Lei ia keia Makahiki-- The Year Has Circled Around Again

So my little school has lots of issues. There's always heartbreaking squabbles between teachers and admin, families buffeted by addiction and poverty and disease, accusations ricocheting about sketchy accounting or poor planning, the terrible question of school purpose and Hawaiian cultural self-definition. This year has felt particularly pointed-- like I mentioned in my last post, I began to hope that there was a more loving, kind and inclusive life possible at the school. Well, hope makes disappointments more painful, and with higher highs, this year's lows have been pretty grim.

On top of structural irksomeness, teaching is a tricky and stressful job. My most creative, inclusive and well-prepared lesson might not get through to a single student, and I often feel terribly unprepared for helping the students with their challenges-- learning disabilities or destructive family cultures that perpetuate learned helplessness rather than cultural empowerment. Students' lack of exposure, lack of resources, lack of interest, and a life lived scrabbling at the bottom rungs of Maslow's hierarchy mean there are gaps I'm unprepared to bridge. Kids can be embattled, mistrustful, bored, and in pain. It's hard to make a high school kid reading at a 3rd grade level, who comes to school hungry and overtired from sleeping on the beach and having only a Monster drink for breakfast, really sink into the pleasure of Elizabethan language in Macbeth. Luckily there's dysfunctional marriages, family feuds, and murder enough in the Scottish Play to snag anyone's (overtired, underfed, overstimulated) interest.... but I digress.

All of this is really to say... it's easy to see only the problems. It's easy for me to be wary of my own kids' continued participation in this school, and doubtful of our ability to help our pualei-- our beautiful students-- be happy and healthy people in the world after school.

But then, the end of school rolls around. We've had a crazy few weeks-- making lei and preparing hundreds of pounds of food and practicing hula for the final performance, scrambling to finish missed assignments and finals and standardized tests, clearing our classrooms for teachers who are leaving for other (greener?) pastures... or taro patches. And all of the madness and stress and cattiness and scramble suddenly coalesces into a few moments of real beauty.

The kids all come to school in their hula regalia and dance beautifully-- the angry reticent teenager beaming like Miss Aloha with arms and eyes up to heaven through "The Queen's Jubilee," the shy awkward boy shakes it as cool as James Dean in aloha shirt and dark sunglasses through "Holoholo Mokokaikala." The food we prepared is plentiful and delicious and non-toxic. The leis are tight and bright and remain intact. No one faints, no one storms off. Parents come away in happy tears. Students hug me afterwards and abandon their school t-shirts and gym shoes and wrecked and bestickered binders in my classroom, shedding school accoutrement like termites shedding unneeded wings.

And then we clean the classrooms and some blessed students stay for extra days and help us carry out bags of abandoned posterboards and termite softened bookshelves and forgotten projects-- Solar system dioramas and toothpick suspension bridges and hand-painted scrolls get crumpled and stomped into garbage cans-- hundreds of hours of work reduced to ephemera in bulging plastic bags. The beleaguered admin provide a delicious lunch to the fractious faculty, and try to smooth over months of ragged HR with luscious lilikoi cheesecake and wasabi-drizzled ahi.

Then graduation sneaks up on us-- the graduates frantically finish sewing their feather leis, stamping their muslin kihei, composing and practicing their geneological chants, their families come in to town. We drink awa with them at high noon, go to the sea to release past ills, and send them off into the world up to their eyeballs in leis both tacky (zebra floaties! Condoms!) and transcendent (strands of Niihau shells and ropes of intoxicating Maile).

I'm feeling whiplashed from this year-- so much work, so much love for these students, such remarkable achievements from them-- that I won't really feel as if the summer has started until Monday morning when I can sit and read my novel rather than choking down a soy milk-cooled coffee and blasting down the hill to Morning Edition. And hopefully over the coming weeks this year that is a Pollockian jumble of senseless color and emotion will resolve into an image, a lesson, a path to move forward.


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