My first grandson, two years old at the time, toddled at an indoor playground, climbing on giant cement lions and through red and blue walls pierced with cutouts meant to teach shapes. He loved every minute of play until he stood in front of a wavy mirror, one of those that you find at a funhouse. He looked at what he knew was supposed to be him. The twisted, misshapen little reflection that looked back made him shiver and turn away. Life is much the same. We don’t need funhouse mirrors to show us how much the rest of the world may see us as distorted. This is some of the story of the final two years I lived in Hawaii. From when I was 11 and in sixth grade until the end of seventh grade, Hawaii was my home.
The day my parents deceived me. I’d watched my dad dig out the driveway during a raging blizzard in New Jersey. Someone had called him to make a house call, and dedicated physician that he was, he would not say no. I stood at my window, crying as the snow and wind pummeled him. He couldn’t go to serve their needs until he could get the car out of the garage and down the driveway. My breath on the window, I pleaded for him to come inside where it was safe. He couldn’t hear me of course, and he would have ignored me if he had. Months later my parents announced we were going to move to Hawaii, to live there for only one year. Warm and tropical Hawaii was a melting pot where people of all races and religions lived in peace and harmony. My sister and brother were too young to understand the potential upheaval of their lives, but at 11, I had stakes in where I lived. Only a year? I could do that. A year was an adventure, and I told my friends and cousins we’d be back soon. I trusted my parents. I went without complaint.
But we didn’t go back to live. Ever. I only saw my friends and family a few times after that, each visit “home” awkward with newness and unsuited habits. I’d been deceived. We lived in Hawaii that second time for nearly two years, and when we returned to the mainland, it was to California, not New Jersey. No matter what is written or believed, you simply can never go back because what you left behind doesn’t exist anymore. The friendships melted like popsicles, the relationships with family thinned to gruel, and we, the transplanted members, were strangers all. I missed everything. I missed everything.
The first day of sixth grade in Honolulu. I’d left school in the middle of autumn so school was already in session in both states. There ends the similarity between those two schools. I started in a public school in the hills outside of Honolulu. We were renting a home in the heart of a tropical garden but my paradise ended at the school gates. The class was comprised entirely of Asian kids who sat in a divided room, girls on one side and boys on the other. Two sets of rows arranged the kids in partners of two, each desk butted up against the next. As in Trenton, I was one of the tiniest kids in this class but was still assigned the very back row next to a tall, big-boned girl. That was, I sat there for the first day. My second day of class, my desk had been pushed up against the teacher’s. It isolated me from the all the other kids. I wondered what deed had banned me to such far corner. Later I heard that the Chinese girl who’d been my one-day partner would not sit next to a Haole (white) girl, and her parents enforced the demand.
I dressed and looked different. I wore saddle shoes and bobby socks, crinolines under my skirts, and my blond curls obeyed no orders but their own. My fair skin burned quickly. My thick NJ accent made it difficult for the kids to determine meaning from what I said. The other girls wore slim, sleeveless shifts, their straight black hair sleekly tied in pony tails or held neatly by headbands. Nearly all the kids walked barefoot but that wasn’t even a discussion in my house. With no textbooks in the entire school, (there wasn’t at that time a single Hawaiian public high school accredited for college admission, making private schools mandatory for anyone hoping to attend college) the teacher taught by oral lecture, delivered in pidgin English. You’ve probably heard snippets of this dialect on TV shows. Da kine, lolo, and auwee are common and easy to translate. True pidgin is as hard to understand as Beowulf in its original dialect. Listening to an entire conversation confounded me as I tried to figure out what the teacher said on my first day in her class, the last day of that particular unit. They’d been studying Pennsylvanian coal mines in social studies, a subject I hadn’t studied in New Jersey. (Don’t ask me why a class of Chinese-Hawaiian kids were studying Pennsylvanian coal mines. It made no sense to me then or now.) I couldn’t understand anything she said and went home that night with nothing to study because there was no textbook, remember?
On my second day of school, the teacher passed out a 2-page test on Pennsylvanian coal mines. As I stared at dozens of questions on a topic about which I knew absolutely nothing, a pre-recorded voice came over the loud speaker, jabbering about bat-filled caves in New Mexico. Near panic about the test and now distracted by the noise over the PA system, I finally realized that if I could block out the New Mexico cave audio, I could concentrate on the test about which I knew nothing. What a great idea the Hawaiians had come up with! So I blocked the cave lecture, focused on coal mines, and turned in a test of wild guesses and made up responses. On my third day of school I sat at my desk, far enough that I would not contaminate the other kids (I guess) and watched in horror and shame as the teacher held up my coal mine test with the first “F” I’d ever received. Then she held up another “F” grade I’d earned – on the bat caves of New Mexico.
