Boarding schools from India to Switzerland


Most children of parents who lived abroad did stints in boarding schools. Reasons for ex-pat kids going to boarding schools ranged from parents living in places where there were no schools, to parents who wanted to park their kids while they went off and did their own thing, and everything in between.  My brothers went from Burma to South India to school at Kodaikanal when they were nine and 11 because there was no school where we lived.  One of my brothers kept disappearing down the back steps whenever it was time for “home schooling”.

Kodaikanal International School was established in 1901 as an American residential school for the children of missionaries. It was located in Tamil Nadu State at the southern tip of India. Located high in the mountains, the weather could be very cool. On a clear day you could see across to Celyon (Sri Lanka). The nearby Lake Kodaikanal covered 60 acres and was good for boating while the surrounding areas were good hiking territory.

My brothers traveled about 2,000 miles to school. There was no flight from Kodai to Burma at that time so they took the bus to the train station, a train to Madras, a flight to Calcutta where they boarded another plane for Rangoon, and then went by either train or car to Pyinmana where we lived. There were several other children who went from Pyinmana so they usually had people to travel with.

One year only one of my brothers showed up in Rangoon. My other brother had the mumps and stayed behind along with a friend of his who also had the mumps. As soon as he was well enough to travel, his housemother took him to her home in Madras. Once he was fully recovered he flew to Calcutta where some friends of the family met him and saw him off on the plane to Rangoon.

My mother was to meet him and take the train home but the train was cancelled that day and she and my other brother went by car. This meant they had to stay the night in Rangoon. They all finally made it home okay. A few days later my other brother complained of a sore jaw. Now he had the mumps!

I started boarding school at 13 and lived at home only one year after that, when I was 15. I went from Mexico City to Austin, Texas, so not as far as my brothers but far enough. It was an Episcopalian school and church was mandatory twice a week. There was a rule for everything. We had study hall and mandatory sit-down meals. We were all assigned “chores”. The younger you were, the worse the chore. I was in the 8th grade, the youngest. My chores were lovely things like, empty the garbage in the snack bar, sweep floors, and wait on tables. The worst was wait on tables because you could not leave the dining room until everybody at your table had finished and all the dishes had been cleared.

The only time I ever got homesick was at St Stephen’s in Austin. I was really sick and had a horrible cough and I thought I was going to die and my dorm counselor told me to “shut up”.  I just wanted my mommy.

In those days there was no email or even phones in lots of cases. Once you were dropped off at school, that was it. You saw your parents once or twice a year and were lucky to get mail. My parents sent the three of us off so we would get a better education as we lived in places that weren’t the greatest for kids. My mother wrote diligently so I often had something in my mailbox.

I went to St. Stephens for two years and then lived at home for a year when my parents moved to Bogota, Colombia. My junior year in high school my parents moved to Lagos, Nigeria and I went off to boarding school in Switzerland.  The American School in Switzerland (TASIS) had a campus in the mountains above Lake Lugano, in the Italian part of Switzerland. The main building was called Da Nobili and was designated a historical landmark. It housed administrative offices, the salon, the dining room, and girls’ housing on the upper floors. The school was a work in progress. The founder Mary Christ Flemming (Mama Flemming) had a vision and was always raising money to realize it. She started the school in the mid 50’s with ten children and there were 200 the year I graduated in 1974. It was a little rustic but very homey and we felt like one large family.

Lake Lugano
Lake Lugano

At TASIS, our free time was basically our own and we had a lot of it. We could explore the Swiss countryside and small villages that surrounded us. A frequent haunt was the writer, Herman Hesse’s overgrown garden and gnome-like house that was on the winding pathway up to the small town of Montagnola. We spent weekend evenings at a place we called the Hole in the Wall where an old woman served beverages and snacks out of her own kitchen. We were encouraged to be independent and learn from our surroundings.

Three times a year we all went on a four day weekend to someplace in Europe and were expected to drink up the culture and see a lot of museums and important sites. Sometimes we would have to write a report on it. I took a course in Art History and we went to Ravenna, Italy and wrote about the mosaics and after a trip to Florence, Italy we wrote about paintings. Other trips I took were to Venice, Munich and Dachau, one of the Nazi concentration camps. Dachau was an eerie place and we were all touched by it. In Munich we ate at McDonald’s because it was so weird to see a McDonald’s. We also sang along to the oom-pah-pah bands at the Hofbrauhous, a famous German beer hall.

Besides the required school trips, there were trips available during spring break and Christmas break. In the springtime, students could choose between Russia and Greece. I went to Greece and the chaperones were the Art History teacher and her husband, an English teacher — Mr. and Mrs. Page. We toured Athens and the southern peninsula stopping in Olympia and Delphi. Then we got on a small cruise ship and toured the islands of Mykonos, Rhodes and Crete.

Our cabins were in the bowels of the ship and we could see half water and half sky out of our portholes. The boys spent most of their time having spitwad wars and terrorizing the girls. The dining room was cordoned off so we (the horrible teenage hoard) were not visible to the rest of the travelers. We ate so much we would literally roll back to our cabin at night. Greece was someplace I always dreamed of going since I was fascinated by the history. I was not disappointed. Although most everything we saw was in ruins, it was still exciting to soak it all up. In Olympia, we spent an evening in a restaurant where people were having a great time dancing traditional dances and drinking Ouzo. It was a well rounded an education.

My room at TASIS.
My room at TASIS.

Back in Lugano I lived in the bottom part of a house in two big rooms with six other girls. We had two bathrooms and a lot of windows and a large patio. The view of Lake Lugano and the surrounding mountains was spectacular. I woke up to it every morning. When it was warm, we would open all the windows and the door and it was like we lived outside.

