How I Felt Going to Boarding School….

I was so little when I went to boarding school. And most of my friends were as well.

When I look back on it, we all acted so brave. But if there was one wrong word or misstep, tears were at the ready. And that’s why I love this video so much. Because my whole childhood of going to boarding school and saying goodbye to my mom came back to me, but without pain. Just a lot of laughter. I don’t post this to be heartless, but because I relate with it so much! Happy Saturday!

Packages from Home – A Boarding School Story

boarding school package

Every day around noon time mail would come to our boarding school. This was a highlight of our day. In elementary school we waited until our house parents had the mail and called our names one by one to get our letters. In junior high and high school we would gather around the school office near the entrance of the building, where mail was sorted and put into little boxes. Mail was always exciting. Whether it was a plain envelope or a blue aerogramme it meant connections with the world outside of boarding school, connection with parents, with friends who had gone on furlough or left Pakistan, with relatives from the United Kingdom or United States, Sweden or Germany.

Three times a term packages would arrive from home for my brothers and me. They were always shoe-box size, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, sometimes sealed with wax. I would rush to find a private space amidst a crowd to open this treasure.

I knew even before I opened it some of what it would hold.

There would be brownies – eight of them, separated into two layers. There would be lemon squares wrapped in wax paper and then reinforced with thick aluminium foil. There would be homemade cookies and fudge. Often a small jar containing homemade jelly or marshmallow fluff would be carefully wrapped in paper to keep the glass from shattering. It was a long, bumpy trip from upper Sindh in the southern area of Pakistan to the high mountains in the north where our boarding school sat surrounded by pine trees. And there was always, always a note from my mom.

As much as I wanted to keep the package by myself, at least for a little while, there are things you learn early in boarding school. Like the unspoken rule that you share your goodies with the popular kids. So I had to share with the popular kids, and then I wanted to share with my friend Nancy – she was my best friend. And then, well, there were the kids who never got packages from home and you really wanted to give them a bite or two.

Before you knew it, the package was gone. Gone as quickly as your mom’s face through the train window as you left for boarding school, your eyes straining to see her until the clouds of dust hid the platform from sight. Gone as quickly as your dad’s voice echoing from the platform.

Packages were reminders that we were special, significant to someone. Packages were tangible proof that we had parents, that those parents 800 miles away cared about us.They reminded us that though in boarding school we sometimes felt lost and one of many, at home there were parents who prayed for us, thought of us, baked for us.

Packages told an unwritten story of a mom who baked in the heat to make sure she had our favorite goodies to send. A mom who laid everything out on the table, wrapping and packing, making sure that all was equally distributed. Packages told of a dad who went about his daily work with a stop at the post office, chatting with the post man about politics, the weather, and the price of onions. A dad who made sure that these well-wrapped treasures made it via an inefficient postal system from the desert of Sindh to the green mountains of Murree. Packages were concrete proof of family and home, of belonging and love.

My world of packages and boarding school is long gone. The packages I now receive are generally from a book seller, delivering books to our apartment, the packages laying on the ground until someone gets home to dust them off and take them inside. But just last week there was a package, wrapped carefully, first in a white envelope, then in brown paper. It was a gift from one of you – a blog reader whom I’ve never met. My heart leapt, just like it used to when I was a little girl opening up that package with brownies and lemon squares.

Some things never grow old — and brown paper packages, tied up with string must be one of them. 

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/logistics-post-post-brand-485225/

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.

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“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!

Lessons from the Cheez Whiz Jar

cheez whiz

Lessons from the Cheez  Whiz Jar by Robynn

Boarding school taught me, among other things, to get what I could. There were so many of us and it seemed that the good stuff was always so limited. We were always asking: How many can I have? And we diligently policed each other.

She took two!

We’re only allowed to have one!

He took the biggest!

It created in us a type of poverty mentality. We were little scavengers. We were a group, a collective, battling it out for our share, for attention, for individuality, for what was ours.

