It is only fairly recently that I have begun to realize the education I received at Woodstock School is of a particularly unique quality. Woodstock has shaped almost every contour of the life that I have led since graduating from this little gem of an institution, which is tucked away in mountains six hours from Delhi by train, and then a rigorous ride up into the Indian Himalayas.
As a teenager, I attended boarding school in India for four years between 1998 and 2002. When the political situation completely disintegrated in Bangladesh during the elections in 1996, my parents were keen to see us leave to safer grounds, and began searching for schools, and settled on Woodstock fairly quickly for my younger sister and me.
At the time, I had no idea about the positive impact boarding school would have, not just on my health, but also with my thirst for knowledge, understanding, and the interstices of justice, peace, freedom, and accountability.
In truth, Woodstock gave me the courage to work thoughtfully, so that it never feels like I am working, but merely learning and engaging with what I come across daily.
It was during my time at Woodstock that the Indian government was relaxing its regulations against foreign products and embracing a freer market economy. It was also around this time that the school, which was initially located in Uttar Pradesh, began to be associated instead with Uttarkhand, signaling changes in governance, to all those who attended it, worked there, and those we encountered on a daily basis living in the hillside. Additionally, it was the age before cell phones, a time when email was only becoming a popular substitute to the weekly letters students had to write home, and social media was beginning to burgeon.
This year marks the 160th anniversary of a very special school, which only fairly recently has gained the recognition and traction those of us who attended, on scholarship or otherwise, before social media and thereafter, have always known it possessed.
As a tribute to this special occasion, here are 160 lessons that you could have only learned at a boarding school, and that too, only at Woodstock School in Mussoorie, India.
1. Your teachers will be your mentors long after you graduate. You will learn that every time you make time for them, you shall continue to learn.
2. Studying with the best high school library in Northern India as a site for your reference? Check. After all, at no other school can you find and be mesmerized by Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Gandhi’s writings, alongside texts examining early treatises forming the League of Nations which preceded the United Nations, and then shift gears entirely to Seventeen magazine.
3. Nowhere else will you go out and examine ancient geological rock formations in the hillside as part of your physical education, and see underground impressions of waves and water imprinted eternally on the rocks that have risen to the high slopes from the ocean floor to form the Himalayas: real proof that the Indian subcontinent crashed into Asia millions of centuries ago.
4. Your morning may begin with 6 AM showers and eggs, but it could also include playing an instrument in one of the school’s several orchestras before even getting to 8.30 AM, providing an exhilarating and upbeat engagement with the arts whilst practising your musical passions, through a program that has been critically acclaimed, not just all over India, but all over the world.
5. You will learn that the world is bigger than you are, as soon as you find yourself alone one day, gazing into the mountains or valley in front of you.
6. You will take lesson #5 to heart and celebrate people who are different from you too. After all, your roommate is from Latvia, your lab partner in Environmental Science class grew up in Afghanistan, and your best friend is from Japan, whilst you may be enjoying your meals with friends from Finland, France, the UK, Nepal, Thailand, or even Vietnam, South Africa, or Australia. Yay diversity!
7. You will learn from fantastic teachers who are passionate about everything they do, and range from all over the world too, much like your classmates.
8. You will learn the meaning of staying on a budget. What’s that, you don’t think you can handle a small allowance? Tough luck, and next time, do stock up on the snacks.
9. Speaking of snacks, or “tuck,” never again will you discredit the value of canned tuna and cheese to any meal or pasta combination.
10. You will learn that in between coming up with innovative excuses for skipping P.E. classes as often as possible, by the time you reach senior year and manage a 1500 meter sprint (albeit coming last), you have finally overcome your own demons, and beat the hepatitis virus you had contracted from Bangladeshi street food, the summer before you started Woodstock.
11. Tibetan food will become your staple diet- you will devour fried momos, steamed momos, vegetable momos, beef momos, and you will do these gladly. You will realize there is nothing better in life than a plate of momo with chili sauce.
12. You will become friends with the bearerjis, because you know that if you do, they will definitely cater to your requests for an extra momo when the moment is ripe. Also, they’re really cool. You can learn a lot about Mussoorie’s history by talking to them. Plus, it’s a great way to practise your broken Hindi.
