never have taught them. I mean that in the best way possible. I learned to love most of my favorite music while a student at Emma Willard, including the always-eloquent Natalie Merchant. One of my houseparents often played music from her time with the 10,000 Maniacs and she came out with her first solo album in the fall of my freshman year.
A good portion of the fall finds me traveling to school fairs. More often than I’d like, parents tell me that they love their child too much to send them to boarding school. I smile and nod and respond with something polite and reassuring. What I’d really like to say is this: “My parents loved me too much NOT to send me to boarding school.” Perhaps one day I’ll have the stature to respond that way.
I don’t have siblings so we were then and still are reminiscent of the Three Musketeers.… but Emma Willard is a part of our family now. We listen to the Emma Willard Christmas CD and hang the Emma Willard Christmas ornaments in a place of honor. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t always perfect, but none of us would change our decision.
If any prospective boarding school parents out there are reading this, know that the decision to choose boarding school does not have to be detrimental to your relationship with your child. They’ll come home with new angles on the world which they will filter back down through whatever you have taught them. You’ll catch yourself with your mouth agape at their newfound wisdom, maturity, and perspective. We know we are teaching them things through our example. We are proud when we earn their watchful eye.
And for my peers, remember that parents are at home, missing their kids. It’s not enough to teach them about literature, science, and history. This is their life, and we play a gigantic role. Load parent contacts into your iPhone for the easy transmission of candid photos. Send an email when you’ve noticed an accomplishment, even if you’re not their advisor. Screen a good movie and make popcorn on a Friday and invite your freshman Algebra 1 section. Let them write their fall term final papers at your kitchen table. Let them play with the Kitchen Aid even if you have to wipe flour off your counter for the next two weeks. Sign up for the early morning airport unaccompanied minor drop off. Share wisdom. Write birthday cards. Keep in touch. Just because they graduate doesn’t mean they stop admiring.
Our schools have established parent relations programs but no parent relations strategy can replace the simple kindness of our faculty reported home. We are darn lucky that our parent communities trust us with their children and we must be worthy of that trust.
My senior page in The Gargoyle (the yearbook of Emma Willard) includes a photo of my parents and a quotation from “Kind and Generous”, the single from Natalie Merchant’s first solo album:
“I don’t know how you keep on giving…for your kindness, I’m in debt to you.”
I’m glad my 18-year old self thought to acknowledge them, but I know now it wasn’t kindness. It was love for me, trust in Emma Willard, and a great deal of sacrifice.
Emma Willard turned 200 last year. Two hundred years of parents trusting our school with the education of their daughters, even when it was thought a radical concept. What a lucky legacy. After our Bicentennial fireworks had died down and the party tent was packed up, we stood to reflect. I should have known I was doomed when the orchestra began playing a hymn and I implored my mother, “Now, don’t get all weepy.”
“Lord of all to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise.”
Yes, on that particular day all of us were running over with gratefulness for the school. I will always sing a hymn of grateful praise to this school. But standing next to my parents, as the words of the hymn caught in my throat, I could only be grateful for them. It all started with them. My parents are incredible, well-educated, wise and wonderful people. Perhaps the wisest thing they ever did was to realize that they couldn’t teach me everything. I’ll never be able to pay back the amount of money they spent on my education (so I’m quite literally in their debt!) nor will I comprehend the full extent of the sacrifice of the empty place at the dinner table. In reality, the value of my education cannot be quantified and that is the truest gift.
Laura Burgess is a fifth generation boarding school graduate. She holds a B.A. from St. Lawrence University and an M.A.L.S. degree with a focus on education policy from Dartmouth College. This is her seventh year as an admission professional. She serves her alma mater, Emma Willard School, as associate director of admissions.