There was a treat cupboard in the dining room at school that reinforced in me the need to be selfish and greedy, to hoard, to protect what I could get for myself! It was a nondescript wooden cupboard at the front of the room. On one side were stored stacks of dull-coloured melamine plates and bowls, on the other side pathetic plastic mugs with limp handles. In the middle lay the sacred treat cupboard. There was a latch, and a hook and a lock that kept the cupboard safely secured inbetween meals. The auntie or uncle in charge of breakfast or supper, would take the key attached to a large wooden key chain, kept safe on a hook on the wall in the nearby staff lounge, and would ceremoniously open the cupboard. After prayers were sung or recited or spoken, children with treats were allowed to approach the cupboard to retrieve them.

My brother and I didn’t have liverworst or chocolate spread in a tube. We didn’t have small jars of marmite or vegemite. We didn’t have special cheeses in tins, imported jams or spreads. Mom made us a homemade hot chocolate mixture which we could stir into our powdered milk to make it more tolerable. She bottled special jars of apricot jam from fruit we had picked up in Hunza. She hunted down the boys on the hill who sold blackberries and she made delicious jam from that too. Those were our treats locked away in the cupboard. And although now, I can see that those were far more superior treasures, my childhood eyes didn’t quite see it that way.

Our things felt inferior and home-patched.

Until the year that Grandma Brown came to visit and brought a large glass jar of Cheez Whiz all the way from Canada. I’m sure Grandma brought other delicacies too but that jar of Cheez Whiz was precious. Mom put the jar away in a safe place until it was time for school. Then she brought it out and divided it between two plastic containers: one for Neil, one for me. And we packed it off to the safety of that treat cupboard. Now we had something special worth locking up. Now we had currency, social standing. We had power to share, power not to share. We had treats!

I didn’t know when the next treat might come. I suppose I assumed this was the last time I would ever have this remarkable special commodity. And so I learned to be selfish and horrid. I learned to hoard.

Years later, when Lowell and I were first in India, remarkably a package arrived in the mail. In it were packets of special spices and little boxes of jello, dessert mixes, chocolate chips. I marveled at all of it and then put it all away. We would save it. A couple of days later Lowell inquired after the treats. I told him we were saving them for a special day. At that moment Lowell began to convert me to his personal philosophy of generosity. He reasoned that treats were to be enjoyed. Where would the next treats go? We had to enjoy what was given to us so we’d have room for the next batch. Lowell taught me to share.

When we returned to Kansas in 2007 I had peculiar shopping habits born from this same notion of scarcity. The first several times I went grocery shopping I marveled at the availability of treats. They had salsa! I bought 3 jars. Wow….brown sugar! I bought 3 pounds. The next time I was out I happened on salsa and brown sugar again. I was so excited I bought 4 of each. And again….I was out grocery shopping and what joy I experienced when I saw salsa and brown sugar and powdered sugar and chocolate chips! I enthusiastically bought multiples of each. When the cupboards at home were packed and I was having to store extra “treats” under our bed in boxes and in the top of the closet I realized I had a problem. It took us over a year to consume the brown sugar and salsa I had stashed.

God has certainly done His part in trying to undo my sense of deprivation and convince me of what is true. There is no end to his generosity. There is no lack in his kindness. He loves to lavish good gift upon good gift. It oozes out of who He is. He is full of grace: good and generous. He is a Loving Father doting on his children. It pleases him to meet our needs extravagantly. Two years ago we were able to buy our dream car…. It felt so ridiculous…but we did it: a Toyota Prius! Our freezer was filled with meat last winter by kind friends. Last fall I got a check in the mail for $300 with clear instructions that it was just for me! (not the kids, nor the bills, not for the practical needs, nor for the squeaky wheels of family life…!) It was just for my pleasure. Astounding! Who does that? Last week some friends of my parents said they’d like to buy us new living room furniture to replace our current finds (a hand-me-down couch of a particular Kelly green hue, a chair we found in the snow by the side of the road 6 years ago, a garage sale $5 chair that is now shredded and unsightly) —this is unheard of! This is pure generosity, grace, gratuity, gift!