13. You will wonder about why the sun dial near Jacob’s Ladder does not tell time. It’s one of the bigger mysteries of life, one which will not be answered anytime after your Woodstock years.
14. You will find out that the only person who you should be competing with is yourself. The only person against whom you should measure success and failure hence, is also yourself.
15. Boarding school teaches you to be humble. There is always someone who does something better than you. The sooner you realize this, the sooner you will appreciate that everyone has something to offer you that you did not know before.
16. The crisp view of the Yamuna snaking away in the Doon Valley on a clear day.
17. There is nothing like fresh mountain air.
18. Pizza takes on a whole new meaning, just because of the rarity of finding it.
19. Rice and daal (lentils) taste pretty decent with mango pickles, even though you hated it when growing up.
20. Fresh chai with proper cow’s milk is amazing.
21. The long walk up a vertical slope builds character. Really, it does, even if it feels like purgatory while you’re doing it.
23. The word “buzz” will become analogous with “freedom.”
24. You will learn that you possess the skills to run down a mountain at full speed on stilettos and a micro-mini leather skirt (and rhinestone sunglasses, as you lost a bet), without falling, all because a monkey is chasing you. In fact, your survival instincts will never fail to impress you.
25. You will never ever think that monkeys are “cute” again, and quickly embrace that they are engaging in a space war with you.
26. You will find out that it is a legitimate excuse to miss assembly because the rhesus monkeys were chasing you.
27. You will also realize that it is much more desirable to be chased down the hill by a monkey, than it is to jump down the hillside, Superman style, only to twist your ankle and fall into a pile of stinging nettle.
28. You will learn an important survival skill regarding stinging nettle- everywhere the plant grows, there are large fronds of broad dock plant leaves growing in very close proximity. When crushed and applied immediately to your wounds, dock leaves greatly reduce the sting of nettle.
27. You can tell people that you have been on a ferris wheel that was administered by a man walking on it in the mall. No, really.
28. Bulgogi, bibimbap and Korean noodles will become your comfort food for the rest of your life.
29. Going out of boarding, even though it is with your professors and teachers, is pretty fun and incredible.
30. You will find out that you can actually make apple pie out of a saucepan, and it will be pretty delicious too.
31. Making waiwai is an art that MUST be and IS taken seriously. There’s the diluted watery kind, the kind with cheese, the kind that is dry, the kind that has a fried egg on top, and of course, the kind with lemon.
32. Bun omelets are necessary to a full life. Embrace them.
33. Having Groverji make you one of his infamous bun omelets whilst you enjoy a spectacular view of the hills? Pretty darn priceless (we don’t want me to get a fine for swearing, even in euphoric nostalgia, after all).
34. You will learn that you need to run past the Gap in order to fully appreciate nature, because no houses exist past the Gap.
35. You will become an expert on identifying different types of poop, and this can save your life. You will know the fine differences between dog poop, cat poop, cow dung, horse dung, donkey poop, monkey poop, and bird poop. So when you see poop you don’t know, chances are, it could be a leopard or a bear’s poop, signaling that you should maybe run for your life.
37. The haunted house at the Gap has the most spectacular aerial view of Dehradun at night. Even if you were too chicken to make it there as a child, you should definitely trespass as an adult. Again, watch out for the leopards that like to lurk there. (Fun fact: they hate direct light, so if you are unfortunate enough to see one, definitely shine your torch in their face- and then bolt.)
38. When you look outside your window at night, you will see both yellow and white lights that look like stars from a distance, but are actually other houses along the hillside. It’s an enchanting sight, and one you will never forget, so enjoy it and look out, while you can.
40. The Chardukan at the top of the hills, right after the rains, is divine.
41. Sneaking into the TV tower for a fantastic aerial view of the mountains.
42. That moment when you round the corner, as you walk along the chakkar at the top of the hill, and you see all the snow-covered Garhwal peaks in front of you, early every fall.
43. Wearing a Garhwali lehenga and parading around Kempty Falls like a silly tourist is a lot of fun.
44. Waking up early in the morning on Fridays to have to listen to sermons is not that terrible, because you get free pancakes to boot.
