Boarding School Influence:
Hiking the Hills

Reflection from a Staff Member at Woodstock School, Mussoorie, India
1962-1965 plus her return visit in 1967

“With a pack on my back, there is nothing I lack.” So sings the hiker in the Tehri hills of northern India. What a sensation to round that bend ahead, twist your arms out of a fifteen-pound pack, and, while shading your eyes with a Gurkha hat, behold! Before you might be a range of snow-capped ridges and peaks or several huts half hidden among terraced fields. Those fields appear hardly large enough for a cow to turn around in while pulling a crude plow. Near-by, an ornate, wild flower hedges between craggy boulders. Students at Woodstock School may hit the trails before sunrise on a week-end morning and return near sunset, with or without a supervisor’s permission, through monsoon mist or mule pack dust to eerie heights and echoing depths. Little seems missing but clean hands, a can opener, or a geometry text. Within a biologist’s lab, an artist’s sketch, or a physicist’s experiment in sound wave lengths, the familiar trecker needs neither leg conditioning nor a hermit’s solitude.

Hiking in the hills remains for those who see. It endures for those whose goal is to break the record of hiking fifty-two miles in a day. During monsoon months the goal for a young fellow might be to attract the greatest number of leeches. Hiking ever-brings excitement: several years ago, a couple brothers found six skulls in a cave deep into the hills, perhaps left of those killed during the riots of ’47.

Ask almost any former Woodstock alumnus—student or staff, fellow or girl, what she or he misses on leaving; the reply recurs: “the hills.” These foothills of the Himalaya Mountains, range in this area from three thousand feet altitude along a meandering valley stream to ten thousand feet. The school’s buildings appear nestled within a 6500-7200-foot range with little area flat enough for two tennis courts or a soccer field.

Both advantages and disadvantages exist for those who attend this boarding school during the ‘60s for primarily western students (70%) whose parents fulfill missions in India or near-by countries. While most children respect their parents’ role, a few resent it. One grad quickly expressed his value for international friendships. About ten percent of the student body of approximately 450 is Indian; during any given year citizens of ten other countries enroll here. While the majority of students come from the U.S., Commonwealth countries increase in representation due to greater ease in securing visas.

Although the majority of students are separated from their parents for five to six months of each year, parental influence remains, pronounced or subtle. This fact appeared in a questionnaire that this writer gave to 120 tenth through twelfth graders during the summer of 1967. (I had been a staff member from 1962-65 and was fortunate to return during the ’67 summer.) The statement asked for a 1-4 rating, from greatest to least, of the influence on their values during the past three years by: a. faculty, b. parents, c. peers, d. residential staff. Responses totaled from fellows and girls from all three classes resulted in the following percentages: a. 18, b. 35, c. 31, d. 16. Readers of this article might be asked the same question for comparison to draw a possible conclusion.

Little doubt surfaces that students rely on each other. In the process, attachments prove stronger than in non-boarding situations where students leave each other (and teachers) for up to fifteen hours a day. At Woodstock teenagers rely on each other to develop answers to questions—of a religious, academic, or social nature. When high school students accept positions contrary to their missionary parents, inner conflicts can take root. But chances are just as likely that principles emerge from parents during holiday time together.

Differences of attitudes and interests between classes appear in questionnaire data. Such views can determine an individual’s enthusiasm for Woodstock generally or for some aspect of particular religious thought. One item stated: “Boarding (through faculty and friends) has helped me to develop in my belief and understanding of God.” Grade 12 girls responded with 82% agreement and 18% disagreement while Grade 11 girls responded with 16% agreement, 58% disagreement, and 26% undecided. The fellows were almost equally divided between agree and disagree with a fourth of the seniors and a third of the juniors responding undecided.

Innate to boarding school experience is greater independence at younger ages. As the hills persist, so too do other truths. Several quotes from 1967 seniors reflect insight:

Respect can, however be denied. Students who, in addition to studying together, live together can accentuate a problem or an idiosyncrasy. Rather than during the seven-hour school day alone, friendship can be shared or withheld from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Needless to say, with twenty-some different Christian denominations attached to Woodstock and shaping its Board, that many or more variations of beliefs surface. Added to this mix is the minority status Christianity holds within the country of India—two and a half percent (2 ½ %) of the current five hundred million population.