Over the years, painstakingly slowly, I have learned to be more openhanded. I have seen a steady stream of treats come in to our lives and I’ve found joy in sharing those and extending the happiness with others. Truth be told, when I look back on my story, I’ve really never been treat-less. There have always been little extras, little extravagancies. It’s baffling, humbling, overwhelming. It makes me cry!

It continues to perplex me that Cheez Whiz, of all things, would be the thing that communicated with my greed, wanting to convince me to keep it all for myself. However as I open the jar and pass it around I learn more about God and grace and family and joy.

What about you? Have you struggled with a poverty mentality, particularly as it relates to God and his good gifts? 

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A Few Scattered Thoughts on Boarding School…

(…while my youngest daughter is away at camp) Fridays with Robynn.

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Bronwynn left for camp on Sunday. We drove her to a friend’s house and one of the other moms drove a group of giggling, excited, anxious little girls off to camp.

I never went to camp.

When I was eight my parents moved to Pakistan.

A month later, when I was newly nine, they sent me to boarding school – An excited, anxious little girl.

Chai, Pakistan, Murree
Old chai shop across from the gates of our boarding school

I didn’t go alone. My brother, younger than me by nearly three years, went too. As did my two cousins. We were accompanied most of the way by my dad and my uncle. And then we were tucked into a van for the last two hours of the journey and delivered safely to the school.

It was a difficult decision for my parents to make but it was woven into the larger decision to move to Pakistan. If they made that choice, then they knew they also made the choice to send us to boarding school. It must have been agonizing for them. It must have been one of the hardest things they ever had to settle.

All things considered, I had a positive experience at school. But it’s also true that I was terribly homesick and heartbroken. I was forced to grow up very quickly. I was exposed to unfamiliar routines and rhythms. I felt the heavy responsibility to care for my brother. Unkind adults said unkind things. The bible was occasionally used as a means to control us children. God and Satan were often summoned to enforce that control.

Mom and dad lived under the pressure from the community to send us to boarding. It was expected. It really was their only option. But they also lived under the burden of pressure from their extended family and supporters. Constantly they had to cope with the soul racking questions like, “How could you possibly send your children away?”, “Don’t you miss them?”, Could you live as missionaries in ministry and not Focus on (your) Family?.

As children we also were asked those questions on furloughs, or in letters, or by (insensitive) visiting friends or family. And how could we possibly bear to answer them honestly under the concerned, agonizing, scrutinizing, pleading looks of mom and dad? They so desperately needed us to be ok. They needed us to answer in such a way to give their souls some relief from the torment they lived with. They needed to know that the decision they had made was ok, that we, their precious little people, their sacred trust, their beloved children, were going to be alright.

And I felt the timing of those questions and the moment of waiting for the answers to be heavy and loaded and crucial to everyone’s happiness and well-being..and so I said only that I loved boarding school. It was hard to be away from my parents but I loved my friends and I loved school.

Mostly that was true.

But there were other things that were true too that I didn’t say.

Today I go to collect Bronwynn and all the other little girls and bring them safely home.

It’s been an interesting week of nostalgia and introspection for me as the mom. I’ve relived my little girl days. I’ve thought more about what it was like for my parents. I know camp and boarding school are vastly different…but this week has given me a small glimpse into their experience of sending us off to strangers. And it’s been hard in ways I didn’t expect. I have felt sad for them. I have borrowed their worn-out shoes and tried them on for just a bit…and they fit funny, they feel weird.

My feet hurt, pinched, tight. I know God gave them grace to wear those shoes…and I know he’s given me the gift of trying them on, for just a few days.