All through the school we could hear the screams of children being beaten by their teachers. Corporal punishment was permitted throughout the Hawaiian public school system, and this school exercised its rights regularly. Our teacher threatened often but I never witnessed her beating a kid. My little brother, only 6, was so terrified (his teacher did beat kids in his class, though never him) that he developed a stutter and no one could understand him. His smile disappeared behind a face pale with nerves.
Recess time required that you play. Simply wandering on the playground by yourself was not permitted, and refusal to join a game promised a kid a reason for a beating. Every recess proved a nightmare for me. No one would let me play in the games so I walked at the perimeter of activities, hoping that it looked to the supervisors as if I was engaged in playing on a team. It required careful placement of feet so I appeared to play without incursion onto the play courts where I was not welcome.
My life at Punahou School. Punahou means “new spring,” as in a surfacing of underground water, and the famous Hawaiian school is named for a beautiful natural spring in the center of the campus. My dad arranged through a colleague to have me tested for admission to Punahou in the middle of the year, something that almost never happened. But I got accepted and got out of the public school where I was hated to become a student at Punahou, a school founded in the 1800’s by Christian ministers. (We moved houses at about the same time, and my little brother also got transferred to another school where he eventually calmed and dropped his stutter as he learned to smile again.) Would love to say that they loved me at Punahou but they didn’t. I was the odd girl still, and I admit that I didn’t know how to make friends. Still, the choirmaster loved me. Well, he loved me the first day I attended his class.
He walked around the pews, listening to about 60 little voices, seeking two that could sing, a boy and a girl. I’d studied music in NJ, piano and singing, including a few summers with an instructor who taught us, a bunch of very young kids, not only how to sing in multi-part harmony, but to sing opera. We didn’t know we were too young to learn opera; hell, we didn’t even know we were singing opera. We just followed his directions and sang a bunch of songs in languages other than English. That young, my voice was pretty and dependable and very soprano. So when the Punahou choirmaster heard me sing, he thought he’d hit the musical jackpot. I was child who’d had training and could carry a tune. He selected me and one lucky little boy to sing the solo for the upcoming musical performance in front of the entire school. He sent me home with orders to practice.
Thing is, I am Jewish and the song was a Christian hymn about loving Jesus with all my soul. No way could I practice that song in my home. I was too terrified to even tell my mom what I’d been chosen to sing. So I did practice. I did everything my NJ opera teacher had taught us. I opened my mouth and shaped each sound, lifted from my diaphragm, controlled my breathing, pronounced each and every syllable succinctly, rounded the vowels, and projected to the back of the auditorium. Punahou’s auditorium was huge, with an enormous downstairs area crammed with wooden seats and a spacious balcony. I practiced soundlessly, lest my Jewish mother hear me singing about Jesus and send me straight to hell with a few of her famous punches and enough Yiddish curses to make Oahu blush.
On the day of the performance, I stood in the front of the entire choir next to the lucky little boy who had also been selected. We faced a packed auditorium and though I knew from theater and ballet recitals not to look directly at the audience but at an imaginary spot on the far wall, I still saw about a million pair of eyes staring at me. Me, the new little kid whom no one liked.
The choirmaster stood in the orchestra pit and lifted his arms to direct us. I did fine with the ensemble pieces – every individual voice got lost in the jumble of many kids singing. But when it came time for me and unlucky little boy to sing our solos – well, I did as I had practiced. I opened my mouth and lifted my voice from my diaphragm; I rounded the vowels and articulated the consonants. And I sang silently. Not one sound emitted from my throat. Couldn’t do it. Didn’t know how. Choirmaster’s eyes opened so wide I worried that they’d fall from his sockets. He gestured with windmill spins, opened his own mouth in a gape and pulled his shoulders high enough to touch his ears. The veins in his neck pulsed and his skin sunburned in front of me. I did the best I could, but a Jewish kid cannot sing to Jesus, and so my voice simply did not function.
Choirmaster never called on me again to sing though he demanded to know why I hadn’t performed. I stared at him, my voice struck dumb. It was not like me to ever refuse to obey a teacher but there was nothing I could explain.
The next day the Punahou kids finally welcomed me to their school. They planted a cockroach the size of a dinner plate inside my homeroom desk. Did I tell you how terrified I’ve always been of bugs?
I’d witnessed and suffered the shame of prejudice and humiliation of being different in the tropical islands that my parents insisted were a melting pot of races, cultures, and faiths, with Hawaiians joyously celebrating differences and commonalities. Hula and luau and stories of Madame Pele bound us in the myths that draw tourists to the islands in droves of happiness-seekers. I still have never returned though one day I would love to travel there and see it without the strange colors of my childhood to make it seem ugly. May God and all the gods bless the islands and people of Hawaii.
Image courtesy Pixabay.com, public domain