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The need for boarding

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Boarding has come around again to be exactly what I think a lot of young people need.”
—Innes Van Nostrand, principal, Appleby College

Before the Golden Goal, or the Stanley Cup wins, or the NHL draft, Sidney Crosby was a student at boarding school, something that many Canadians may find surprising. But he was. As a tween, Crosby and his parents recognized that he needed something more than he was getting at home in Cole Harbour, NS. He was excelling in school, yet there were social pressures. In minor league hockey, Crosby was clearly more skilled than his peers, something that may have been celebrated, yet was increasingly resented. On the ice, and in the stands, he was becoming a target of aggression.

All of that—academics, athletic development, social development—were factors that prompted a consideration of options beyond those available locally. For Crosby and his parents, it was less about sending him away than it was recognizing and seeking the support he needed at a critical and decisive time in his life.

He enrolled at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, a boarding school in Faribault, Minnesota. From the moment he arrived he was immersed in a community that would allow him to grow into the person he wished to become. The academics were strong, as was the culture. “I loved the atmosphere,” Crosby later reflected. “You lived together, went to class together, traveled and played together. You got to know each other—everyone—a lot faster and a lot better.”

Athletically the school was exceptional. Renowned coaching attracted like-minded and equally skilled hockey players. Crosby joined others who, like him, were also bound for careers in professional hockey: Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise, Kyle Okposo and Jack Johnson. In every way he found what speaker, educator, and author Ken Robinson would describe as his “element”: “the place where the things you love to do and the things that you are good at come together.”

When criticisms are levied against private schooling as elitist or exclusive, Sidney Crosby isn’t the kind of student that critics have in mind. He didn’t intend to become a political leader, a titan of industry, or an academic. He also didn’t come from a family that operated within those rarefied worlds. After graduating he hasn’t made a career within any of the industries that we might feel that boarding school is designed to reflect.

Further, the school he attended doesn’t reflect the images of boarding school that crowd the popular imagination. At Hogwarts a talking hat sorts students into houses; in “The Imitation Game” a young Alan Turing is trapped by bullies beneath the floorboards; in “Dead Poets Society,” Robin Williams stands on the desk and teaches poetry. In books and film, boarding schools are rank with dark halls, oak paneling, and they groan beneath the weight of dust, history, and intrigue.

It may be disappointing to some, but they don’t in life. "Walk into any boarding school today,” says Anne-Marie Kee, Executive Director of CAIS, “and you'll find a vibrant, highly energized student body, housed in first-rate surroundings and engaged in more activities than you can imagine.”

The school Crosby attended is a testament to that. While some of the buildings are old, the school as it exists today is still young. It opened in 1972. It is renowned for its academics, though the focus is less on the liberal arts than in providing a centre of excellence in a few select areas, including bioscience and engineering. Athletics are a focus, though in soccer and hockey, not rowing or polo.

That Crosby considered boarding at all is a reminder that, like any social institution, it has changed over time. Had he been born one hundred years earlier, or just fifty years earlier, he wouldn’t have been a candidate for boarding school, nor would his family presumably have considered it an option. By the same token, the education he found there likely wouldn’t have reflected his needs or his temperament.

Today, however, there are new ideas, new approaches, and a broader range of options. “I think it’s a time of rejuvenation or resurrection,” says Innes van Nostrand, principle of Appleby College in Oakville. After a period of decline, he says, “boarding has come around again to be exactly what I think a lot of young people need. The additional piece that boarding adds,” namely an environment that is supportive and expansive, and which allows for greater independence, “has become a huge priority, or at least it should be, and addresses a big gap in the development of young people.”

For Crosby, boarding school wasn’t only an option, it was a solution. His experience there became an important part of his development as a person, as a student, and as an athlete. It helped him along the road to success by amplifying his strengths and managing his access to the areas of his life that may otherwise have become problematic.

Today, all of that is more typical of boarding school than some people might allow. Likewise, boarding schools reflect a long and rich historical and cultural tradition, though the true basis of that tradition is not necessarily what most people might think. Some of the wood paneling might remain, but even then it’s largely anachronistic. Cold showers, per the ones that Prince Charles bemoaned at Gordonstoun, are a distant memory, as is the thinking behind them. Far more than the tartans or the buildings, the crests or the pranks, is a desire to prepare students for an active role in the world that they will move into after graduation.

Crosby wasn’t seeking a life in the clergy, the military, political life, or business. Rather, he needed a school that would prepare him for the world he intended to live in, namely, the world of professional hockey in the 21st century. Which is exactly what it did.

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