When I was 5, the most terrifying event in my life was changing to a new elementary school as a first-grader — from Hilo Union in downtown Hilo where I was a joyful, laughing kindergartner, to Waiakeawaena Elementary School, which was just blocks from our new home in the Waiakea Homestead area of Hilo.

I remember spending my first day, parked outside the classroom door, crying, crying, crying.

Even at that young age, the kids in my classroom, who knew each other from kindergarten at our school, had already “bonded for life” into cliques — and nobody, it seemed, wanted to be my friend!

Meryl Streep plays Washington Post publisher Kay Graham in “The Post.” 20th Century Fox

Seriously, throughout my six years at Waiakeawaena, I never felt that I belonged. This “outsider” status haunted formation of my identity as a child, and has recurred even when I grew up, because as an Asian-American female, I was often “the only one” like me at the daily newspapers and wire services where I worked from the late 1970s through the early 2000s in cities scattered across the continental United States: Worcester, Mass.; New Orleans; San Francisco; New York City; Seattle; Santa Ana in Orange County, Calif.; and Washington, D.C.

I joined The Associated Press in New Orleans because of my ambitions of becoming a foreign correspondent in Germany. Within three years, I had been promoted to AP world headquarters at “50 Rock,” a building overlooking the famous ice-skating rink at New York City’s Rockefeller Center.

In those days, the AP, like many mainstream U.S. newspapers, was predominantly white and male. I don’t remember any people of color in management positions. In my newsroom, as far as I could see, there were no other Americans of color. The AP’s Spanish-language desk, just a few feet away, was staffed by an Asian man, a Japanese-Peruvian named Nestor.

‘World Deskers’

One day, a former colleague of mine in the AP New Orleans bureau, who, like me, had won promotion to the World Desk — all of us World Deskers were in line for postings overseas — sent me a message: I wonder if Carolyn realizes that her Atex personal file is not a secret? Translation: Atex was a computer software system used by the AP (and other news organizations of that time) with a peculiarity. No privacy lockouts. If you knew the name of a file, you could access it, and nobody would know who had viewed that file. My personal file on Atex was where I stored memos and other items I considered important and private.

Keala Settle plays The Bearded Lady in “The Greatest Showman.” 20th Century Fox

The pain that raced through me was exactly as fierce and piercing as when I had been a lonely first-grader at a new school. From then on, I could never feel trust for my World Desk colleagues — or, for that matter, anyone else in the newsroom. Who else had seen my personal file? I would never know.

No, there was no one else who was a minority in that entire newsroom, as I remember, although in the summer, there was a Harvard University college intern, who was half-Asian, half-Caucasian. In its quest for diversity amongst its staff, AP for a time operated a program of summer internships for budding college journalists of color, who usually worked in the bureaus, not at headquarters.

Now that I am back in my home state, being Asian-American isn’t anything noteworthy, but I am still sensitive to the situation of people whose minority status may place them in difficult situations.

Now, About Those Movies

Two top-rated movies this year, both serious Academy Award contenders, feature characters who transcended their minority, outsider status: Kay Graham in “The Post,” and the Bearded Lady, aka Lettie Lutz, in “The Greatest Showman.”

The Washington Post, back in the early 1970s — yes, back in the days when I was a novice reporter — was a small, hometown paper, and its editor, Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, became famous for his catchy, pithy and clever comments. But the real hero of this film is the Post’s publisher, Katharine Graham, aka Kay Graham, portrayed by Meryl Streep. Even though Hanks is a scene-stealer, the movie justifiably lists Streep at the top of the credits. Katharine Graham showed uncommon courage in making the decision to publish The Pentagon Papers, which revealed that the U.S. government officials at the highest levels knew that the Vietnam War was a war that the USA could not win.

Streep herself, in an interview, knew those years, lived those years, a time when women were relegated to the back row, seen as being only housewife material. Streep told the story of how her friend, Nora Ephron, a gifted writer, had sought a job at Newsweek as a writer, and was told, that’s not a job for women.

I am still sensitive to the situation of people whose minority status may place them in difficult situations.

In the movie “The Post,” Kay Graham refers to the then-prevailing, belittling attitude toward women in newsrooms, citing comments by Samuel Johnson, the Englishman who compiled an English dictionary in the time of George III’s reign.

Johnson, who was considered witty, said a woman preacher “was like a dog walking on its hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.” It was Johnson, by the way, who said of Americans: “Sir, they are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging.”

“The Greatest Showman” is the story of P.T. Barnum, played by Hugh Jackman, who assembles a circus of lonely, isolated people perceived as being freaks and misfits. But united by “the greatest showman,” they earn recognition for their talents and their view of themselves transcends their outsider status as they develop camaraderie, friendship and love among themselves, and discover self-pride.

The Bearded Lady is played by Hawaii’s Keala Settle, who is part-Maori, part-Caucasian, born in Laie on Oahu, and a graduate of Kahuku High School. Here is the YouTube video clip of her performance during a workshop, singing the movie’s hit song, “This is Me”:

I wish there had been a song like this when I was little, because it might have given me solace and comfort: 

“When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me
Look out ’cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me.”

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