An Open Letter to My Boarding School

Dear Dunn School,

I’ve had you on my mind for a week now, ever since my right eye started twitching last Tuesday.

It brought you to mind because my eye hasn’t twitched in ages—not since three years ago, when I was a junior in high school. I’m sure you remember me from then; I had a different name, but considering that my graduating class consisted of about fiftysomething kids, I’m sure you have at least a couple memories of me. But in case you don’t, I’ll give you a refresher—I was short (still am) and awkward (ditto), and usually had my nose stuck in a book of some kind. I was always studying for an AP test, or downing a third cup of coffee, or typing frantically in an effort to finish something for a deadline that was always right around the corner.

I think you’ll remember me most, however, for the common thread in all my notes from teachers: effort. As in, “With a little effort…” or “If Ben put in more effort in my class...” or the classic “If Ben can manage to get in just a little extra effort….” I’m sure if I could find those reports and read over them, the effect would be uncanny, to say the least.

It would also be infuriating, Dunn. It would be infuriating because I was memorizing lines, writing papers, studying for tests, annotating huge chunks of readings, and it still wasn’t enough for anyone. Because of the rule there (I assume it’s still in effect) that students must have at least one extracurricular activity per semester, my school day ended at 3:30 PM—but Drama rehearsal started only half an hour later, at 4 PM, and lasted until 6:30. At 6:30, I would bolt down dinner as quickly as I could, walking back to my room and preparing to begin homework. Every regular class at Dunn was allowed (and now, I wonder if it was expected) to give one hour of homework, and the time frame could be longer for AP and Honors classes. From my sophomore year on, I was always in at least two AP or Honors classes in addition to four regular ones—meaning that every night, I spent easily six hours (and often more) on homework that was all due the next day. That meant that every night, I would collapse into bed at 1 AM (or later; it was often later) and grab about five or six hours of sleep before the day began again at 7:00 AM, when I would drag myself out of bed to the cafeteria, to drink as much coffee as my stomach could handle, hoping that caffeine would take the place of real energy, and that this would be one of the days where it would help me feel more awake instead of giving me a panic attack.

Do you know why my eye started twitching last Tuesday, Dunn? It was because my landlord announced abruptly that he was going to install some long-overdue heating in my apartment. Given that it was so last-minute, my housemate and I had to clear space for the heating to be installed very quickly, meaning that as long as things were out of the way, they were fine. This meant that my closet ended up in the living room; my desk chair was in the kitchen, and piles of my housemate’s clothes made it impossible to reach the kitchen sink or stove. In addition, by unfortunate coincidence, last week was also when my midterms started—and last Tuesday, I had to type as frantically as I could, getting one in just under the wire (but barely).

My life last Tuesday, Dunn, was chaos. I came out of it feeling that I’d barely survived, with the utter certainty that I would not be able to do that again, and that I would have preferred to shiver under blankets for the rest of winter rather than live through that week. I was operating, last week, under extremely stressful circumstances which one could argue were not reasonable and, long-term, were not livable.

And yet, Dunn, I lived with you for four years. And in asking myself how, I made one of the most clarifying connections in my life:

I blamed myself.

With every late night, I told myself that I should have finished my homework earlier. With every sub-par grade or test score, I would think, I should have studied harder without then asking, with what time? I shoehorned myself into submission much more thoroughly than any other person would have been able to do, because I was convinced that your faculty and administration knew best. And so I honed myself into a strange creation that was more a machine than a person, putting all of my personal worth into the grades that I got and the points that I earned, becoming more and more convinced that I was worth nothing without them.

You weren’t all bad, Dunn. Some of the teachers I had there changed my life forever, in extraordinarily positive ways. I met my best friend there. I discovered that I really did have a deep and abiding love for theatre. And you did teach me how to live—or at least to function—in times of extreme crisis.

But I was a teenager. Living in constant crisis mode shaped my brain in fundamental ways that affect me now. I can’t plan ahead; I live constantly in the moment, leaving everything to the last minute because it’s the only way I know how to get things done. I don’t know my own limits—in managing crises constantly, I learned to ignore any personal boundaries at the expense of my own health; now that I can actually feel the repercussions, it’s become a poisonous instinct. Perhaps most affected has been my self-esteem—I struggle constantly with the idea that I am worth anything without constantly producing work, or with producing late or sub-par work. I struggle with accepting that if I am not perfect, I am still worthy of love and respect, or even existence.

Dear Dunn, you changed me. You made me a survivor—but in exchange, you sucked me dry of everything I had. And then you turned around, smiled sympathetically, and told me to just put in a little more effort.


Ben Guess


[Cover image by Unsplash; all other images by Giphy]