Life at a New England Boys Boarding School by Dave Robertson
Life at a New England Boys’ Boarding School
When I was a teenager, I went to a boys’ boarding school in northwest Connecticut. These are some of my memories.
It was our family tradition to send boys to boarding school. My uncle and my brother had attended this same school. There was a side chapel off the main chapel that was in memory of my uncle Gavin who was killed in a motorcycle accident in his first year of college.
It was a church school – Episcopal. It was what they called “high church” – the services were in Latin and the chapel was often filled with burning frankincense. Chapel every evening and twice on Sunday was mandatory. We had to kneel on a stone floor on these thin pads. The Sunday morning service was before breakfast, and sometimes a student would just keel over – faint – and need help coming to. It happened to me once. They came to get me. I remember opening my eyes as they dragged me past the alter – perhaps a spiritual experience of sorts. They then took me outside and dumped me into a snow bank. It worked well to revive me.
They were serious about students being at breakfast, and being at breakfast on time. Those who were late for breakfast had to run a one-mile course around the campus, no matter how cold or hot the weather. In northwestern Connecticut, it did get quite cold in the winter. We could also go to chapel in the mornings. This was optional, and it was in addition to the required evening services. I did that quite a bit. God knows why. But afterwards we got to have breakfast with the priest. That seemed a little more humane, and we weren’t subjected to the crowded, noisy, somewhat intimidating dining hall experience with the rest of the school.
Morning chapel was held while everybody else was at breakfast. When we ate breakfast with the priest after chapel, we got to eat our fill. This didn’t always happen at regular mealtimes. The tables in the dining hall had benches on both sides and a chair at the head of the table. The senior (“sixth former”) sat in the chair. The rest of us sat on the benches, in order by class, with the lowest class (“second formers”) at the bottom. The food followed suit, starting with the senior and working its way down. Those at the bottom got what was left, the less desirable and smaller portions.
Anyway, when they took attendance at breakfast, eventually they just assumed I was at chapel. Once I figured this out, I also figured out that I could sleep through breakfast. This was a “privilege” not even seniors got to have.
The seniors were given considerable power over students in the lower classes. We had to call them Sir, they inspected our rooms for cleanliness and contraband, they made sure we were on time for bed, and they inspected our performance on various chores such as sweeping classrooms. If we had food, we had to turn it in to the seniors for “safekeeping” at night. If we were late to bed, the punishment was to get out in the hall with the other tardy kids and do various exercises, such as pushups, leaning up against the wall in the “chair position”, doing a duck walk, and so on. There was one senior who during this would walk around with a short, thick stick, slapping it into the palm of his hand. I never saw him hit anybody with it, but it was a threatening gesture that I remember clearly and that I found frightening.
What was considered contraband was interesting. Any food (that we had not turned in to the seniors); any money over $1; any “medical supplies” such as bandaids, Nodoz, or aspirin; and radios – all were considered contraband. Alcohol or cigarettes, or for that matter pot, were unthinkable. Yes, radios. We were allowed to have record players but not radios. I also had a $99 reel-to-reel tape recorder that I bought with my first summer job’s proceeds. The logic behind the radio ban, as best as I can figure, was so you were not distracted from your studies for long periods of time. You could turn on the radio and it would keep playing, but a record player would stop at the end of a record, and you would have to put another one on. One fellow student had a record player that also had a radio built in. He had put black tape over the radio dial so you couldn’t tell it was there. On the day President Kennedy was shot, we were able to hear what was going on on that radio.
One of the things the seniors did from time to time were contraband raids. They would come into your room while you were asleep and turn on all the lights (usually a very startling experience) and basically tear your room apart and dump everything on the floor, looking for contraband. They would open all your drawers and dump the contents, tear your bed apart, flip the pages of your books and notebooks (presumably looking for money), etc. Finding nothing (I don’t recall they ever did), they would leave the room and tell you to clean it all up in say 10 minutes. One time, I did have contraband. Remember those old foam mattresses with the holes through them? I had some cash rolled up and slid into one of those holes, and they didn’t find it. I was pleased with myself for getting away with that.
One last memory. One year, I got in trouble towards the end of the school year. I had to stay a few days after all the other students had left for summer vacation. My punishment was to do yard work all day, sunup to sundown. The chaplain lived on school grounds with his family. I got to know the chaplain’s daughter, Amanda. We were both 14. She was a beautiful girl, and I remember she had long black hair down to her waist. During the day, she would bring me cold lemonade as I worked out in the fields. In the evenings, we would hang out together. One evening we kissed. It was the first time I had ever kissed a girl. It was wonderful. Some 60 years later I still have a lock of her hair.