The Boarding School Paradox

My friend Rachel wrote a piece that she published on Brain Child Magazine called “What Not to Say to the Parents of Boarding School Kids”  – a vulnerable post to be sure and one written based on the countless comments she has received since making the decision to send two of her children to boarding school in Kenya. As I read it I thought “I know countless moms who can relate to this.” For this is the reality for many I know.

And it also got me thinking about the things people have said or asked of me about boarding school. All I can honestly give is my perspective, and others could have completely different experiences. But I do know this – nothing is simple and when it comes to boarding school and attitudes to boarding school we have to be capable of complexity. So I invite you to join me now in my perspective.


“You went to boarding school?” 

“Yes, actually. I did.”

– Pause –

“That must have been really hard.” 

It’s always a matter of fact statement. And I appreciate it. I appreciate that the person is trying to communicate, to move into my world and understand it. But nothing is ever that simple.

Yes it was hard. It was bone chilling sadness and unstoppable aches.

And it was wonderful. It was stomach aching laughter and tears of joy.

Many of us find it hard to be able to reconcile the good with the bad. For years I thought it would be disloyal to my parents if I talked about the hard. I have come to realize that some of the same things I found hard, they too found difficult.

In a word, boarding school – like the life of any third culture kid – was a paradox.

Boarding school was tears at train stations, and pit in the stomach goodbyes; it was waking up early that first morning, confused and disoriented; it was homesickness and misunderstanding, wishing for your mom only to feel an inability to communicate once you saw her. Boarding school was rules and institutional living, eight roommates and dividing our dresser space in half; it was one bath a week in three inches of water, and one hair wash unless we melted snow. Boarding school was separation from siblings, even when you saw them; it was relating to family in a whole new way. Boarding school was crowd control and learning who could make your life miserable, or comfortable. Boarding school was community living – at its worst and at its best.

But there’s more. Boarding school was life-long friends and deep talks, it was train parties and hot chai at train stations; it was story time at night and putting on plays after school. Boarding school was midnight feasts and picnics at Big Rock; it was playing Kick the Can and Flashlight Beckon until we were called in for bed; it was secrets and friendships, boyfriends and discussions. Boarding school was camping trips and late night chai around rickety tables; it was Sunday night walks where a Boy would hold hands with a Girl and singing for hours to an old guitar. It was figuring out more about who you were and what you believed, it was conversations that I remember to this day. Boarding school is what laid the foundation for beautiful reunions where I reconnect with others of my tribe.

Boarding school was a paradox. It was the good and the terrible, it was the happy and the sad, it was the laughter and the tears. It was community living at its best – and at its worst. And it was all a part of life in Pakistan – a land full of contradictions.

Boarding school was learning that memories can be laced with grace and magic can happen in unlikely places; that one bad houseparent doesn’t define your life and forgiveness is a necessary ingredient. Boarding school is like life – a whole lot of hard and a boat load of good. Boarding school was most of life’s lessons crammed into 12 years. 

Readers – Today I am featured in Tayo Rockson’s podcast featuring TCKs. If you want to hear what my voice in real life is like as opposed to my writing voice have a listen! Click HERE!

21 thoughts on “The Boarding School Paradox

  1. Pingback: Boarding School
  2. Hello Marilyn – Thank you for writing this. I attended MCS – Murree Christian School – in Pakistan from 1978-1987 (1st – 3rd grade and 5th – 9th). I know you know about that – but for your other readers…
    I have never interacted with any boarding school as an adult, only as a kid. All of my memories of boarding school come from before I was 15 years old. Also, I only have experience with that boarding school – I can hardly think I am knowledgeable about boarding schools in general, from that one experience. Anyway, I loved boarding school.
    I read about the negative boarding school experiences that you and others have had – the loneliness, the separation from your family – and I feel like I had none of that. My parents were always surprised when my older brother and I were excited to get back to boarding. And my mom recently told me that it was harder for her than she let on at the time to see us go; but I don’t think I ever had a single “I don’t want to go back to boarding” moment. In the winters, my parents lived in an isolated part of Pakistan, where there sometimes weren’t any other missionary kids to play with – so I think I became closer to my parents and brothers as a result.
    One negative side of boarding – but I think this couldn’t be helped at MCS, and would be true at most boarding schools – was the lack of privacy. I am protective of my “stuff” and my privacy at times, and that was hard at MCS. It would have been helpful for the houseparents to have been a little more sensitive about that – some were and some weren’t. But that is pretty small potatoes, and my parents were much more sensitive about this – usually making sure I had my own room – and I can’t say that I have been scarred for life about it.
    There were other negative things about boarding school – some of the kids (including me) were sometimes meaner than they needed to be, sometimes spending 24/7 (for months) with the same people is claustrophobic, etc. But on the whole, boarding school was – for me – much more good than bad. I really did love boarding school, and my parents still marvel at that. I hope that parents considering boarding school will take my experiences into account.
    As you know, I have also been critical of MCS. I won’t rehash that here, but it wasn’t for the typical boarding school reasons. I think there was something specifically wrong with MCS during the time when I attended, that probably wouldn’t be present at other boarding schools (or even at MCS in 2014). I believe that MCS was operated, at that time, as a training camp for future evangelical missionaries; and freedom-of-spiritual-exploration by students was, I feel, actively discouraged at that time. This situation negatively impacted me quite a lot in my post-MCS years; and it is too bad that it tainted an otherwise positive boarding school experience.
    But as I say, I now think those problems were unique to MCS and that time period; and my point in this comment was that, although your negative boarding experiences were real and I think many other boarding-school kids experienced them too, some of us did not have those sad experiences; and boarding school was maybe a rather good choice for us.


