When I tell people from California that I went to boarding school, they always ask the same wide eyed question: What did you do?
It took me a few rounds to figure out the assumption: bad behavior + getting caught = boarding school. After I make it clear I wasn’t a juvenile delinquent sent up the river for stealing cars or other unsavory behavior, I explain that these schools are actually desirable. You have to apply to them. They might not let you in. At this point, my California people just kind of look at me funny and I gently nudge the conversation to the weather or the San Francisco Giants or where to get really good sushi.
But I get it. The idea of boarding school is weird. It seems like it should only happen in fiction. Take five hundred fourteen to eighteen year olds, lock them up together and remove all parental supervision. Who thought this was a good idea? I’ll be honest. Boarding school wasn’t my finest hour. I was awkward, fat, clueless and hopeless, surrounded by kids who skied the Alps during spring break and tanned on the beaches of St. Barts (back when tanning wasn’t the skin equivalent of smoking). I could barely find those places on a map. When I read Harry Potter, I remember thinking we had a Voldemort, too. He can be named but I won’t do that here.
There were some ugly moments. When I finally graduated, it was with great relief that I discovered there was lots of life still ahead of me and what I was did not determine who I would be.
Still, this experience floated around, looking for purchase. Where exactly in my creative landscape was boarding school going to land because surely it had to land somewhere? I tried an adult thriller with a long forgotten murder but that didn’t work. I played with the idea of a television series but couldn’t get it to click. The answer turned out to be a middle grade series about spies. Surprised me, too. Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls is not dark or angsty or moody, like we all were. It’s funny and light hearted and I couldn’t quite figure out how that happened if most of my memories of that time are not funny, at least not in a good way.
But of course if you drink a lot of coffee and stare into space for long enough, the answers do appear. Abby Hunter, the twelve year old hero of this series, is the girl I wish I had been back then. In writing her, I forgive my young self for not measuring up.
While we’re on the boarding school theme, there are a number of books (other than Harry Potter!) that use this setting for its richness and chaos, some fun, some sinister, some very dark. A few examples:
1. Spy School, by Stuart Gibbs (middle grade). Kid gets recruited for the CIA and ends up in a special school for training spies. Things get wildly and hilariously out of hand. Fast paced and fun, the kids will love this one.
2. Looking for Alaska, by John Green (YA). As is John Green’s way, this novel deals with dark themes. Follow sixteen year old Miles Halter as he heads to boarding school, soon to discover his life will never be the same again.
3. Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld (adult). Ouch. This one was like being back there (PTSD anyone??). But as much as I wanted to run away, the writing is so compelling, I had to see it through. I love this author and this is one of her best.
4. Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro (adult). I read this book in one sitting. It’s a masterpiece that happens to involve a boarding school of sorts. I first read this years ago and I still find it creeping into my thoughts on a regular basis. Don’t miss it.