Mining my boarding school experience for Cesium Deep

This one is going to be a little more personal. Also a little more disjointed.

I went to a mixed boarding / day school for high school. I was there as a boarder.

My time in my dorm was both great and awful. It’s part of where I’m drawing inspiration for the story I’m writing about Cesium Deep.

When I say that my time in my dorm was great, I mean that I met and made friends with some awesome people. I came to love living in a community, and felt close to some of my dorm mates in a way that is hard to explain. Some of those friendships existed because we were teens who were able to live in the same space and share our passions and interests in ways that I hadn’t really thought possible before boarding school. Sometimes, living in a dorm was a hell of a lot of fun.

But some of those friendships existed because we survived the awfulness together.

I don’t think it’s surprising that no one else from my dorm came to our 10th reunion.

When I say that my time in my dorm was awful, I mean that when I read political theory years later it made an uncomfortable amount of sense. I mean that the Melian Dialogue from Thucydides (“the strong do as they can, and the weak suffer what they must”) was something I’d already learned. Hobbes’ state of nature, the struggle of all against all, and his call for the creation of a Leviathan to rule over society… that too was eerily familiar. Realpolitik seemed reasonable, and Machiavelli made some good points that I probably could have used. In retrospect, I did follow some of his advice without realizing it.

At least one of my friends recently told me that he’d blocked out some of his memories of being in our dorm. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m missing some of my own.

I made it through my time in that dorm by finding a few close friends, and by constantly judging how any given action might be seen as a threat or a means to make me a more vulnerable target. Note that I don’t say “make me a target,” but “make me a more vulnerable target.” Everyone was always potentially a target. It mattered whether or not I made myself look like an easy one.

Prior to high school, I had learned a good deal about chimp and other primate social hierarchies. I knew about social dominance contests, about chimps’ habit of loud and dangerous displays. I’d heard about the studies of baboons described here, and ways in which primate social structures could exist outside of “natural” patterns of violence and dominance. I won’t say that there’s a one-to-one relationship between the behaviors of teenage boys and the behaviors of other primates, but sometimes I honestly felt like a primatologist observing—embedded in—a particularly violent tribe.

I did what seemed necessary to survive in a place where you had to assume that someone might test you, prove that you were a weak and easy target, at any time. To the best of my knowledge, all of this happened under the noses of the school’s authorities with none of them much the wiser. I was taught quickly by my older peers that no one should go to the teachers to settle anything, that any disagreements should be settled between the concerned parties. To paraphrase, “snitches get stitches.”

That held true for everything from pranks to theft, from drug use to casual violence (which danced across the line between roughhousing and bloody battery). All of that while locked up in a building with your tormentors and victims, with precious little means for escape.

Before going to boarding school, I had a pretty positive impression of authority. My time in high school, particularly my time as a boarder in a dorm—forced to live within the school’s authority structure—really cured me of that.

The boarding school’s exercise of authority felt arbitrary, mostly blind, and frequently unjust and disproportionate. As one of my friends put it, you had to learn how to navigate through the school’s blind spots, eking out space for yourself to live your life and do what you wanted, while avoiding the eyes of the school’s authorities; if you misstepped, you would be ground up in the system’s sharp edges like grist in a mill. Though I didn’t recognize it at the time, I think this prepared me to (years later) see my own place of privilege in society outside of school—and to recognize the ways in which systems ostensibly meant to protect instead oppressed, even as they treated me well.

This is what I’m trying to draw on as I write Cesium Deep’s story.


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