With the “100-day” evaluations of President Obama starting to percolate through the mass media, I continue to hear remarks about how preternaturally calm and self-confident Barack seems to be. But very few commentators state the obvious explanation: growing up in Hawai’i, and getting a very special sort of education.
Barack and I were lucky enough to attend the same Honolulu school: Punahou. He was a fifth-grader when I was a senior, so we certainly never met. But I’m sure that his relaxed persona can be attributed in part to his having attended a school surrounded by an exquisite natural environment and replete with teachers and administrators with the motivation to give each student individual attention. And while Barack makes it clear in his book “Dreams From My Father” that he felt alienated from many of his more privileged classmates, in a recent speech on the Punahou campus he recognized the school’s positive influence on his life.
In my own case, Punahou had been a life-saver. Before entering the school in 1969, I’d spent two years at Kaimuki Intermediate School, a public school where the local culture was, well… different. It was certainly different than the small, racially segregated university town in north-central Florida (Gainesville – home of The Gators) where I’d spent my first 12 years. The students at Kaimuki were steeped in a long tradition of labyrinthine ethnic hostilities – Japanese against Chinese against Korean against Filipino against Hawaiian against Samoan, and all against Haole (white transplants from the mainland). “Kill Haole Day” was a much anticipated annual event, for it united all of the more local cultures against the easily recognizable pale-skins. That I managed to avoid being targeted on this hallowed day was due only to the tenuous ethnic camouflage my Semitic heritage afforded me. However, whenever I ventured down Waialae Avenue through the heart of Kaimuki as a scrawny 13-year-old, I would inevitably be “hijacked” for spare change by some equally scrawny local kid who convinced me that his big brother was right around the corner. That first year at Kaimuki Intermediate School I lived in a constant state of anxiety, punctuated only by a host of other negative emotions. Like Barack, I understood all too well the feeling of being socially isolated.
Kids, however, are notoriously adaptable. By the beginning of my second year at Kaimuki Intermediate, I’d figured out how to tell the wannabe bullies from the (few) really violent guys, and by standing up to them I started to recover some of my previous self-esteem. More importantly, my musical interests had allowed me to make friends with some of the more popular students there, and after performing with them at a 9th grade social, I was largely accepted. However, I was hardly flourishing, especially academically. My 9th grade history teacher suggested that I apply to Punahou for high school, and although I was somewhat reluctant to consider attending a “snob school” (as my local friends called it), I figured that, socially speaking, it couldn’t be much worse than what I had already encountered – and survived – at Kaimuki.
Well, it turned out to be a good move. Although ethnically it was not quite as diverse as the public schools, the student body still reflected all of the demographic variety of Hawai’i. The school’s micro-culture was a unique blend of respect for local tradition and a championing of every type of achievement: academic, athletic, and artistic. Whereas the students at Kaimuki were burdened by the low expectations of their teachers (many of whom were clearly burned out), students at Punahou were encouraged by enthusiastic teachers to dream big and develop all of their talents. Now, looking back at the stark contrast, I’m struck by how huge the inequities were. But I’ll rant about the public school system some other time.
My main point, to bring this little memoir back to our recently elected President, is that Barack’s laid-back demeanor is hardly preternatural to those who have grown up in the Islands. It’s just normal. But that other personality trait so many have commented on – his unabashed self-confidence… Well, although it might not have manifested itself until he was well out of high school, a large amount of credit for that must, I believe, go to Punahou.