I had my first day of ski training today. After the initial few minutes of introductions and splitting into groups, I ended up sharing the small gondola up to mid-mountain with another instructor trainee and another skier. We were chatting, and the other guy in blue and I started going through the quick ‘who are you’ thing.
‘Yea… I moved up here about two months ago after a year in San Francisco, I work remotely during the week, this is just a weekend thing… I was in Charleston for three years before that and Scotland for about seven years before that, and I grew up in Philly.’
‘Oh, Philly! Where?’
‘Pottstown! I went to Hill! Class of ’76.’
I’d started writing this post last night, and I got a bit overwhelmed with figuring out where to take it, like I have every time over the years I’ve tried to sit down and describe ‘boarding school’. Like the whole living in Scotland thing, the farther I get away from it (and it’s now been 10+ years since I graduated), the more of a chunk of life it becomes. It was, for lack of better, more eloquent words, a weird, complicated experience, that I still – 10+ years on – have trouble summing up succinctly when people ask what that was like or how it was. It wasn’t good, but it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t normal, but it was my normal. I have zero regrets about that it was my high school experience, but I would only send my future children to boarding school if it were the right place for them. I learned independence and self-confidence very early on, but that came with consequences and life-learnings that also happened early on. I got a great, all-around education, and there is absolutely no doubt about that.
Instead, the easiest way for me to sum it up has always been that I came away from it having true, genuine relationships with other students, teachers and staff that have sustained, and what I got from that was worth every second of everything else.
I lived at school for three of the four years, with an oddly reversed junior (5th form) year at home, despite living less than a mile from campus. When I applied, I was 13, and while a slightly more outgoing and confident 13-year-old than I was post-6th grade school switching, I was still quiet and introverted and shy, and my parents and I decided that living there would let me be more a part of the community and involved in everything that went on outside of the normal class day. At 13, that sounded exciting. At 13 though, I didn’t really comprehend what that meant.
I loved the independence, and I had no problem from Day 1 of operating freely within the established physical, rule- and honor-based boundaries. There was a lot of structure – every minute of every day was scheduled – and it was exhausting a lot of the time (all the time), but that combination of ‘here are your rules, now go figure out how to operate within them, succeed and have fun’ meant that we while we had less free time, we had no problem taking advantage of it.
I remember learning, and I remember classes (and specific classes), and I know that I had an incredibly unique, very privileged experience where I got to read Latin poetry and Greek literature while sat around those enormous dark tables in leather chairs in the Levis Room (and eventually sat in Italy and Greece), or learn geometry in a class with eight other people, or US history on the pole vaulting mats on glorious May days, but that was only part of it.
The joy of learning and living in the same place was everything beyond that. It was spending multiple nights a week sat in Dr. Bender’s study, transcribing emails and travel itineraries for him while Jane stuck her head in with cookies and the latest shoe shopping bargain secrets she found, field hockey afternoons with Mr. Parker in his South Carolina hat while Mason the dog galloped on the sidelines, and sitting on Doc Malone’s couch on a quiet night during preseason, catching up with her on the world. It was an impromptu pizza lunch with Mr. Watson after a late Saturday track meet, watching What Not to Wear with Mrs. Watson in their living room after weeknight study halls, and running straight through the Ralston’s front door, no knocking required, the evening I found out I got into St Andrews.
And then it was the random things – the buffet dinner nights that went on for hours until we had to run back to our dorms for study hall, exhausted from laughter and the cold sprint, the late night ice skating and swing set life-therapy sessions, or last-minute walks across town to Rita’s when we were desperate to remember there was an outside world.
We lived in this bubble up on The Hill, where we redefined ‘normal’ as this bizarre environment where we left our doors unlocked and laptops in bags outside buildings, wore business dress as teenagers, had outside speakers visit who we didn’t understand the significance of, and we – everyone there – formed this camaraderie to tackle it all. There was no hiding – when you’re around everyone every hour of every day, there’s no time or place to pretend you’re someone you’re not (for long, at least). Teachers and staff weren’t these mysterious beings – we saw them performing in the classroom and raw and real at the crack of dawn or in the middle of the night, with their children and spouses and pets in tow. There was a delicate line we all had to walk along – for teachers, it was, as Mr. Dougherty so aptly summed it, ‘We love you… but eat your spinach.’; for students, it was being mature, responsible and tolerant human beings while still being normal, moody and cocky teenagers.
The bond of living in that bubble endures. Unlike many people, my friends from high school are still some of my closest friends, despite the years of time and distance that have kept us apart. I’m still in touch with those teachers, and I’ve seen them consistently around the world over the years (and they’re still the selfless, genuine people they were back then).
And it’s why when on a ski lift in Truckee you meet another Hill-person, there’s an instant excitement and nod of understanding. You did seated dinners, and Sunday night chapels; you banged spoons on dining room tables during L’Ville week and climbed the stairs to the third floor of the library, and stood on the sidelines of soccer games at the far fields and cross-country meets at Brookside. You knew the secret corners of campus and cheap hangouts on High Street, the somber silence that cast over the campus when DC’s happened, and what Saturday morning classes felt like. And you knew that in between all of that, there were all of those little moments that decades on you shared some part of, because behind all of the structured, uptight facade, there was this hidden magical world that you only really know if you lived in it.
The Hill School. Ties that will never sever.