45. Walking around in the monsoon, when you’re IN the clouds, and you can’t even see five feet in front of you.
46. The flowers in early spring.
47. The fir trees everywhere, as they provide the much needed greenery to cut through a dreadful winter.
48. Speaking of winter, Mussoorie features some of the most gorgeous winters in the world- particularly when the snow covers everything.
49. The slightly blue hues of the rolling hills provide a spectacular backdrop while you create snowmen and snow angels with your friends or play your snowball fights.
50. The winter line. For those not in the know, this is actually the smog settling against the horizon as the sun sets in the Doon Valley on a daily basis. Regardless of the scientific details, the winter line is pretty spectacular.
51. The first monsoon rains after a dry spell.
52. Speaking of dry spells, you will learn first hand why it’s dangerous to leave an open flame in the forested hillsides, and appreciate how everyone in the school community comes together to fight these fires by forming human chains and passing buckets of water. Viva solidarity for a great cause!
53. You will master the art of five minute showers, thanks to the allotted time and duration of showering facilities.
54. You will plead with your parents to buy you an extra blanket, because you know six are not enough.
55. Trunks will take on a whole different meaning at the end of each semester, when you are required to fit all your life’s belongings into them.
56. “Coming up” day and “going down” day, when you will find out that exactly 198 bends form the treacherous ride between the valley and the school.
57. You will be amazed that students prior to the 1970s used to ascend and descend on donkeys and mules.
58. Eagles, Condors, and Merlin will never again be just birds or a magician.
59. Apocalyptic prophecies espoused by the Lok Saiba and other extremist organizations might be incorporated into sermons by some of your teachers who are trying to convince you to convert, because some of them are paid on commission. Don’t despair or be frustrated that you’re a burgeoning agnostic amidst the righteous, the self-righteous, or “God’s” righteous. Chances are, your teachers are cool, and they will encourage you to question.
60. The song Eye of the Tiger will forever make you feel emotional about basketball.
61. The Win Mumby basketball tournament will serve as a reminder that you rock at sports (well, unless the boys training at the Indian military academy at the top of the hill also play with you. You know secretly though, that they really are too old to be on the courts with high school kids, so even if you lose, you’re still a winner, because you almost did beat them).
62. Inter-school sports days will serve as a reminder to you of how awesome your school is, because you hold and break all the records in the region continually.
63. You will learn the fine art of scooping up your sitar and chasing an approaching monkey with it, should the said monkey be harassing you incessantly for practising your music outside.
64. You will learn how wonderful it is to listen to guitar music by moonlight over a fire with your friends, whilst roasting marshmallows.
65. Additionally, you will find that it is impossible to take a nap when you’re meant to be practising your piano lessons in the tiny cubicles, because the invigilators will fine you and send you to detention.
66. You will retain your love of chewing gum, even after you’ve had to un-gum chairs and the bottom of tables, and especially because you know that gum helps you stay awake in boring teachers’ classes.
67. You will also learn that it is important to help others who do not have the same privileges as you. This will become most apparent when, after trying to get out of Saturday Morning Detention, you find yourself meeting someone like Sultana.
68. You will learn that life exists beyond trigonometry. Your world will not fall apart, and neither will your education be compromised, if you opt out of pre-calculus and calculus (I can promise you this much).
69. You will partake in dance sequences you never even thought was possible.
70. Activity week, where, when traveling through India, you will become forever amazed, not just by the magnificence and grandeur of the diverse landscapes of the subcontinent, but also by your sheer capability to tolerate being harassed by some local hijras threatening to kidnap midget you, during a train ride in the third-class carriages between Delhi and Aurangabad (really, our school administrators should realize how much of a safety liability putting kids from 17 different countries into a third-class train carriage is).
71. Jazz jams in the spring, where you sit under the stars and eat lots of brownies whilst listening to some very fine live performances.
72. Talent Show, where you find out that not only are your friends super cool, but they also do some super cool dancing and singing moves to music and costumes you did not even know existed.
73. Junior Senior Banquet, where the sophomores serve you your meal as you enjoy enchanted dinners in the twilight, and dance with your crush/boyfriend/lover, or whatchamacallit.