Bruising Seasons – Reblog from A Life Overseas

All the world feels bruised today. We have rain coming down making sure all the garbage of the city is mushed under foot. A gum wrapper here, a cigarette butt there, dirt of a city everywhere.

And in the United States, Oklahoma is grieving while so many grieve with her. The hardest of hearts must melt with the stories of small children drowning at an elementary school. The softest of hearts may question a God of love during this time as news report after report tell of loss and death.

Sometimes you don’t have the words yourself and you choose to use the words of others. Today I am sending you to read the words of a mom and goodbyes, for though the grief has not the severity of death, it still bruises, still hurts.

Bruising Seasons. – here is an excerpt from this beautiful article.

It’s a bruising feeling. Deflating and depleting. And I want to say, to the men who tell us the kids have passed the visa checks and are out of sight, to our guard when we return from the airport, to the woman who taps on our window and asks for water, to my husband, can you let me be bruised for a little while?

There’s a bruised reed in Isaiah 42:3 and God does not order it to stand upright. He does not force it into a strong pose. He does not cut it down. He does not stomp on it or grind it into the dirt. He doesn’t laugh at it and he doesn’t demand it try really hard to be unbruised, or to turn away and mask the bruise.

He makes a promise. His Servant will not break it. A bruised reed he will not break…….Read the entire article here.

Those words I choose to remember this day: “A bruised reed he will not break…”

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Sindh region of Pakistan where bruised reeds are plenty

What about you? You can’t go through life for long without experiencing a bruising season. What help do you look for when bruised? 

In Honor of Boarding School Moms

For many moms, sending a child to boarding school is probably a bit like giving them up for adoption. You are entrusting another to care for that child who you birthed, who you love, who holds your heart. For let’s be honest, the minute we give birth there is a crack in our fine-oiled armor – A crack that is all soft, sweet-smelling baby. The crack widens when boarding school is a part of the picture.

And often there is criticism from others when boarding school becomes a part of the lives of children.  Sometimes the criticism is founded, other times it perhaps needs to be rethought and the words “God didn’t intend it this way” or “Your kids will never really heal” needs to be said cautiously, if at all.

For there are those of us who went to boarding school and knew even as young children that it was okay. We knew beyond doubt that our parents loved us. Knew that we were given to them as a gift on loan. Our parents understood that they were never the primary authors of our story – for that authorship belongs to God alone. But they wrote on our lives and allowed others to as well – our boarding parents.

Some of those boarding parents wrote well – words of wisdom, laughter, joy, and discipline. Others weren’t sure what to write – and that’s okay. They are and were human. Others wrote poorly – and that was difficult.

Today I honor my mom and two of those boarding moms – Deb & Eunice.

Eunice spoke into my life when I was a little girl. I was seven years old when I met her. Eunice was pretty and had the voice of an angel. She could be heard singing in the halls of our dormitory. I would pretend I was homesick just so I could have Auntie Eunice to myself. Auntie Eunice wrote music and joy into my elementary world. She mothered so many of us so well, yet always gave us up without a grudge when our real moms came to reclaim us.

But we were still always her kids.

Deb spoke into my life when I was a teenager. When boys and belief became more complicated and I was learning to work out my faith with fear and trembling. Deb’s small studio apartment had room for our cooking, our laughter, and even our tears – sometimes falling so fast it was hard to keep up. Deb loved us when we were unloveable and kept in touch with us when we faced the daunting task of returning to our passport countries. Deb was less housemother and more friend.

Deb and Eunice taught me to love well, without holding too tight. They taught me about sacrifice and perseverance. They taught me about laughter and the long journey. As I grew they became my friends – friends I could pray with, cry with, and laugh with until the wee morning hours.

And my mom allowed them to do that. She gave me to God and prayed for those who could walk beside me when she wasn’t there.

And He granted her request.

So to Deb, Eunice and Mom – Happy Mother’s Day and thank you! You loved well and taught so many of us to do the same.

Happy Mother’s Day. Thank you for loving well