Friday, August 23, 2013

Pablo the Mexican

I was the youngest member of Churchie’s 1951 intake of boarders from “the bush”. (The Church of England Grammar School in Brisbane had always been called “Churchie”, for some unimaginative reason.) Painfully shy, and small for my age, I was put in the charge of a veteran boarder of my own age (eleven), who introduced me around.

Four or five of us squatted in the dirt and scratched our names in block capitals with twigs. When some older boys came by to see what we were doing, we hastily erased them, but I wasn’t quick enough to do more than wipe out my first name and bits of the surname. One of the intruders looked down scornfully at what was left. “What’s this name? It looks like PABLO! What is he, a Mexican? Hahaha.” “Yes he is”, my protector retorted. “So what?” “Huh. He doesn’t look Mexican.” “Well, his mother’s Mexican. Have you got something against Mexicans?”

Shamed, the intruders wandered away. My companions felt obliged, ever after, to call me and refer to me by the invented name, lest they be beaten up by the older boys for lying. The exotic newbie became a nine-day wonder. And indeed longer, for the name stuck like glue. Very few of the 1200 pupils ever knew my real name. Most of those alive today still don’t.

When my brother came the next year, aged nine, he was Little Pablo. Our baby brother came after we left, and he was Pablo too. Each of us was introduced to parents as Pablo, as a matter of course. Parents as a species don’t ask questions about their sons' friends' nicknames. “Rags” Alexander was always called Rags, and nobody ever knew his first name.

Six years at boarding school is a big chunk of one’s life. All of us boarders went home during vacations; on “long weekends” those of us from far away stayed with friends who lived closer, or were day-boys. One of my long-weekend hosts was Graham, whom I bumped into in Shiraz in late 1964 – reported in my blog-post Cattle Class to Kuwait [April 2012].

Years and years later, my mother apologised for sending me away so young – but I never minded, and in truth she had little option. I was in the oldest group at the one-room, six-classes, Hannaford Primary School, and the two others were scheduled to go off to (different) boarding schools the same year. I was the brains of the outfit, such as it was, and Churchie was noted for its academic achievements, so that's where I went.

Of the Hannaford kids, I ended up a political trouble-maker in the Caribbean; Ian wasted several years in Parliament in Canberra [Politics of exclusion, May 2013]; Richard was a wool-dealer in Sudan for a while; Liz Cox did professional modelling in Paris, reportedly; Kevin became a shearer in Victoria, the school magazine said. Everybody else made their lives close to home, as far as I know.

The local school didn’t open till I was seven and a half. Before then, all our lessons had come in the mail each week from the State distance-learning unit in Brisbane. Mum was a good teacher, and the seventeen-year-old sent out from Brisbane to open the School was too. So I carried my parents’ hopes and ambitions off to Churchie. I don’t think I returned much value for the money they spent on me; I should have been the one to apologise.

Academically, I peaked at age thirteen. I struggled dutifully, but could never see much sense in what I was being taught. The learning did enable me to qualify as an accountant, eventually, and that freed me to go overseas and try my luck. To the degree that it gave me a way to make a living in exotic places, it was worth the effort and expense, I guess.

Also, I finally got to Mexico, though I can’t say I identified with the culture. If my mother really had been Mexican, I might have done better. Who knows?