74. You will be able to truly follow your passions. Don’t like that South Asians always get situated as either Science or Economics majors? Well, at boarding school, you’re going to get the chance to dabble with photography, journalism, and even carpentry, whilst reading about Hegel in your literature electives and original accounts of both Holocaust survivors and Nazi perpetrators in your History class, and about how Weber fits into your daily life, from your Sociology class. You will also contextualize US and European government and politics as it pertains to South Asia, and understand how to situate current trends in historical and socio-political narratives across a wide variety of genres and global regions, before you reach 18. Whoever said you can only choose between science or economics must have been thinking about some other school in South Asia, but it was definitely not yours.
75. Skip Day playing volleyball, white water rafting in the rapids, or walking the hanging bridge over Rishikesh? You don’t need to weigh the timeless merits of such an experience.
76. Senior privileges including being able to go to the Buzz every day? Heaven could not be more attainable.
77. Losing senior privileges because of skip day extravaganzas, including putting a donkey in the principal’s office, jamming his house doorbell in the middle of the night, roping all the doors in every single student room in every single dorm, toilet papering all the dorms, placing an armoire in front of the dorm parent’s rooms so that they cannot intervene, supergluing the toilet seat lids, unscrewing all the shower curtains, and eventually waking up the entire hillside at 4 AM? Why, the pranks were worth every minute of the disruption caused.
78. Fundraising as seniors for the yearbook teaches you about responsibility and accountability, whilst building class spirit.
79. Learning about live economics when pricing items such as momos for stalls in the occasional festivals and fairs.
80. You will learn that it is important to question. More importantly, you will note that the more questions you ask, the more questions you will need to ask, and this in turn, will showcase to you how much needs to be done in the world, in order to make it equitable and egalitarian for all.
81. Sometimes you will not realize how lucky you are. This is okay. We don’t always realize how much we have going for us. But when you’re over your bout of feeling sad, you will realize you are in the company of some of the most interesting people in the world.
82. Getting annoyed when a stranger insults a friend by saying, “OMG, I can’t believe s/he is like so and so,” and then realizing that your classmates are doing some pretty wicked things for them to come up regularly in conversations with strangers in Hungary or even Bangladesh, even if in criticism.
83. You genuinely understand what it means to say that you went to school in the middle of nowhere. Note- closest house to town was about 40 minutes away, either on top of the hill, or north on Tehri.
84. You will appreciate the linkages between isolation and creativity.
86. You will foster a lifetime obsession with mountains and natural retreats, because you know you will always find peace in the middle of nowhere.
87. You will understand the meaning of endurance, when you walk ninety minutes one way for a plate of butter chicken.
88. Speaking of Mussoorie’s delights, let’s definitely give a big shout out to Rice Bowl, which has nourished us, time and again, for almost two decades.
89. You will partake in a theater production and grow to love Arthur Miller, and even find humor in certain scenes of Death of a Salesman, which may appear too serious until acted out. “The world is an oyster, but you can’t crack it open on a mattress”– this is true. Think about it, dwell on it.
90. You will forever love that you read Animal Farm, Black Boy, and Brave New World. These books will teach you something crucial: a piece of literature can also be a socio-political commentary.
91. The books you encounter will also help you realize that artists and scientists are not mutually exclusive. You will learn that nourishing your creative side should be a lifetime pursuit, and one you must engage with daily, even if it does not fall in line with your work as a chartered accountant, an investment banker, or a postdoctorate research fellow in some renowned university studying stem cells.
92. You will learn that some of the best conversations in your life are
with your current friends. They might have been collecting used bullets in Kabul as a five year old. They may have never lived somewhere longer than a year. They may never have even been to the country where they are supposedly from. You will be humbled by their identity.
93. You will realize that boarding school can be a rat race at times. Be confident and keep your chin up. Those bullies will get tired of picking on you after a while.
94. You will look forward to meeting Woodstock alumni everywhere you go. You share a bond, one which only grows stronger with time, regardless of whether you were classmates or not.
95. You will realize your friends will lead global trends in every single sphere and facet of what the public holds dear, whether this is fashion or sports or sports commentary, writing, or producing films and researching the things that matter. So be nice to that nerd beside you, he or she may be doing some super incredible things, and could really be your boss, especially if you don’t watch out.
