This time a year ago, I started knitting a blanket for my son in preparation for his departure to Hato Pāora, a Catholic Māori boys’ boarding school in Feilding. I'd never so much as knitted a scarf in my life, but somehow I got it into my head that he needed to take with him a taonga that I'd made with my own hands. I'm not a carver or a weaver, so a simple garter-stitch blanket seemed positively breezy by comparison to a pounamu necklace or finely tailored feather cloak.
The beauty of naivety is that you don't realise the error of your ways until it's too late. There were 26 balls of wool and they weren't cheap. The first ball took me three weeks to knit. A friend helpfully pointed out that, at the rate I was going, I'd have it done by the time he was ready to graduate. That only strengthened my resolve. As the long, hot days of summer approached, I began to knit in earnest.
Looking back, I can see it was a way of preparing myself. I needed something to do with my hands while my head came to terms with a decision I never thought I'd make: to let my boy go at the age of just 13. Every time I felt something close to certainty, the doubts immediately started to chip away at my conscience. What if he hates it, misses us too much, gets injured playing rugby, doesn’t make friends, becomes a religious fanatic? I was equally troubled by the opposite scenarios. What if he fits in too well, doesn’t miss us at all, becomes obsessed with rugby and never wants to come home, or rebels against the church and gets kicked out?
I saw many sunrises that summer. Unable to sleep, I sat by the window at dawn and knitted. The sky turned from grey to orange to blue as my needles clacked softly in the silence. By mid-January I was getting sweaty. The blanket was 100 percent wool and it was 32 degrees outside. Inevitably, people started asking questions. Who's it for? What's the point? You know you can buy blankets at the Warehouse?
The question I was asked most often, though, was: Does your boy want to go to boarding school?
This always struck me as strange. I know that, back in the day, kids were sent to boarding school without any say in the matter. But that's not how we roll anymore. Twenty-first century kids need to know they're the masters of their own destinies. That's why, at the tono hui, the first question they ask is not to the parents, but to the boy: Do you want to come here?
Ours did. He really did. Even after the hostel director warned him of the three-minute showers and rigorous routine — including ranks, homework and compulsory daily fitness. Even knowing that the only screen time on offer was a wall-mounted TV with dodgy reception and the reversing camera inside the school mini-van. Even after I told him of the menacing Manawatu winters that come up from the core and chill your bones, and showed him the town centre of Feilding, which consists of a couple of craft shops, a tractor warehouse, and some fast-food outlets.
Even after all that, he still wanted to go.
At about 9 o'clock the night before his first day, I came to the end of the 26th ball of wool. I tied a knot in the yarn, wove in the ends, and held up the blanket for everyone to behold. There were twisted stitches and gaping holes. The tension was no good. It was loose in places and tight in others. It was also the wrong shape: too short for a double bed and too wide for a single bed.
But it was a taonga. Something I had made with my own hands.
What I hadn't given any thought to was just how this “taonga" would look inside a boys’ boarding hostel. Looking around the dorm on the first day, I noticed an array of blankets. Warm duvets, soft fleeces, cozy throws. That's when it dawned on me: I was sending my kid to boarding school with a homemade, orange nana-blanket which, in a moment of temporary insanity, I had sprayed with several pumps of my favourite perfume.
I tried to shove the blanket back into the bag, offering to go and buy a new one from the Warehouse that didn't have holes and didn't smell like Mum. But my boy took it off me and laid it on the bed. "It's okay, Mum," he said, patting it down. "I like this one."
Even then, all the way back on that first day, he was exhibiting the kind of self-confidence and maturity that would become the hallmarks of his development this year.
If it takes courage as a parent to step back, it takes even more courage as a young man to step up. You're on your own at boarding school. Mum can't find your lost things. Dad's not there to crack the whip. And there's no time for shirking at Hato Pāora. Between Gala Day and kapa haka, Manu Kōrero and the annual Te Aute match, between study and exams and rugby and basketball and athletics, every last minute in the school calendar is accounted for. Term breaks are for sleeping and eating. And sleeping.
I put a few miles on the car this year. I can make the five-hour trip up to school and back without blinking. And plenty of us do. Whānau cooking weekends, sports matches, kapa haka wānanga, Board of Trustee meetings, speech competitions and more. We're there, proud māmās and pāpās, around the table and on the sidelines, in the kitchen and behind the wheel.
I've come to understand that so much of the magic that happens within Māori communities, happens in this voluntary space. Resources are always tight. When the call goes out, the hands go up. Someone to run the stall, someone to coach the team, someone to make the poi, and someone to butter the bread. You can't write a cheque for this stuff. It's the stuff that makes us great.
In two weeks time, we'll make the journey up to school and bring our boy home for the last time this year. He’s a whole head taller than when he left. He topped his class in religious education but is staunchly open-minded about faith. He loves coming home on the weekends, but never looks back when he leaves again. His mates aren't mates, but brothers. And best of all, he prefers basketball to rugby.
Looking at his blanket now, fuzzy with age, smelling of boy, it seems hard to believe it was the first knitting project I took on. It was such a crazy, ambitious thing to do. When I started it, much like this year, it seemed like an impossible task. If I could go back to those mornings at dawn, knitting away my doubts, I'd tell myself not to worry. That sending our boy to boarding school wasn't the same as losing him. That by letting him go, we were giving him the chance to fly.