As any former boarding school student will tell you, the lessons you learn in a dorm tend to stick with you long after graduation. The dynamics of dorm life are often touted as broadening student world views and increasing students’ emotional and social maturity. And for dorm parents, the responsibility of impressing lifelong values and behaviors is no easy feat. As a boarding school student myself, I didn’t realize until years later that the lessons I adopted into adulthood were often the seemingly minor life skills I quickly dismissed as a teen.
At some point in my mid-twenties, when I was getting organized for a quick trip out of town, I realized that I was following the precise process for leaving my dwelling that I had learned at age 14 as a first year boarding school student.
Just as I had been instructed to do before a school vacation by my own dorm parent, I was putting in the time before leaving my apartment to get the space in order. Clean up clutter. Throw away any perishable food items. Take out the trash. Lock the windows. Unplug extension cords and appliances. Vacuum. Wash, fold, and put away laundry. The list goes on and on and is firmly cemented into my mind as a necessary (albeit time-consuming) chore.
Even at 14, it was clear that this lengthy checklist had very practical purposes. Keep rodents out of the dorm, keep the dorm from setting on fire, avoid break-ins, and - most importantly - allow my parents to marvel at what a wonderful job my school was doing at teaching me and my fellow students basic responsibility.
However, I did not know that completing this checklist time after time would integrate itself entirely into my personal habits well into adulthood. Certainly, by my second year in boarding school, I no longer needed the reminders from dorm parents. By the time I got to college, the habit was deeply ingrained. It struck me only when I became a dorm parent myself that the necessary tasks and checklists I now impress upon my adolescent neighbors to follow are in fact foundational skills for life. I cannot imagine leaving my house behind, messy, unvacuumed, with food rotting in the fridge, while heading out to relax on a vacation or tackle an exciting work trip. It simply is not in my DNA.
Was that true prior to boarding school? My mother would tell you that at least some of these skills were taught at home not school, but I am certain that the mental checklist is specific to my boarding school days. As a dorm parent and dorm head becoming aware of the role these adolescent lessons were now impacting my adult life, my perspective on those very checklists, dorm meetings, and what we lovingly call residential life curriculum shifted.
Now, my role was about helping my residents develop the same fundamental habits, skills, and values to carry into their own adult life, just as I had carried them into mine. I wonder now if any of my former residents think of me when they unclog a vacuum. Or take the trash out on their way to vacation. Day-to-day, students may consider these tasks and responsibilities a burden. Years from now, we realize these lessons were anything but inconsequential.
And while I’m not currently living and working full-time on a boarding school campus, I remain committed to the idea of skills-based residential education. My own dorm life provided the guidance that I needed to move into the world of adulting. And that is no easy feat in today’s modern world.
All of this is to say that residential life on boarding school campuses is just as foundational and important as classroom curriculum or student life programs. While the lessons learned within a dorm may fly under the radar, the routines we teach our students often make a permanent impression.