When I was 14, I moved across the country to go to boarding school. There were a few reasons for this, none of which involved discipline (what many assumed). Attending this school was a huge privilege for me, it meant studying with classmates who also wanted to immerse themselves in learning, meeting friends from around the world, and most especially spending a big chunk of my junior year studying on exchange in Japan. I even got to study two languages all four years.
There was another reason I was excited about going to school 3000 miles away. Since kindergarten, I had attended the same small Catholic school. That’s 9 years with the same 45 people. I wasn’t popular or cool in my class, I often felt invisible. This was mostly my own fault- I spent most of my time pursuing interests that my classmates didn’t find interesting. Like learning Japanese, or reading about religion. Middle school is hard, period. I don’t know anyone that didn’t have a hard time. For me, boarding school not only meant opportunity for rich study, it meant leaving my life behind. It meant a fresh start.
Moving at 14 was hard. I actually almost didn’t make it. I called my mom every hour the first week at school, most of the time choking through tears, “I don’t think I can do this, I want to come home.” My mom listened with endless patience. “What’s next on your schedule?” she would ask, and I would tell her the next class, or sports, or dinner. “Try that, and see how you feel after.” After a while, it became, try it for a day. Try it for a week. Look- you’ve almost made it half way through the semester. And suddenly, it was time for finals, and I was flying home for winter break.
I believe a large reason why those first few months- the first year, really- were so difficult was because I had a false perception about what this experience would be like. I could be anyone I wanted, I thought. In some ways, I had no idea what to expect. But I was so sure-and wrong- about one thing: starting fresh. Starting fresh is a farce. Sure, this experience was new and unique, and I certainly changed and grew at this school. But starting fresh in place and people doesn’t mean starting fresh by forgetting who I was proved impossible. I carried with me the same pain, fear, curiosity, and love to this new place. I still carry it today.
Instead of forgetting the unpleasantness, I have learned that new experiences- entering a new community, starting a new school, a new job, leaving a life behind- actually teaches me more about who I am at the core. Interestingly, one of my most firm convictions comes from the Buddhist tenet that change is constant and inevitable. Nothing is permanent. Yet, just because change occurs does not mean we let go of the impressions made upon us. Outwardly, we can withhold anything we want and no one may have any idea what we’ve been through. The most permanence in the world is our internal truth.
A student very dear to me gave me a book, called The Shack (it’s now a movie). I don’t normally choose novels, but this one intrigued me because it’s a story of struggles with pain and faith and the image of the divine. The beginning of each chapter is marked with a quote or two. The second chapter starts with one by Paul Tournier, a Swiss physician who is well known for pastoral counseling. “Nothing makes us so lonely as our secrets.” I paused after reading that. Of course, we feel most alone when our inward truth feels dissonance with our outward environment. This is why starting fresh only really teaches us what we are already carrying.
My first year at boarding school I tried hard to re-imagine who I was by convincing others that jem was not Mary Ellen. I don’t believe I lied explicitly- but I hid the pain of being away from my family and the struggle to do well enough and be enough for this highly talented and hardworking community. I felt so lonely, even when I was surrounded by classmates who perhaps were feeling exactly the same as I was. As I slowly started to realize that my inner truths were not only accepted but embraced, my presence at this school began to feel legitimate. To be sure, I always struggled with questions of self-worth and being enough, but I found people who could walk with me. To this day I can call my best friend that I met in our freshman dorm and talk to her as if we’ve lived next door our entire lives.
As I transition to a new experience (more on that later), I’m bringing some baggage that’s tough to carry. I’m also bringing a ton of love and memories of joy. The freshness of this beginning isn’t about erasing what I’ve been through, but opening to the possibility of learning more about who I am.