Hawaii High School Daze
Last night the local PBS television station showed a short film adaptation taken from "Wild Meat and Bully Burgers," the debut novel of well-known Hawaii author Lois Ann Yamanaka. Watching the film, I recalled how the book deals with issues of political correctness today: the clash between public education and ethnic identity and the controversy over English as the official language of the U.S.
Set in the late 1970s on the Big Island where she grew up, the highly autobiographical novel is about Ms. Yamanaka's high school days in the city of Hilo. At the time I lived 15 miles away in the Puna rainforest. I drove to Hilo several times a week to shop, eat or drink, see a movie or just hang out at the waterfront and I remember seeing high school kids on a regular basis. They looked like typical teenage students to me, but we lived in different worlds 15 miles apart -- a fact I didn't realize until I read Ms. Yamanaka's book years later.
I was shocked by her tales of heavy drug and alcohol abuse, coat-hangar abortions, suicides, rabid racism against haoles (whites) and other facets of high school life in Hilo.
The novel is written in pidgin language and much of its message is devoted to the "unfairness" of teachers insisting that students learn standard English and use it in classes. Pidgin was originally invented as a common language of business in the polyglot region of the Pacific. It has a legitimate place in island life -- for example, in the humorous books "Pidgin To Da Max" -- but if pidgin is the only language you know, you'll never find a decent-paying job even in Hawaii.
Mrs. Yamanaka was ashamed of her father because he was poor and lacked a formal education. I developed a great deal of respect for him in reading the book. Although he made little money from wages, he hunted, fished and lived off of the land as much as possible. He was poor but free. This was a step up from his father, who had been a virtual slave in the sugar plantation system.
Ms. Yamanaka was a social outcast in high school because her family was poor. The haole and other kids whose families had money looked down their noses and picked on her. Welcome to American society where money means everything. I was also from a poor family, but I was a social rebel in high school. I didn't give a damn what the snobs thought of me. Ms. Yamanaka played the role of designated loser (at least in her mind) while I gave the one-finger salute to the System and found my own comfortable niche in life.
Today Ms. Yamanaka is a middle-aged writing instructor and author with several published books to her credit, but she is still bitter about her high school days. What's the point? In my opinion she should feel grateful that she was taught standard English in school because she wouldn't be a success without it.
It seems to me that ethnic identity is getting in the way of education in the U.S. And self-esteem must be earned rather than given for free by schools.
As I have mentioned before, I'm part Cherokee, but in my history classes I never heard a word about the Trail of Tears, one of the saddest tragedies of American history. Tens of thousands of Cherokees were removed from their homes in southeastern states and forced marched to Oklahoma by the U.S. Army. Thousands died along the way from starvation, disease and exhaustion. I learned about the Trail of Tears on my own. I didn't expect my teachers to instill a sense of ethnic pride in me. Why should they? It was my responsibility to learn about my native American ancestors and take whatever pride I could find in their culture.
As a fellow Hawaii author, I emailed Ms. Yamanaka a few years ago to arrange a meeting between us. I wondered if she had read any of my books and I wanted to discuss her work over a cup of coffee. She never replied to my message and I think I know why. She doesn't like haoles -- a common attitude among local people. In her case she can't forget the haole cliques that snubbed her in high school 30 years ago. Despite her success, she clings to the memory of unpleasant experiences that less fortunate people are able to put behind them.
Which reminds me of a scene from the film "On Golden Pond." Jane Fonda plays a middle-aged woman who still dislikes her father for the way he treated her when she was a girl. Her mother (played by Katherine Hepburn) says:
"Don't you ever get tired of all that? Life moves on and you better move on with it."
"The earth was made round so we can't see too far down the road and know what is coming." -- Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa