Courtesy of Irena Tutunari

“What did you do wrong?”

The immediate question people asked when I tell them I attended boarding school. It makes sense, of course, as the media is flooded with content about juvenile delinquents being sent to institutions of high discipline by their desperate, worn-out parents. Kicked out of their homes for good. “Wild Child,” “Gossip Girl” — they’ve got it all wrong.

The reality of boarding school is completely different. Rather than taking uncontrollable youths and whipping them into shape by means of a drill sergeant, my college preparatory boarding school took children as young as 13 years old and taught them the seemingly impossible: How to live on their own. My days started promptly at 8 a.m. and mandated commitments ended at 10 p.m., which, as far as I was concerned, was way past my bedtime. Needless to say, my search for the perfect mattress topper and shower caddy started four years earlier than most.

Watching my mom’s car drive away, a dent in the backseat from where my bulbous suitcase was nestled during the six-hour drive from New Jersey, I sat in my shoebox of a room and cried; my new roommate, a stranger, doing the same in the bunk below me. But as the four years went by, I got used to wearing shoes in the shower. I stopped hitting my head on the ceiling. I’d discovered the hidden waterfall that the upperclassmen swam in when the weather was nice, and my skin thickened as the Massachusetts chill dipped too low for my liking. I had found my community, a place where I could learn and thrive with friends, no longer strangers. But it wasn’t home.

How could it be? How could I consider this place home when there was always a looming expiration date hanging over my head? This pained me. Being uprooted from my city in New Jersey to the mountains of Massachusetts was difficult for 13-year-old me. It didn’t get easier when winter break rolled around, and I’d have to pack up my things and trek another six hours back. Neither place, New Jersey nor Massachusetts, felt quite like home to me. Each time I allowed myself to get comfortable, to feel secure and grounded in either place, I would be ejected and sent back to the other. Grounding myself in one place just ensured that I’d feel even more unsettled and unstable when I’d inevitably have to leave, whether it be for Thanksgiving, summer vacation or for good.

When I left boarding school at 17 years old, I cried. I felt 13 again, saying goodbye to somewhere I ended up feeling so comfortable and secure. On the horizon now was my 11-hour drive to Ann Arbor, Michigan. And I was sure that the shower situation was going to be even worse. The winters sure would be.

Arriving at the University of Michigan, I was not excited. I knew exactly what to expect, but all I could do was fester and marinate in my discomfort. I knew what living away from home would feel like. My feelings of displacement and confusion lingered as I forced myself to forget all I’d adapted to during my adolescence; I acquiesced this warped reflection of my old reality. I think we can all assume that I, once again, cried.

I entered the University of Michigan filled with dread; after getting so attached to my last “home,” the pain I felt upon leaving was unparalleled.

But it’s been 91 days. Ninety-one days of me here in Ann Arbor, some filled with my own childlike resistance, some with a surprising sense of welcome and belonging. I see things a little bit differently now. My potential loss does not outweigh the inevitable memories and fundamental changes I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Resisting happiness at the University of Michigan for fear of pain afterward won’t leave me fulfilled.

I want to cry on my graduation day. I want to have something so dear and special that its fondness makes me tear up. You can call it instant gratification, but I call it home.

Daily Arts Writer Irena Tutunari can be reached at