Back when my father’s school was still really my father’s, and even my grandfather’s school, Thanksgiving meant something a little different for me than for most kids. Like many boarding schools, the school remained in session during what is now the ubiquitous “Thanksgiving break.”
Instead of scampering off home to Houston or Detroit, students had a great feast, family style (like all the school’s meals) in the dining hall, turkey and pies and all the trimmings, with a day off from classes and study hall; a day for the school community—never more than a hundred-and-some students and a score or so of teachers, plus assorted faculty spouses and children—to join in celebration, to relax before the few weeks of early winter—skiing, mittens, and five-buckle boots (remember those?)—prior to the three-week break for Christmas and New Year’s.
My childhood memories of those days are confused—filled with turkeys, fireplaces, and men and boys in woolen sportcoats—except for their last few iterations in the Ford and Carter eras, when I was a young adult and faculty would foregather at the head’s house for sherry and shrimp and then decamp to the main meal in the school dining hall, the only time when imbibing before going “on duty” was ever allowed.
Such moments are probably largely a thing of the past. Jet planes mean that most boarding school students can fairly easily get home, weather permitting, even to destinations continents away and the break is prime work time for schools on trimester calendars, whose teachers often find themselves wedging grades and comments in between family, football, and food.
There are hold-outs, however, and my favorite at the moment is Thanksgiving at North Country School, a small boarding school in the Adirondacks of New York State, a stone’s throw from the Olympic venues of Lake Placid, the High Peaks of the mountain range, and the farmstead and grave of John Brown. Yes, that John Brown. It’s fitting that the school builds its mission around physically active student life, a deep commitment to environmental education and sustainability, and an equally deep commitment to diversity and social justice.
There is a fine description of the school’s Thanksgiving celebration in a regional magazine last year that explains the whole event in colorful detail. I know the school and some of its people, and I shall be thinking of them as a projected winter storm moves across the area in the next day or so. Most of the parents traveling to the school should have arrived by the time the weather hits, I am told, and so even an epic Adirondack snowstorm should mostly make for a cozy, memorable community Thanksgiving at the school, much like those of my childhood, only with school-raise turkey and parents present.
My father always claimed that students returning from a November break would bring with them the latest cold viruses from all around North America, making early December a time of sneezes and Kleenex, a worry that probably has some validity still. But flu shots and liberal doses of Purell now seem to be the norm at many boarding schools and day schools alike.
Thanksgiving with our relations is the American tradition, and it might be hard to claim that Thanksgiving at school could be better; North Country School offers a strong counterargument.
If you’re reading this on your Thanksgiving break (or if you’re a Canadian reader whose brief break was weeks ago), I hereby wish you a great and festive family occasion—whatever, in fact, your holiday or reason might be.