Humbled. Blessed. Excited. Validating. These are the words Kailua High School educators deployed Monday morning in describing the Dalai Lama’s almost two-hour visit to their campus on Ulumanu Drive.

A senior-class student summed it up more succinctly: “Rad.”

More than 1,000 students and teachers attended the talk, which included a question-and-answer session, a gift exchange and performances. Many said they hope he comes back soon.

Schoolwide preparations have been under way for the past six weeks. Faculty members agreed all the related assignments and classroom activities geared toward making the most of the prestigious visit clearly paid off.

“It was more than anyone could have ever imagined,” KHS principal Francine Honda said in an interview in her office minutes after the Dalai Lama left the campus for his next stop. “It was a coming together like pieces of a puzzle. You know when you save the last piece, and everybody holds out and tries to put the last piece in the puzzle, it was like everybody found the last piece and put it in the puzzle. That feeling of excitement.”

Students asked thoughtful questions of the exiled Tibetan leader and that dialogue was expected to continue in related activities Monday afternoon and throughout the rest of the academic year.

“It was so moving. I think what it’s done is it’s a confirmation of all the work we’ve put into Kailua High School for the past 10 years,” KHS ethnic studies teacher Amber Makaiau said. “I don’t know if there’s a bigger reward than having the Dalai Lama come and say that he’s appreciative or has recognition of the work that we’ve been doing to promote peace and tolerance and compassion. It was emotionally overwhelming, in a positive way.”

Chad Miller, an English teacher currently serving as a Philosopher in Residence at KHS, said he saw an interdepartmental effort in preparing for the visit. He said students were even doing yoga in gym class.

The school’s other Philosopher in Residence, Ben Lukey, said the visit from the renowned peace leader was “completely unique.”

“As far as I know nothing like this has ever happened before,” he said. “The school really mobilized and took it seriously and made something meaningful from it.”

You could hear the excitement in his voice.

“The buzz is there at the school already,” Lukey said in an interview Wednesday. “They’re waiting for the culmination on Monday and this will trickle through the rest of the year. It’s not just going to dissipate. It’s going to be something that extends beyond.”

He heaped praise on the principal for her part.

“I don’t think enough credit can be given to Francine Honda in terms of utilizing this opportunity,” Lukey said. “Instead of some kind of staged thing, the students have been thinking about this deeply for the past three weeks and they have ownership of this entire intellectual process. That’s what makes this school remarkable.”

Dr. Thomas Jackson has been passionately involved in bringing the Philosophy for Children program to Hawaii since the 1980s. Kailua High and Waikiki Elementary are the two model schools utilizing the method today. Educators say p4c Hawaii, as it’s commonly called, is likely the reason the Dalai Lama chose to visit KHS.

“The students get this whole different sense of being in a community that’s intellectually safe where it’s more a teacher who becomes a member of this community,” he said after the talk Monday. “We can ask whatever questions we want as long as we’re still respecting each other. And then as we build this trust amongst ourselves and we start to open up from our own stories in respectful ways, this kind of thing happens. And it’s like, ‘Wow, they’re thinking deeply.'”

Kelley Espinda, a Japanese language teacher who uses the p4c approach at KHS, used the opportunity of the Dalai Lama’s visit to build a peace garden — a “sacred place of learning.”

Multiple clubs and organizations collaborated to realize her vision.

“Even the rock formation was researched,” Espinda said, explaining the symbolism behind each component in the garden. “See the triangles and how it connects to the pine, the small rocks, the lantern.”

She said the Dalai Lama’s visit was “really affirming.”

Even the process of creating the questions to ask the Dalai Lama during the assembly was a schoolwide effort.

“I think in other schools, teachers would have worked with the best and brightest and maybe helped them craft questions for the Dalai Lama,” Lukey said. “But what we did is have huge inquiries. Not just what do you want to ask, but what do you want to think about.”

The bracket-like process involved students from each grade level drafting questions, then voting on them. Together they took more than 800 and whittled the list down to eight.

The principal said the students were able to ask five or six of the eight questions, one of which drew a round of applause.

Students said they appreciated the Dalai Lama’s candidness as much as his insightfulness in answering the questions.

Jackson noted the way he thoughtfully considered each question.

“You could see him, ‘Hmm. Wow.’ And then the care in which he responded,” he said. “That’s the quality of thinking that young people are all capable of. I work with the kindergartners and it’s there already. And so I think what’s so beautiful about Kailua High School is it shows that this is recoverable.”

Jill LaBoy, KHS curriculum coordinator, said the democratic process of selecting the questions was another way the school works to give the students ownership of their education.

“So it’s more, ‘I’m a part of my own learning versus this is what my teacher is throwing at me and I need to absorb it and regurgitate it,” she said. “They’re playing an active role in their own learning.”

The principal was concerned about the common thread she saw in the final questions. She said she fell asleep thinking about it one night last week and woke up still pondering its meaning the next morning.

“I just wonder if our kids not just in Hawaii, but globally, are they living in fear?” Honda said in an interview in her office last week. “Because when you read the questions … I get that sense that maybe they’re afraid.”

When asked what she thinks they might fear, she said, “everything.”

“And I’m wondering how much of this has to do with what’s happening in the world, you know, the wars, the fighting, the violence, and then when they watch movies and TV, the same thing,” Honda said. “It makes me wonder.”

Miller said this may show teachers have “brought wonder back into learning.”

“Learning is something the kids do here. Like with the philosophy. They’re doing it,” he said in an interview last week. “When I look at this opportunity that we have, I can’t help but think that has to be one of the reasons that he’s coming here. The things he’s speaking about — about being peaceful and about seeing past people’s religious differences or whatever it is — we’re living that here. I don’t think we ever take the time to step back and look at that and think, ‘Wow, this is really awesome.'”

The principal said the Dalai Lama’s visit was all the more meaningful because of Hawaii’s geographic isolation.

“Our children are sheltered,” Honda said. “They still do not have the opportunities and the same kind of experiences as other students on the Mainland.”

She said the students were “wonderful” during the Dalai Lama’s visit.

“It was obvious they were a big part of the program in many ways with their videos, presentation of the gifts,” Honda said. “It’s not even once in a lifetime; it’s once in three lifetimes to have had that opportunity. It was just really everybody celebrating together peace and compassion. That’s what it’s all about.”

Kailua High School students compiled eight questions — boiled down from 850 through a monthlong vetting and voting process — to ask the Dalai Lama when he came to visit.

  1. If we have all these reasons to be good people (reasons to have compassion, patience, love, etc.), then what are the reasons it is so difficul for us to put these qualities into practice? In short, why is it so hard to be a good person? (Caitlin)

  2. In this time of political unrest leaders around the world promote many things. However, many haven’t taken action to fulfill their promises. Can words be taken seriously? (Marcus)

  3. Must we have pain, violence and destruction in order to understand peace and compassion? (Victoria)

  4. At Kailua High School we value learning through confusion. When you are confused, what thinkers and other external sources do you turn to in order to find clarity? (Jeremiah)

  5. Is too much compassion dangerous because it makes us vulnerable? For example, if I gave a homeless person money, but he attacked me because I refused to give him more, did my unbiased compassion make me vulnerable? (Lei)

  6. What are the reasons that we as humanity need direction to find peace when peace is within ourselves? (Christian)

  7. Is it only at the brink of destruction that we change our ways? If this is true, is religion an excuse to add meaning to our lives? (Marie)

  8. In what ways can we educate our children’s hearts without corrupting them with our own biases and experiences? (Rominick)

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