Seniors were allowed to go on weekend trips by themselves instead of hooking up with a school trip so my friend Pattii and I decided that we would go to Corsica in the spring. We were hoping it would be warm and we could lie on the beach. We took the train to Milan, a bus to the airport, a plane to Nice, another plane to Corsica and arrived at about four in the afternoon. Once we found our pensione we fell on our beds and slept. It rained the whole time we were there.

After a couple of days of rain we decided to leave early and head for Nice. We pooled all our money and sprang for a hotel room in one of the best hotels right on the beach  Everybody looked at us weird as we trudged in with our blue jeans and backpacks, but all we wanted was a hot bath and a comfy bed. It was money well spent. The next day we didn’t have enough money left for a cab to the airport so we threw on our backpacks and walked. It turned out to be a very pleasant walk along the beach most of the way.

At boarding school friends became like family and you came to rely on each other. There was a bond that I made with my high school boarding school friends that never has been broken. They are to this day my “global family.”

Every two or three years one of us organizes a “reunion.” We welcome anybody from our decade to join us. Since it was such a small school we could not limit it to our class alone. I just came back from three glorious days in Miami Beach with 30 old friends. We had cocktails, we danced, we went out on a catamaran, and we dined. Non-stop fun.

All weekend I kept hearing comments on how comfortable we all felt with each other and even though some of us had never met before, it seemed like we were all old friends. Many said they didn’t keep in touch with college friends but boarding school friends were the ones they made an effort to see and stay close to. We couldn’t decide if it was the boarding experience, our ages, or if it was something about that particular school, but we all agreed we were having a blast!

Old friends on a sailboat someplace off Miami.
Old friends on a sailboat someplace off Miami.

13 thoughts on “Boarding schools from India to Switzerland

  • March 17, 2014 at 5:28 AM

    The top picture is Phelps Hall, my home in 1973 the year I first arrived at Kodai school – grade three. I left after grade nine.

  • April 11, 2013 at 11:32 AM

    Wow, loved reading about Kodai school. I graduated from there a very long time ago, before it became an international school. One of my three best friends and sometimes roommates came there from Burma, like your brothers. We’re still friends more than 40 years later. You’re right about the bonds forged in boarding school!

  • April 11, 2013 at 11:17 AM

    Wow was not aware about racism in Kodaikanal International School. I am grad living in North America – it was an awesome school when I last left in the early 1990s. However there were individual staff members who took advantage of the situation both now and in the past & using the school as a means to syphen funds and students personal property into their own pockets. This is what happens when you take a successful international idea from a rules based economy to a non-rules based environment. If you want to keep this school intact keep the finances out of the hands of the local Indians.

  • April 10, 2013 at 9:51 PM

    I was a teacher at TASIS and the relationships I developed with students were stronger than at any other school where I have taught, whether it was a boarding school or a day school. I loved taking students on weekend excursions to Florence, Venice, or Nice. The student body was truly international, intercultural, and multi-faith. I learned a lot about the world through the eyes of my students, many of whom I am still in contact with. Your description of your time at TASIS could easily have been from any other time and your reunion experience has been the same as mine. Boarding schools create a strong community that cannot be replicated elsewhere.

  • April 10, 2013 at 1:13 PM

    Bought the book, read it & passed it on to a friend who is also a TCK. Loved it as it brought back so many memores. Thank you!

    • April 11, 2013 at 4:20 AM

      Wow! Thank you, glad you liked it. Great that you passed it along. I wrote it for you guys!

  • April 10, 2013 at 7:05 AM

    Kodaikanal International School was an excellent school unfortunately under the current Principal Adrian Moody, it has hit rock bottom, as a teacher I’ve seen too many of my peers fleeing the school. Adrian has created racism in a peaceful international setting, and abuses the Indian students and staff. Last year 25 staff left, and this year another 27 will leave. Recently there was a protest where numerous students signed a petition and sent it to the police and Adrian instructed us to suppress this.

      • April 11, 2013 at 12:03 PM

        Let’s get the facts straight. The year before Moody arrived, over 35 staff members left. So the fact that fewer have left in recent years should say something. People leave for a multitude of reasons, and if they left because they didn’t like the system, great. Better than staying back and being bitter. That is, after all, the mature thing to do. Additionally, people coming and going is the nature of an international school, but especially an international school located in a small, conservative community, on the top of a mountain, in the south of India, that pays practically nothing to its staff. Finally, the allegations of racism are ridiculous and come from a disgruntled ex-employee who has been fired from his previous two jobs (possibly more). Students were forced to sign this petition by bullies without being allowed to read it–bullies encouraged by said ex-employee–and if you examine the petition closely, it has multiple signatures, fake signatures, etc. I am disappointed in KIS because it has the potential to be highly professional and a top notch school, but it is constantly being held back by those in the community who don’t seem to want that, nor would they recognize it if they saw it.

        • April 12, 2013 at 12:24 AM

          Repression of ideas, sexuality and identity has always beenpart of Kodai’s signature. As most people who graduated 2003 and beyond, a then bright student, now a successful lawyer/author, who dared to write an unsigned note to express his distaste with some of the practices being discussed here today was chastised mercilessly, his academic standing jeopardized and bullied into silence – not because he had done anything illegal or shameful – but because he dared to have an opinion nto favored by an EDUCATIONAL institution. Lets not idealize this place which has always been bigoted towards the gays, the athiests and its hillariously racist policies ( you cannot dye your hair a color that isn’t natural to your ethnic background – because as we all know, Indians just cant help but stone a brown man with green hair). You can have a sense of community and joy and specialness about a place we all have good memories of without being an exercise in dictatorial control over its residents.

          • April 12, 2013 at 12:37 AM

            As most people who graduated 2003 and beyond will remember**

    • April 11, 2013 at 6:04 PM

      I find these comments, above, hard to believe.

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