Going back to boarding school

Vermont Academy

I spent most of last week in the heart of Vermont, speaking at a small highly-targeted bio conference, tangentially related to some long-forgotten PhD research of mine. The conference took place on the campus of some remote boarding school, empty of students during the Summer break.

Overall, the manageable number of attendees, circumscribed topic and complete absence of alternative for entertainment within a 30 mile radius, made for a convivial atmosphere and stimulating discussions.

Nevertheless, I spent a good deal of my time there feeling like the unfortunate hero of some weird time-travel story, living in secret fear that I might not be allowed to go home at the end of the week.

The overall Overlook Hotel meet The Prisoner vibe of the place may have helped. Jetlag may also have played a role. But mainly, it had to do with serious flashback to my own boarding school days, down to some spooky architectural similarities (not so surprising considering those were typically the type of Old World schools that a posh US “academy” would try to emulate). I had opted for the on-campus lodging option and was assigned a very typical dormitory room, complete with communal sinks and showers at the end of the hallway. Having to share the floor (though not my room) with other grown men long past their boarding school days and finding the bed made every afternoon when I’d get back to the room, only added a weird twist to the whole déjà vu experience.

I only started freaking out for real toward the second day: when, waking up from a sleep-dephased nap at 8 in the evening, I realised that, not only was the cafeteria hall the only option for food in a walkable radius, but the campus may have been the last square mile of US territory without a single vending machine on it. Missing the 6pm-to-7pm dinner service in that place meant going hungry until breakfast. If you’ve never known that feeling, you’ve probably never been to boarding school.

I carefully observed dinner times thereafter and, truth be told, had some lovely evenings sipping beers with colleagues in the school’s rec room (temporarily refurbished for use by legal-drinking adults)… But was still pretty relieved when they let me leave the grounds at the end of the week without special parental permission.