Sometimes a moment sticks in your mind. You don’t know when you’ll think of it again but there it is: a lesson from a teacher.

One such moment was when Spokane Indian writer Sherman Alexie addressed our University of Hawaii-Manoa crowd in 2000 by saying, “Hawaii sure looks like one big Rez” as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series for his talk, “Killing Indians: Lies, Myths, and Exaggerations.”

We in the audience clapped half-heartedly. It was a bittersweet moment, one of scathing commentary on the state. It was also true.

Hawaii is a place where the economic landscape is often times a stark one. A truly American place. In Puna, where I live and teach at Pahoa High School, the home of the Daggers (pahoa means knife in Hawaiian and is the school mascot), the majority of families live below the poverty line. The cycle of poverty is actively sustained.

Thirteen years later, Alexie’s observations still ring true. On the Big Island, like at a lot of poor reservation schools on the mainland, the focus of positive feelings of hope and success are on the sports teams, especially basketball. Even though it is just a game, the court symbolizes more than that: a place of opportunity that can erase what lies just outside the doors of the gym — America’s disenfranchised landscape and people of not the First World and not quite the Third, but a Second World that lies somewhere in between.

Forgotten, ignored. Money gets dumped there but little changes as rights, cultural practices, and individuality go by the wayside.

Since our Second World school is mainly focused on testing students and evaluating teachers, it hasn’t caught on that the trend of universities is the attenuated weight of college admission tests and more of a consideration of a student’s application as a whole. The focus is still to maximally standardize everything full speed ahead. It is a ridiculous place of waste as it guts the physical and cultural landscape. It is a coal train headed for a town called Whimsy.

Basketball and rooting for the teams has been a saving grace for me as a teacher, a place where there is team spirit but also individuality, even eccentricity. Players shine strongest at the school on the court. This is a positive outcome of having a new gym. This year, as in year’s past, the boy’s team is first in their Division, Division II.

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei speaks out against a government criminally neglectful of its land and people. He is addressed as “teacher.” He uses one of his fingers to speak his mind. It is not his pointer finger, nor his ring finger. You get the picture.

He points to the destruction of history and landscape with this finger in a way that is beautiful. He says that if you want to change a system, you must work within that system for change, not just critique it from the outside.

The students love the film, “Coach Carter,” a basketball film. They relate to the issues at the inner city school it depicts and identify with the struggles and dreams of the characters. Coach Carter is the dad they never had. The dad everyone wants (besides Atticus Finch — another lesson — calling for yet another Venn diagram).

In my 11th grade class of 32, I have six seniors who need the English credit in order to graduate. Their attendance is low, and when they do come to class, they are angry and inappropriate. There is not enough room for me to walk around their desks. Little clusters of motivated students work on their assignments, however. These students are on sports teams and must pass the class with at least an average grade in order to play their sports.

What’s great about the basketball success at a poor school is that it turns expectations upside down. This is what artists and writers do. When they become well-known, they can also motivate others to do the same.

Go Pahoa, Go Daggers!

Susan Kay Anderson teaches English at Pahoa High School and Hawaii Community College on the Big Island. She has taught in island schools for nearly two decades.

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About the Author

  • Susan Kay Anderson
    Susan Kay Anderson has worked as an archeologist, barista, book store clerk, farm hand, and septic tank service company as a receptionist, among other endeavors. Her writing can be found in: Eleventh Muse, Rain Bird, Square One, Timothy McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and on Tom Clark’s website (comments). She blogs at Hawaii Teacher Detective.

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