96. You will foster a lifelong love for Tibetan jewelry stores.
97. You might never become obsessed with television. After all, you were only allowed to watch either PG-13 films or news commentary, and let’s just say that neither are entertaining for adolescents.
98. You will fall in love with routine.
99. You will fall in love with yourself.
100. Or maybe even someone else. And while you’re doing this, you will smirk at the rule, “No PDOA except holding hands” (public displays of affection).
101. You will become confident in your writing skills, especially because even the school principal doesn’t think his time is ill-spent mentoring you for the duration of the year leading up to the Cassinath Writing Contest.
102. You will learn that excelling is a lifestyle choice, and being confident is winning half the battle.
103. You will learn how to make river water drinkable with various chemicals.
104. You will love taking the walk past Dhobi Ghat and into Witch’s Hill.
105. Other hiking highlights will include the first time you go to a peak higher than Mussoorie, and then realize that you must continue to aim, higher and higher. Dodital, Gangotri, and Nainital come to mind, but I’m sure the avid hikers have more to add to this list.
106. You will learn that your French teacher collects antique spoons, which although sounding strange initially, will inspire you to want to travel to France, so that you yourself can experience and admire antiques and curiosities in the stores around Paris.
107. Model UN in school is an every day occurrence. You don’t need to travel far to find out people’s opinions. In fact, during the hours after the assassination of the royal family in Nepal, or in the Maoist bomb targeting of Tibetan households in the aftermath in Kathmandu, your friends were affected. The nearness of evil, the reality of it, will encourage you to become united to fight terrorists and violence perpetrators.
108. Engage, engage, engage, because this is the key to change. Don’t like school food? Protest. Want the assemblies to be less boring? Engage with school officials to make them interesting. Like sports? Play one. Don’t play? Why not try the Sound Crew or the Audio Visual Crew? There is no dearth of options of the things you can engage with at boarding school.
109. Independence is overstated. There’s nothing like hugging your parents when you go back home.
110. Independence is underrated. You don’t understand when your college friends are incredibly fiscally (or otherwise) irresponsible, and then realize you’ve been living away from home longer than most of them have.
111. You will find great joy in going to Delhi, or even to Dehradun, for quarter breaks.
112. You will develop a nuanced love for things such as Naga beef, fried bees (not a typo), thukpa, yak meat, kimchi, Bhutanese potatoes, and Japanese herbal sprinkles over your rice.
113. You will learn that nothing is absolutely certain (such as your senior year Activity Week being cancelled due to the stupid Taliban causing 9/11), but you will adjust.
114. Prasad’s for all your ailment needs.
115. The little cinema behind Rice Bowl is really not that bad for what it is.
116. You will master the art of calling a taxi and sneakily lying down at the bottom of the car. You will love Kulwant’s taxis for allowing you to do this, and curse them when, upon threats of being completely discontinued from school usage by the authorities, they refuse to take students without adult supervision.
117. You will never be able to take someone seriously, who doesn’t walk at least fifteen minutes a day, because you know that the best parts of your life are experienced outdoors.
118. You will love Alter Ridge’s roundness.
119. You might not love the crack formed at the bottom of Alter Ridge, in the cafetaria, after a massive earthquake, as this signifies vulnerability. However, you will appreciate that the building withstood such heavy infrastructural onslaughts from nature.
120. Open days at each of the dorms.
121. Competing for best rooms for room check is fun, especially when you don’t have to clean your room too often as a reward.
123. And unpack in record time.
124. Taking long flights alone halfway across the world is never a problem for you. If someone can’t find your itinerary at the airport, you just tell them to find you in their system. You’re 14, you’re not a pushover.
125. Mango lassis, enough said.
126. You will be impressed by your capacity to eat spicy food long after your school experience is over. In fact, everyone you ever meet will also be impressed with you. Warning: novices welcome, but ignorance of spicy food is heavily discouraged.
127. Walking along the eyebrow paths and being amazed about how much you have conquered your fear of heights and constant vertigo.
128. Learning how to balance not tipping a cow whilst running away from monkeys on the eyebrow teaches you that space and a fear of heights is definitely relative to the danger of monkeys on the ground.
