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After I was excused from lunch one afternoon at boarding school, I stood out in the side yard whacking at the tether ball, trying to give it enough momentum to whip around the pole a few times. Solitude was time for a nine-year-old to do some thinking, and on my mind was this: What if I had been born somewhere else, like in the States? And just grew up ordinary, went to a regular school, didn’t get to travel and stuff? How boring would that be? I’m sure glad I’m me.
Boarding school is a controversial topic on the missionary kid (MK) Facebook group I’ve joined. One’s experience really depended on individual circumstances: how your parents handled challenges, who your dorm parents were, how old you were, how far away from family, and so on. MK’s often express that their years in boarding school were painful ones, that they were too young, felt misunderstood, and shaped by approaches to discipline that were often harsh. For me, in spite of some difficult semesters, the three years I spent at school were overall positive ones. They developed my mind in both expected and unlooked-for ways, providing exposure to American culture, time with peers, classroom experiences, and a long list of enrichments that included music and swimming lessons.
I was eight when my turn came to go to boarding school in Chiang Mai, Thailand. At the time, my parents worked in the Northeast in a town on the Mekong River. My dad, with daily assistance from local Christians, was translating the Bible into Isaan, a language similar to Laotian. My mom was creating language lessons for local missionaries and homeschooling the three of us who hadn’t yet reached third grade and thus weren’t old enough for the school the Protestant mission was offering.
Anticipating my joining my older brother in Chiang Mai, my mom spent afternoons sewing several dresses for me to wear to class, with a light pink lacy one for Sundays. My dorm parents, she reminded me as she took my measurements, would be Papi and Aunt Inga, a German couple who were my parents’ dear friends. I would see my age mates every day, and get to go swimming on Saturdays. Among the items I packed was a small cookie tin filled with attractive scraps of fabric and sewing supplies that my mom had put together for me. I would not have given up my chance to do this for anything.
Why boarding school? Why did my mom, despite it being “one of the hardest things” she’s ever done, end up sending all four of her kids to a distant city for their education? Back in 1980, missionary families faced limited options for educating their kids. Many of us started out homeschooling. This option was helpful, but it came with drawbacks. In hindsight, I found learning at home to be tedious, yet I was energized and motivated in classes with my peers that boarding school provided.
Missionary families often sent their children to local Thai schools, too, where we started learning to read Thai. We loved playing with our Thai friends every day, and, depending on our situation, might see our fellow English-speaking MKs, with whom we shared strong bonds, only occasionally. The gap in acculturation meant that MKs needed to have some immersion in Western culture, too. A larger school would have resources to not only provide this, but also electives and experiences that would have been difficult for parents spread out over Thailand to give their children. A centralized education effort with these prospective advantages appealed to my mother. So once the mission leadership organized the boarding school, my mom didn’t need convincing when, for various reasons, headquarters strongly encouraged parents to send their children.
Today, our mission provides traveling support personnel for homeschooling families. There is a thriving international school in Chiang Mai in the place of the small “Educational Center” that was started up by a close community of missionaries in 1980. Now, travel is easy and fast, with more towns offering airports. Wifi is available even in remote jungle villages, and families can easily video chat. Some families formed a homeschool co-op and found they were happier with that arrangement.
In the early eighties, however, the school was a two-day drive from our home. It was rare to own a working telephone, and so during our annual three semesters away, we exchanged weekly letters with our families. The heavy sadness of homesickness could weigh down our enjoyment of friends and activities. For me, the feeling might be visceral at the beginning of semesters but especially struck right after what felt like an eye-blink brief “Parents’ Weekend” in the middle of the semester. I could have done without an extra parting with my mom and dad. Most of the time, though, when not reminded of how far away my family was, I got carried away in the rich daily experiences and didn’t have time to dwell on how much I missed home.Published in