The Horrors of Boarding School: Reflection after reading Looking for Alaska by John Green

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When I was fifteen, I spent a memorable year at a small boarding school in Europe.  In a lot of ways, Looking for Alaska painfully reminded me of my year away because I could totally relate to what the students were going through on a day-to-day basis. Like the book, my experience had rich kids who lorded their money over everyone else, day students that went home at night to family, and unending drinking and drug abuse that went on behind the scenes even if everyone knew about it. There were also a lot of kids like me who weren’t rich and weren’t ‘abandoned’; rather, we were victims of circumstance. My father was working in the Middle East and with no international high schools there, the only way to go to school was to attend boarding school. So, Europe it was.

In many ways, life at boarding school is a life rich with freedoms that one rarely experiences in one’s family home. For example, my friends and I would go out on Saturdays together after breakfast with no supervision and only be expected back by 9 pm for curfew.  Now, a bunch of girls can get into a lot of trouble in 11 hours without supervision.  Pair that with a weakly enforced drinking age, and bodies with extremely low tolerance to alcohol, and you can only imagine some of the antics we got up to. We took up drinking, smoking, and when we wanted to really push the envelope, thieving.  For a few months we dared each other to shoplift from the drug store and then worked our way up to an expensive clothing store (though thankfully that only happened once – and I never got up the guts to steal anything.)

I never got busted for drinking – but I did get busted for smoking. And it gave me, like in Looking for Alaska, many hours of work detail to pay off my bad behavior. It didn’t stop me from smoking though and I’m still amazed I only got caught once.

Living away from home was terrible – I hated almost all of that aspect. Being surrounded by the same people day in day out wore thin pretty quick, and at school there was NO escape from a person I could have avoided if I lived at home. And there were definitely people in boarding school that had issues. Between anorexia, bulimia, bullying and suicidal thoughts, it was hard to navigate through the social hive: I never knew what to say or how to act or behave. As students, we had no role models to speak of – we had a headmaster who really didn’t give a shit about any student in the school, and I imagine he just hoped no one would die on his watch. We had floor monitors who were university kids paid badly to make sure we didn’t kill each other during the night. My relationships with these young adults were based on who I thought was cute, and I don’t even remember the name of the young woman in charge of my floor. Her earnestness disgusted me.

What I do remember are the highlights and lowlights of the year.

I remember climbing out on the roof in the spring and drinking in the fresh air and feeling free in the midst of mountains and meadows.

I remember finding out that a boy I had a huge crush on was pretending to like me so he could sleep with me and brag about it. Stupid idea on his part – I was a total prude.

I remember walking down canal streets in Venice with my first love, and fumbling through all that entailed.

I remember finding my roommate inhaling butane from a lighter and the resulting slow, low rumble of slurred words that issued from her mouth and I wondered if she was going to die in front of me.

I remember the same roommate throwing me against the wall for some small offense I don’t remember.

But mostly I remember how glad I was that it was over and I would never have to see most of those people ever again.

So, if you think this book is NOT accurate, or if you think it is contrived, I say, stop idealizing the boarding school you have in your mind because I can’t think of one person who attended boarding school who wouldn’t support the problems John Green holds up in Looking for Alaska. And I’m only glad nothing this horrible happened at my school.

Libby

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