Fiona the calico cat has climbed into the box and made a nest for herself among the towels from Bed, Bath & Beyond. She watches, head on paws, as her mistress, Catherine, packs for boarding school two time zones away. Soon the cardboard will be sealed up and shipped UPS Ground. One early morning Catherine will scratch Fiona behind the ears for the last time until Thanksgiving, then board a plane for Boston. When she opens the box in her dorm at Pomfret, there will be a few tiny calico furs on the towels.
This scenario at my friend Gretchen’s house in Western Colorado is playing out this week in thousands of houses across the country – and the world. Back-to-school rituals can be a big deal in boarding school, especially for the long-distance boarder. There are books and lamps and shower caddies to buy and ship. There are roomates to consult (are you bringing a rug, or should I?), health forms to upload. It can be overwhelming, but every year, it gets easier.
Boarding builds young adults who are competent and resilient, and the process begins even before they leave home for the first time. By the time that jittery freshman is headed off for senior year, arriving on campus early to start her duties as a proctor, she’ll be doing it on her own. All a parent can do is stand back and admire. Admire the growth that this experience of boarding school has made possible. Admire the way she is beyond-prepared for college. Admire the way she has learned to give of herself: not just packing her own boxes, but helping the freshmen with their boxes on the first day.
At our house we have a series of first-day-of-school photos for each of our daughters, starting in Kindergarten. They’d put on their new backpacks and crisp first-day-of-school outfits and stand by the front gate for a documentary shot. This was in elementary and middle school, but once they headed off to boarding school, the photos featured, instead of the pink sneakers with white laces tied in tight bows, a giant cardboard box balanced on one slim hip. And always an indulgent smile, as if to say, OK, dad, take the picture, I know you need to do that, but hurry up, school is starting.
Goodbye, Fiona, Caterine says to her cat. See you at Thanksgiving. School is starting. Life is starting.