An essay exploring the idea of boarding school as a utopia.
Thin and cold, the Nashua River flows from northern Massachusetts into southern New Hampshire. In the 18th and 19th centuries, local paper mills corrupted her with dyes carrying various pollutants, but in the last few decades she has slowly begun to recover. Her neighbors care; they care about the environment and they wish to swim in her brown-green waters come late May. The sun loves her; the banks support her; autumn leaves sprinkle her with shy affection.
Somewhere along her 38-mile journey off the Merrimack River, the Nashua River runs through a small Massachusetts town and along an old boathouse dock, where she plays host to rowers and swimmers of a private boarding school. Its teachers let their stones skip, their dogs swim, their children dip their toes in her murky water. Townsfolk run on trails along her shore. Older students, naked, wade into her at night and wince before they take the plunge. She—part of her, at least—belongs to Groton, Massachusetts, and, more specifically, the Groton School.
The high school houses 380 students. In its center is its staple: a large circle of green grass, “the Circle” to its residents. Low buildings of faded red brick and gray slate roofs surround the Circle, except westward, where the Circle opens up to sports fields, forests, and steaming sunsets. Down and through the westward woods, the Nashua. To the east a gothic chapel stands, stoic. Iron gates and red brick walls separate the school from a quiet road.
A white clock tower rests on the schoolhouse building. Every night, when all is still but the sharp New England breeze, the tower glows. Rusted bells mark the beginning of each new hour, at 2 AM stirring jetlagged boarding students and prodding late-night procrastinators.
So much goes on at the Groton School that perhaps the Nashua is forgotten: her ripples, her steady yet restless motion. Fall is flung upon the campus; the days shorten but they are somehow longer. Classes are six days a week. Every minute of the day the students spend engaged in some activity, from breakfast in the dining hall to the morning chapel service to classes in the schoolhouse to daily sports practices. At night, the teachers and students slump over their desks. Before they sleep, they set two alarms for good measure, and when they sleep, they dream of the future only. The next vacation, Wednesday’s big game, tomorrow’s meeting.
Then winter comes and, more often than not, the Nashua herself has frozen over. She has expanded, and she has attached herself to her surroundings. The school leaves her be, suspended in neglected tension. The students and faculty sleep more, eat more, and wear more. Some students build an igloo on the Circle, others a warped snowman. The girls wear leggings and the boys wear sweatpants. They all wear dark coats, blue and brown and black. They insist to themselves that they are doing well in the middle of a long school year. They tiptoe on black ice, heads down and wishing for the next day to come.
Pollen and pressure mingle in the air. It is an early spring night, though it snowed just a few weeks ago. The first buds have sprung on their branches. The kayaks and crew boats have been released from their captivity onto the Nashua, melted and welcoming. The students pile in, carrying paddles and oars, believing that less cold is the same thing as warm. The wicked sun sets.
At three minutes past eight, an 18-year-old sits alone in a study room, surrounded by Latin declensions and Lewis structures scrawled onto whiteboard walls. An old Dell sits open on the desk in front of her, shining white into her eyes. In black: I am very sorry to let you know that we are unable to offer you admission…
This morning she was restless. Tonight, she cries like she has almost never before.
She weeps; she weeps for false expectations, for lost direction. Her tears only implore further tears. She is so sad because she is so sad. It is a mindless sort of cry, a cathartic release for which she can offer no concrete explanation.
Scattered people surround her little study room: students sitting at desks and on couches, teachers watching movies with their children at home. Her friends are just minutes away, her family hundreds of miles. Everyone is living, tonight and yesterday and tomorrow.
Is she? She shuts her computer and returns with a heavy head to her dorm, where she sits red-eyed and silent among some twenty other girls. Some squeal and laugh and shout over each other. A few are soundless, too.
The girl remembers something that the guidance counselor, an old woman with meager experience but genuine intentions, once said: Groton was hard, but it was hardest on its girls. She forgets that the Nashua has already broken out of her ice into a boundless stream.
April comes and May follows. The girl stands on a bank of the Nashua, her skin bare and tickled by the sun. She grabs a friend’s hand and closes her eyes. Their toes spring off the cool soil, bodies plunge into the green and unassuming water.
Summer is coming, she realizes, and she is growing; she is growing into an ocean.