Woodstock students are bound to raise questions while on a long hike into the Himalayan foothills or after lights are off in the dorm. Questions like: “Well, the Hindu also stakes claims in the Ultimate; what does Christianity offer over and above?” Vacation travels to sacred cities like Benares might convey the sincere observance of ritual. Nearby at Sarnath, appear accounts on interior walls of Buddha’s life story—some accounts thought to be unique to Jesus’ humanity. Further insights occur when His Holiness, the Dalai Lama (to Tibetans the incarnation of God) visits Woodstock as he has done more than once.

Limited knowledge and understanding of another religion can prompt wrong impressions or cause a young student to draw false conclusions. Perhaps the school fails to provide direct understanding of the unique culture in which they live as via interpretive dance, sing-song poetry, or religious ritual. For some parents, an honest, thorough study of cultural or religious depth may threaten faith. Inquisitive students will detect evidence of intolerance. Others might naively accept “dangers” of broad exposure. Failure of depth was summarized by one fellow who, after a semester of college experience said, “I have found Christianity more real here because it is not the expected thing and it is from individuals, not the administration.

In spite of subtle shades of theological intolerance, one asset of Woodstock’s situation occurs with different denominations working together. More than one missionary parent reflecting on this feature has stated, “I want my children to first be Christian.” The impact of the concept of there being one true Church recurs during monthly communion services. All denominations serve and receive it, affirming Jesus’ Lordship. A Woodstock student returning to the States or Canada may be repulsed by the atmosphere of “closed” rather than “close” denominational expression.

Woodstock’s major purpose remains to provide a good educational foundation, to enable the majority (95%) to pursue university study. Three academic programs on the secondary level are offered: the American curriculum, the Commonwealth program or General Certificate of Education, and the Indian School Certificate. These options reflect the international flavor of this school nestled in the foothills. A definite difference for Woodstock dorm students is required study hall every week-day evening. Some welcome that pattern of self-discipline; others then buckle under the freedom of a personal study schedule when at college. That two National Merit Scholarship Finalists were graduated with the class of 1964 reflects available, sound education.

That the majority of students’ parents are both college grads supports the fact that more than average demands can be expected of students. Since none of them has an earning job as do many western youth (let along household responsibilities when in dorms except on rare occasions as in 1961 when school servants went on strike), they have more time available for study. They also have no access to TV. A comparative statement recurs: “I work twice as hard for courses here at Woodstock and get a poorer grade than when on furlough last year in the States.” Statistically this criticism is likely true. Yet, Woodstock faculty and parents may take pride in such comments rather than instill the principle of ‘working to capacity.’ Students truly curious or excited about learning do not settle for doing less; they creatively expand their knowledge.

Woodstock offers opportunity for good instrumental music achievement. The majority of programs performed on campus must be created by school personnel. The choirs, orchestra, and band have done well, partly, my bias reflects, because for twelve to fifteen consecutive years western college music major grads taught and directed them Also contributing to such skill is the fact that most of the 150 piano students and other instrumentalists (from grades 6-12) have a half hour practice period scheduled into their daily class schedule.

Strengths and weaknesses emerge. Weekly biology class periods spent gathering ferns or catching butterflies in homemade nets on the hillside or listening to and identifying birds has advantages over a high school lab in the center of a noisy city. Many grads later choose a science as their college major. Numerous Woodstock grads indicate their wish for study to have included more courses about India. Notable gaps include political structure and contemporary developments (education, population control, industry) within the country. Yet out of fifty questionnaire questions, the one receiving strongest agreement (96%) among the 120 respondents affirmed the statement “I expect my experience in a non-western culture to contribute significantly to my worldview while at College.”

Just how a person realizes advantage varies with campus opportunities: the number of foreign students with whom to relate; courses offered in Asian history, arts, or religions; and discussion of needs or characteristics of developing nations. The number of Woodstock students who pursue international studies during university years is significant. From the class of ’31 alone two men received assignments in India—in the U. S Embassy in Delhi and as Consul-General in Calcutta.