129. Sunbathing at the flagpole during breaks.
131. Huddling around those wooden heaters for warmth in the winter.
132. Chole bature at Golden’s- divine.
133. Learning what a coke float is, and then consuming too many, until a biology class discussion about the erosion of teeth and stomach linings due to coca cola makes you give up the drink forever.
134. Silly language traditions, such as “ains,” “moment,” and “hold.”
135. Learning that an A- is not the end of the world, and neither is a C+. Just don’t make the C+ a regular habit.
136. You will forever curse the arbitrary nature of the “effort grade.” Just because some things come naturally to some, doesn’t mean that the rest of us are terrible humans with no desire to learn. We might be trying without getting results, and it sucks that the teachers get the last word on who is trying when.
137. You learn how to converse with strangers everywhere.
138. And how to stare back and give the nastiest glare to the roadside Indian Romeos.
139. You will have an undying love for the shoe makers in Landour.
141. You will learn not to be satisfied with any status quo, because you know there is always something out there, waiting to be discovered.
142. You will value sleep, especially because the monkeys jumping around at five am will wake you up.
143. Advisor nights and homeroom nights to build class morale are both entertaining and incredible.
144. Truth or dare, because after all, you’re teenagers. Live a little. Challenge yourself, and learn how to talk about silly things.
145. The awesome chawkidars will remember you even after a decade. Trust me on this one.
146. As well as the dudes operating the DVD store. Yes, Mussoorie is just that small, and you really did leave an impression on the locals, whether you knew it at the time or not.
147. You will learn never to walk under a langoor monkey, because despite the innocent expressions of this particular monkey species, they love to pee on passerby.
149. Holi will become one of your most favourite days of the year.
150. As will Diwali.
151. Even though your paths may scatter you, it’s quite likely you’ll meet many of your classmates doing some incredible things in the unlikeliest of places. I mean this. I was working as an events manager at the Asia Society in NYC, when I found some of my friends in an elevator, only to find out they were part of the Royal Bhutanese entourage for an event on Gross National Happiness, that I had organized.
152. You will love cinnamon buns, particularly those sold in the quad.
153. And forever hate the pasty pastel mints, which to this day, you will swear were actually bits of frosted mint toothpaste.
154. You will learn to write without swearing. This is an important lesson in editing and articulating yourself, which will serve you well in life.
155. You will also learn how to remain brief, and when to extrapolate.
156. You will realize that “being emo” is too easily derived as something to be ashamed of. No, you must be passionate, even if you get labelled as “emo,” because this is the only way you will retain the drive necessary to drive change and embrace technological innovations in your field.
157. Never take the rules for granted.
158. Don’t forget that you need to know the rules first, before you break them. Otherwise you’re never going to make a meaningful difference.
159. You can and will be one of the voices leading the future, so take your lessons seriously, both inside and outside the classroom.
160. The world is your oyster. You have met all the people you will ever really need to know, and they will connect you with others, and you’ve never even been to college yet. What could be better than such lifelong friends, friends who not only value your unique experience, but who are the only ones who understand how you belong to the world, and why it is important to remain a public personality and lead others.
If you enjoyed this piece and are now feeling nostalgic for Mussoorie, try guest contributor Dr. Ashit Dey’s The Unwritten Rules for Living in India. Additionally, for a more serious take, you can find the story of Sultana- the orphaned little girl I met while running away from detention at Woodstock, or examine how woodblock prints identified nation states in the early 20th century, and read more about why privileging fluid national identities is imperative in the 21st century.
About the author: Raad Rahman is a writer and communications specialist based in South Asia. She graduated from Woodstock School in 2002, and has since worked extensively on promoting children’s rights and pushing for accountability and transparency worldwide. When she’s not writing, she loves going on momo hunts in different countries. She continues to hate monkeys, long after they stole her birthday cake on her 16th birthday. In late 2013, Harvard’s Kennedy School selected her as a global Emerging Leader.
Raad’s debut novel, “Framed Butterflies” can be found exclusively on Amazon.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @rad_rahman, or keep in touch with new writings from Wonder Sonder by liking us on Facebook.