Sen. Daniel K. Inouye went to the Philippines to talk about U.S. military bases.

Reps. Colleen Hanabusa and Mazie Hirono met with constituents at home and deliberated whether to run for the U.S. Senate.

What did Sen. Daniel Akaka do on his congressional break? He went back to the eight grade.

“It all started here at Kawananakoa Middle School,” Akaka told Jacob Johnson’s math class. “It was the beginning of my political career.”

President Danny Akaka

Akaka came to Kawananakoa — formally Prince David Kawananakoa Middle School — to give a little lesson in financial literacy. (More on that shortly.)

It was part of Teach for America Week, the national program that places well-trained teachers into 39 urban and rural schools to help “break the cycle of educational inequity.” Jacob Johnson of Wisconsin is part of the corps.

But the classroom lesson turned out also to be a nostalgic visit for the senator who will turn 87 this Sept. 11. Some 74 years earlier, it was at Kawananakoa that a teenage Akaka was elected class president.

As Johnson’s students listened, each wearing a black or red shirt with their school’s logo, Akaka told them how Princess Abigail Kawananakoa — part of the same royal family — “took a liking” to him.

“She invited me to her home — it was on Pensacola Street at the time — and even bought me clothes because I came from a poor family,” Akaka remembered.

Akaka’s father, who worked at Honolulu Iron Works, kept a shoebox with different slots in their Pauoa home. He would come home after work and toss his pay — all in coins — into the slots.

“The first slot was for church, the second was for food and clothes, and things like that,” said Akaka. “That’s the money we would use. Sometimes we ran out.”

Financial Literacy

The story underscored Akaka’s message to the students: Be smart with your money.

Akaka says he first learned about the topic when he was in the fourth grade and his teacher had the students put money into a piggy bank to save for something. He made money shining shoes for his family and others.

In Akaka’s case, he saved for a yo-yo.

“It taught us how saving for things is important, and will be all your life,” he said. “That carried me through life, and here I am in Congress.”

The senator’s aide distributed handouts explaining how different interest rates on credit cards would make a big difference in charging for an iPod — something kids today can perhaps relate to better than a yo-yo. His advice to the students: Beware predatory lenders.

Akaka told the students how he was instrumental in passing the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009. Among other things, the law requires credit card companies to explain to card holders how long it will take to pay off a balance, and how much interest will be accrued if the only make the minimun payment on a bill.

If only the Congress had become financially literate years ago, the nation would not have entered a severe recession in 2008, said Akaka.

April, he pointed out, is National Financial Literacy Month.

Thinking Ahead

After the lesson, the senator spoke with Civil Beat.

The senator’s aide advised that he would rather not talk about who might succeed him next year when he retires. “He feels that should be left up to the voters,” they said.

But Akaka did tell Civil Beat the Akaka bill — federal recognition for Native Hawaiians — could pass by the time he steps down.

“I have no idea when a vote will happen,” he said. “But I’ve spoken to the leader, and he knows it will be on the floor as soon as an opportunity comes.”

That opportunity won’t come, however, during the budget, deficit and debt talks that are dominating Washington, he said.

What will Akaka do after he leaves Washington?

“I’ve been thinking about it very much,” he said. “For sure, I don’t want to be idle. And so I am thinking of all the kinds of things that I wanted to do, lining them up and trying to prioritize them. I would certainly like to do all I can for the community, too, so — wherever I’m needed, like here and teaching.”

He smiles broadly and let’s out a small laugh.

“As you know, I was a teacher for years, and I miss it. And I wouldn’t mind even being a substitute teacher, maybe — you know?”

Akaka said it was an emotional visit for him at Kawananakoa.

“It was not knowing then that this was the beginning of a life that I didn’t know what the end was going to be,” he said. “I yet when I look back now, here I am, in the United States Congress … a senator. And this is where I started.”

Full circle.

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