ROCKVILLE, MD. — Unlike Harry Potter, I didn't have the opportunity to attend boarding school, but I have talked to hundreds of kids who have. I make my living telling their stories in the "viewbooks" schools send out to prospective students and their parents.
Some of the kids I talk to seem destined to go to boarding school. Some are poor kids who've been plucked out of mostly inner-city schools through scholarship programs such as "A Better Chance." Others are kids - rich, poor and often middle-class - who came to boarding school to escape a waiting-for-life-to-begin malaise they found in their local schools back home.
It's the latter group that may be most hurt by recent commentary disparaging boarding schools. It's the young people who are reaching out, trying to answer an inner call to be more, do more, live more. These are the ones who tell me "I just knew there had to be more to the world than my small sphere, so much more for me, waiting to reach for it."
I often start my work with boarding schools by asking students, "What's your favorite thing you've learned so far?" No matter what their background they most often answer some version of: to be myself; to value the opinions of others; to be curious; that I have talent; or to work for what I want.
I talk to the parents, too. I ask them, "Why boarding school? Is it worth it?" One father told me, "I miss my son terribly, but something interesting has happened: Like most teenagers I used to get one-word answers to my questions. How's math? Fine. How's English? Fine.
"Now I get 'Dad, I wrote this paper. It was about so and so and I found out such and such.' Twenty minutes later, he's still telling me about it. When we talk, and we do often, it's meaningful talk." Another mother said, "Nothing in my life prepared me for the day a boarding school admissions packet arrived at my home. In our Hispanic culture it is almost unheard of. It came down to the fact that my daughter wanted more than to do well in the conventional sense. She wanted the rare challenge of learning without limits."
Public schools are great in that they were founded to educate everyone. But that can also be their limitation: they can't fill everyone's needs. Is it in everyone's interest to offer 20 independent senior English courses beyond the AP level or to make an on-campus accredited zoo part of the science curriculum? No, but it may be in some individual students' interest to attend such schools.
Still, I am most persuaded by the personal development opportunities boarding schools provide. Rather than worry that such a setting might prevent my children from retaining my values, I am inclined to think it could help instill them.
When we picked up our daughter from her first summer camp experience, what I saw was someone in love with life. The world that had opened up for her had not only embraced her, but she had embraced it. I thought, "This is what parents of boarders see when their children return - more mature young people who have learned to be better people because they are part of something larger than themselves, larger than their own families.
Boarding school is not for every child and parent, but neither is public school or independent day school. As parents, we want guarantees - "Do this, don't do that, and your child will be safe, happy, and successful." But the fact is we have to get to know our children before we even begin to know what's best for them. The preppy parent who makes a child go to boarding school because it's the family way is no more right than Curtis Sittenfeld, author of a new novel, "Prep," who recently announced she would not favor boarding school for her own future children. Both tacks suggest shutting out possibilities.
Last year, The Association of Boarding Schools released a study that reveals, among other statistics, that 59 percent of boarding-school students describe their schools as having students from many races and ethnic groups as opposed to 19 percent of private day and 39 percent of public school students. Sixty percent applied to boarding school primarily because of the opportunity for a better education rather than because they were "sent away," and 86 percent report being very satisfied with their family life. Ninety-five percent say their social lives do not revolve around drugs and alcohol, compared with 82 percent of private day and public school students.
But, I actually think J.K. Rowling may have done more for boarding schools than any study could. After reading the Harry Potter books, my 10-year-old already has two boarding schools in mind - other than Hogwarts, which is her school of choice.
Fortunately, unlike Harry Potter, kids who reach out for more opportunity where once there was none don't need wizarding parents. Thoughtful parents will do.
• Andrea Jarrell is a writer who works with boarding and day schools, colleges and universities.