What I Learned When My Boarding House Burned Down

When I was 16, my boarding house caught fire during some renovations which took away a whole dorm, and most of the roof. Thankfully, no-one was hurt; it was the Easter holidays and the school was empty.

I remember being at home, sat on my bed when I got the phone call. I’m not sure who it was that phoned me – I think it was a friend – and they told me it was all gone. The flames were literally coming from the roof of my dormitory.

I won’t lie. I cried. My most treasured possessions were in that building – I hadn’t brought them home. You see, I’d been on the school ski trip that Easter, which meant I hadn’t gone home with my usual haul of stuff – I only had one suitcase.

I’d lost a few of the standard things; clothes, jewelry, my hair straighteners, schoolwork. But the stuff that really cut me deep; I lost Tramp, the Disney plush I’d had since I was like 5; my yearbook, filled with notes and photos from friends who had left at the end of Year 11; and postcards from my friend who was now living half way across the world in Brunei.

It was a definite shock to the system, that’s for sure. And it taught me some really important life lessons.

Life is fleeting

I think any of us who have had the misfortune to lose a loved one know that life is precious. It can change in an instance. While no-one died, and no-one got hurt, it did demonstrate the fragility of life. Things can change so quickly, in the blink of an eye, and all of a sudden the world looks really different.

When we returned to school, most of us didn’t have any uniform, and we didn’t have anywhere to sleep. It was probably one of the weirdest, most difficult times I ever experienced while boarding.

We were provided second-hand clothing from the lost and found and temporarily housed in other boarding houses. My year – the Year 12s – were split between the other girls’ houses, while Years 9-11 took over an extended wing in the junior boy’s house.

From there, we were provided with a temporary house. It was built in 6 weeks, was made from Portakabin-like rooms and corridors, was bloody freezing at night and set the fire alarm off three times the first night we were in there…

The first night we moved into the new temporary boarding house, a bunch of the girls had jumped in the showers, and it turned out the steam from the showers set the fire alarm off. Each time the alarm went off, we all had to marshal outside, including those who’d been in the showers with shampoo still in their hair. It took three goes before we worked out what was causing it.

Memories are precious

It’s true. I lost a load of stuff that day. But what really cut me deep were the notes I’d kept from friends I’d likely never see again and the postcards that had made their way from the other side of the world.

What was left of the worst affected dorm – the metal ladders for the loft beds and the safes attached to the wall.

I have very few mementos now. All the important ones have been lost. And I worry that there’s so much I’ve forgotten because I don’t have those tokens. It’s made me realise how precious memories are, how easily lost they are, and how reliant we are on physical reminders.

Possessions are just that

We get so fixated on our things, our possessions, that life becomes so material. But when everything disappears in a whisp of smoke – pun intended – reality comes crashing in.

I remember the whole house was fenced off but you could still just about peer through the windows. I was stood on the outside and could see my bed, the Spiderman duvet cover – don’t judge – and the photos plastered all over my wall.

The builders working on securing the structure were kind enough to pluck out a guitar for one of the other girls stood there. But we weren’t able to retrieve any of our things; there was a risk of asbestos, which meant our dorm was 100% off limits.

I was most saddened that our housemistress had lost the celebrity autograph collection she’d built up over the years. She’d regularly send off for signed photos from some of the biggest names around – we had everyone from Daniel Radcliffe and Judy Dench to Robin Williams and Alan Rickman.

The main common room where we used to hang out during the day.

At the end of the day, they were just things. Stuff that I owned. And life would continue without them. These days, I noticed I’m not as attached to belongings as other people – I think my books, my laptop and my phone are the exception here. I indulge myself the luxury of enjoying what I have, but will often clear out either sell or donate stuff that I may no longer be in love with.

Everything turned out okay. The fire was the fault of the company doing the renovation work and so we all received compensation for our lost belongings. And investing that money in a new wardrobe was great fun. I also used a portion of the insurance money to purchase every book on my English A-Level recommended reading list, and boy was that a good idea; it opened up my horizon, and got me reading more of the classics.

Luckily, they’d already been building the Year 13 boarding house when this had happened so I only lived in the temporary house for the remainder of the school year. But the younger years weren’t quite so lucky and it took a while before the original boarding house was inhabitable again.

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