Who are you, and what have you done with my son?

One of the most daunting things about sending our boy to boarding school was that, for the first six weeks, aside from handwritten letters, we weren’t allowed to have any contact with him. In the pre-email, pre-free calling era, this would have been fairly standard.

Back in the day, boarding school parents didn’t have much choice but to drop their kids off at the start of the term and hope for the best. An old boy of one Māori boarding school told me he has clear memories of a junior running down the long driveway in the dusty wake of his parents’ car, begging not to be left behind.

Boy, they bred parents tough back then.

Nowadays, we’re kept up to speed on the happenings at Hato Pāora College thanks to a steady stream of social media updates, Facebook photos and Twitter feeds. It’s just as well because, during those first few weeks, our boy sent precious few letters, and the ones that did make it home looked like they’d been written from a bomb shelter while under heavy fire. The first letter simply said: “I am alive.” The second, barely legible in a red scrawl, requested more undies and munchies. Urgently.

People told us that by the time Gala Day came around at the end of that six weeks, we wouldn’t recognise our boys. “They change so much,” one mum said, all teary-eyed with nostalgia. I smiled politely, but didn’t believe it for a second.

I was wrong, of course.

The first clue came in the third letter we received, just over four weeks in. It was three pages long — both sides of the paper. To put that in context, this is the kid who, before he left, could text with his eyes closed but couldn’t hold a pen for longer than a minute without being struck down with cramp.

The second clue was that he used fractions to rate his subjects, listing them in order of preference, with maths topping the list. Yeah, I had to read that twice, too. When he signed the letter off, all he requested was more pens, “because I keep running out of ink.” Continue reading

  • Nadine Millar writes for E-Tangata, a Maori and Pasifika Sunday magazine.
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