Quite a few grads return to India. Within the class of 1965 one of the parents of nine out of thirty-six had been graduated from Woodstock (two of those nine were third generation alumni). In 1966 eight in a class of thirty were second generation grads. Opinions vary on interpreting such facts—from refusal to adjust to or feel purposeful in any place other than India and its northern hillside to a sincere appreciation for the culture and people of the subcontinent prompted by a desire to assist in its development.

To absorb “culture” may include risks. A Woodstock student’s encounter with Indians has often been with those less educated. This exposure can shape a person’s image of the Indian or belittle profound philosophers of India, poets such as Tagore, or truly intelligent Brahmins. Just as students from Woodstock note characteristics of the caste system in U.S. pattern of life, so Americans sense dark skin with light Negro-White prejudice among a few Woodstock families in relation to their household servants. One grad, a girl, noted that “feelings of superiority in character to other Americans” can also develop.

Another potential risk is to glorify India and Woodstock once you leave them. Most anyone finds security in aspects of one’s personal past. The lonely Woodstock student, with parents and family half-way around the world, may confront a greater temptation, depending on awareness and control of self-pity. To develop a basic interest in others is crucial; the Woodstock student benefits from interest in national idiosyncrasies wherever s/he lives, whether youthful rituals of an Indian village wedding or distinct customs of people from the hills.

Being open-minded is part of being educated, of expanding one’s world. Many Woodstock students traveled through Europe at least once or through the Far East. One called traveling through Europe with three other fellows what he needed: “a release from external binding so that I could bind myself.” A girl traveling with her dad one summer saw “Don Juan” in Moscow, “dug up some distant relatives,” and was impressed with the fat Svenska cows in Sweden. Such experiences add to but do not deny the discoveries possible through reading books, maps, and newspapers. A spirit of independence and opportunities for freedom to do the unusual or unique, perhaps more available to Woodstock grads, are often valued.

Anyone who has traveled extensively on India’s third- class trains has experienced a degree of adventure. For example, a Woodstock group of students plus several chaperones went to Kodaikanal School (a similar school for missionary children in South India) to compete in sports and to present varied programs. For the last 250 miles (16 hours) of the 1800-mile train trip during hot June, 24 packed themselves and their assorted luggage into a compartment labeled “To Seat 16.” The section had four solid wooden benches and four luggage racks, a 5’ x 5’ squat-style toilet area, and limited aisle space, space soon filled. Permanent furnishings included one red chain that, if pulled, halted the train’s motion, several squeaky fans attached to the ceiling, and one sink below an intended mirror in the “lavitry.” Dirt accumulated on necks like sand on oily skin. The supply of halazone tablets drained away. Sleeping was sporadic, but improved for one girl when a fellow took the belt from his trousers to “tie up” her overhang caused by two girls sleeping end-to-end on one 20-inch wide overhead luggage rack. Their “express” train pulled, just seventy minutes late, into a station alive with guttural hawkers and a surg-laden mob ready to pounce, claw-like, onto unavailable space. Such chaos the Woodstock traveler misses on return to western countries.

Not all Woodstock grads go so far with their spirit of adventure as did Bob Manry (class of ’36). During the summer of 1965 on a solo voyage, he succeeded in sailing his thirteen-foot “Tinkerbelle” from Falmouth, Massachusetts to Falmouth, England in 78 days. The yearly Quadrangle, an alumni publication, includes information from former students or staff. Some returned to Woodstock and India via the Peace Corps, a church assignment, a government position or while traveling the world. Then too, account of reunions in London, Washington D. C., Calcuttta, Los Angeles, Delhi, and even Newton, Kansas or Goshen, Indiana appear. Though not felt by all, nostalgic ties exist for many—for the school or for India’s great diversity and struggle. Kyaw Win (class of ’51) from Burma said, “Woodstock is not just another school or institution in the foothills of the Himalayas; it is a state of mind, unique in more aspects than one.”

The hills ever-invite! The tea staff at Seokoli last summer convinced me that we too had returned. With the morning mist lifting, the outline and then details of the hills become apparent. As the sun shifts from east toward west casting shadows, those same hills appear brown, lavender, and dark blue. In their massiveness they seem impersonal yet they lure and protect. And at dusk they silently near-shout. While Woodstock students graduate, bazaar shopkeepers replace termite-infested doors with metal ones, and broader India digs wells and electrifies villages, the hills remain. Or so it seems.