    1. Thanks Jeremy – I sort of think MCS in your years may have reflected the thought at the time in the US – the equating Christianity with America and the trend toward learning to speak Evangelical. Just a thought that I have been mulling. I actually loved boarding school – and loved being there. But do realize that there were things that weren’t easy and some grieving that came out later in life as a result. I always appreciate your thoughtful comments – your willingness to articulate them on paper. Do you do any writing on a regular basis?


      1. Thank you Marilyn! I sent you a link to my recent writing. Not sure if your other readers would be interested in reading C# (computer programming) code and my attempts to explain it. :-) Jeremy


  3. Thank you! You beautifully express my feelings towards boarding school. MCS gave me some of the hardest and loneliest experiences but also some of the best moments of my life. When the school suffered that dreadful attack I was in my twenties and half the world away. I was shocked by how violated I felt by it, until in my grief I said ” how can they just walk into our home like that” It was the first time it had occurred to me that boarding was somewhere I considered my home.


    1. I felt the same way about the attack! I wrote about it in Between Worlds. It was like my personhood was attacked. And I remember one time when asked where I grew up I thought – really I grew up in boarding school. But it was too hard to explain….! Thank you thank you for reading and commenting!


  4. Oh my gosh. Tears.
    When I first explained boarding school to my husband he said, “So you hated boarding school?” and I gasped, “NO! I LOVED BOARDING SCHOOL!” but then I thought, but also I didn’t. But I did. He heard only the missing things from his life that he held so dearly, and I thought I was explaining all the wonderful things in my life that I held so dearly. When I meet up with dorm siblings we talk about all the weird stuff that brought us together, but from the outside it sounds terrible. “Remember that horrible camping experience”, “that horrible meal” or “with those dorm parents”, “the bad roommate”, “the volcano” (I was in Ecuador for boarding school), “the pity”, “the BIG KIDS”, “that bad argument”, “the endless flights?” and all the time we are laughing and the onlooker thinks we have gone mad. But they are all memories that make me, me. So I hold them so dearly to my heart, the good and the bad. And when the outsiders look on with pity, I look back with pity because I have a huge family, full of parents and siblings, and crazy memories, deep hurts and deep loves.


    1. yes, yes, and yes!! This is exactly it and I love the way you describe your gasping “NO!” that’s what I’ve done as well. It is near impossible to explain.


  5. I did not go to boarding school so I cannot comment on the experience but I can completely relate to goodbyes and loneliness and hellos and awkwardness as a third culture kid. I appreciate hearing about your experience, Marilyn, and I am glad that there was some joy in all the sadness.

    I know some parents don’t have a choice because of a lack of school options in their remote locations (My husband was sent off to boarding school for high school because the little town they lived in in northern Peru only had schooling through eighth grade.) but many others, especially British friends, have sent their children back home to a boarding school simply because they felt it was the right thing to do. They want the education they had for their own children. So I’m guessing that their childhood boarding school experiences had to have some good in them too.


    1. You totally get the between worlds piece though Stacy and that is really what it is. It’s that. I think although it was the same country, it parallels the experience of those who moved every 2-4 years because boarding school included the same sort of goodbyes, the same sort of endings. And yes – variety of reasons to send kids to boarding school. For us at the time, this really was the option – now for younger kids there are far more resources for homeschooling etc. Thanks as always for your words.


  6. Can I say that this is the very best thing I’ve read on boarding school complexities? I love this. You captured my experience perfectly. I know there are those who endured a type of hell at boarding school and it grieves me deeply. Most of the time out of sensitivity to their experiences I remain quiet….. But your piece gives voice to my experience so wonderfully. Thank you so much Marilyn. Thank you SO much!


  7. I was fortunate that I boarded at a mission base instead of a boarding school, and that only for high school. There were culture shock and loneliness issues, but most of my memories are positive.

    My friends who had to go to traditional boarding school starting in grade school have the conflicting memories you describe, and would never choose that option for their own young children.


    1. There are so many different experiences to be sure. And certainly there are those that endured terrible, inexcusable abuse and that is to be condemned. I will say that when I looked at my first born at 6 years old I burst into tears thinking “I was so little!” And my mom says the same…”you were so little.”

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Beautiful Marilyn! Love it. I love your use of the word “and.” It’s just a little word but it makes so much difference. Even though we had learned about paradox in missions training, it wasn’t until I read “I Have to Be Perfect (and other Parsonage Heresies)” that I understood the “and.” Because he goes in depth into the AND, and it made sense to me in a way it never did before, and released a lot of guilt over feeling bad that something my parents had chosen might have had negative consequences for me, and was it ever ok to voice that? The good didn’t erase the bad, and the bad didn’t erase the good. They both just WERE. Anyway, I read all your “ands” in this post in that way, and it was just beautiful.


    1. Yes! That little word ‘and’ makes all the difference. It’s almost like those two little words, which I could have also used in this piece ‘but God’ Everything changes with those words. The book sounds great – will have to take a look.


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