One Hawaii narrative is that the monochrome “old” Territory of Hawaii changed magically to the bright “new” technicolor state — resulting in a “modern” 20th century Hawaii society.

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Yet, how people lived during the territorial period would surprise many in post-statehood Hawaii.

Take my father and Uncle B., both born in Kahului and Maui High School graduates. My father is in the 1937 Maui High yearbook — the same year when Japan launched the Sino-Japanese War that led to Pearl Harbor, and Disney’s still-mesmerizing “Snow White and Seven Dwarfs” was shown at Wailuku’s Iao Theater.

With a widowed mother who spoke little English, my father and Uncle B. resembled many children in today’s Kalihi-Palama neighborhood.

Territorial Maui in 1937 was a segregated society. When Puunene schoolteacher Soichi Sakamoto launched a Maui swimming program for the Olympics, the one Maui freshwater pool was off-limits to plantation families — evoking South African apartheid.

The Maui High School archs are among the remains of a place that provided a sterling education in territorial days. Flickr: kaparker99

But Maui was not a “backward” island. The territorial Maui High curriculum was equivalent to top mainland schools.

Designed in 1913 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Class of 1894) alum C. W. Dickey, Maui High School at Hamakuapoko, east of sugarcane-centric Paia town, was an innovative educational center.

Mainland university graduates arrived to teach Maui children — similar to today’s idealistic teachers who teach at East Los Angeles or Waianae. A widely known “best practice” was the Columbia University Teachers College mission of “cultural understanding as an essential element of teaching and learning” in New York City — where Lower East Side immigrants spoke German, Italian and Yiddish.

Maui High teachers in the Territory of Hawaii held both a fundamental distaste for the unequal plantation society and a passion to create American citizens with multi-disciplinary skills and democratic values. Pre-war Maui had 45,000 residents (Maui now has 170,000); about half were Japanese immigrants and their Hawaii-born offspring.

Although Hawaii territorial teachers had no prescience about the coming global war, Hawaii public education was a core reason why my father’s Nisei generation achieved World War II military success, which was followed by the intense 12-year struggle for statehood.

Standard English was the Maui High teachers’ highest priority — taught to students whose parents did not speak or write English. My father and Uncle B. pored over Time magazine and the Saturday Evening Post at the YMCA and borrowed books from the Kahului library (no free lending libraries existed in the Kyushu village where my father spent his childhood).

Maui’s first co-educational high school opened in 1913 in a small frame building at Hamakuapoko, close to bustling Paia town and near the large plantation camps of East Maui. Flickr: Kirt Edblom

After the Pearl Harbor attack my father was in U.S. Army basic training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi; he wrote letters in flowing handwriting for recruits from Arkansas and Texas — ironically, my father’s first language was Japanese. Confronted by illiteracy during World War II the U.S. military distributed fourth grade-level instructional materials.

In contrast, my Uncle B. and his 100th Battalion buddies read training manuals easily and understood West Point officers who explained infantry-artillery tactics.

Another priority subject was mathematics.

Math (and electronics) would be a key factor in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team military success in Italy. My Uncle B. aimed mortars by measuring distance via azimuths to destroy enemy positions. By learning complex codes, he became a “tech whiz” to communicate to Allied troops (plantation families owned radios to listen to CBS news and my father’s friends assembled radios from Sears mail-order kits).

To embed Western/American culture, Maui High teachers organized debating clubs and proms, plus trained students to perform Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” My father’s friend’s nickname was “Cassius” (with a “lean and hungry look”).

To the students’ Japanese parents who attended the performances, the Elizabethan English dialogue was like Klingon. A few years later, my Uncle B. “bonded” with British soldiers by discussing the Bard at the Monte Cassino monastery evacuated by the German 1st Parachute Division.

Other lessons came in handy unexpectedly: When my Uncle B. landed in Naples, he read road signs and learned Italian quickly — a Maui High course was Latin, unknown now in American schools. (Maui High alums recited “Et tu Brute?” at the Roman Coliseum.)

For the post-war Hawaii economy, territorial Maui High also transmitted “revenues growth” skills. Although today we copy Silicon Valley startup models, many Maui High ’37 graduates were “entrepreneurs”: Gary Fujinaka launched auto parts stores; Chozen Kameya operated the Kameya Kafe and Market; Yukuo Hanada led Hanada Service Station on Wailuku’s Main Street; Toshio “Jeremy” Araki had Araki Taxi & U-Drive; and Angel “Shiro” Maeda managed the Air-Flo Express, a Honolulu air freight firm.

Maui High graduates were not afraid to create a new economy, shifting from the Big Five’s plantation dominance to a landscape of locally owned taxpaying small businesses.

To plantation leaders, who continued to coerce American citizens to vote for favored candidates after Pope Pius XII thanked Nisei soldiers for “saving Western civilization,” territorial Maui High subjects appeared irrelevant to working in sugar fields. However, the plantation was helpless to force teachers from Massachusetts or Michigan to change the Maui High syllabus. How did English spelling, trigonometry and Latin make better sugar cane workers?

In a parallel way, a disconnect exists between state public education and Hawaii’s 2019 economy. Why invest hard-earned taxes in computer science, engineering, or other technologies at Hawaii schools when talented graduates leave for California? In other words, why raise expectations for Hawaii children if they study Java for a software development career when there is no Hawaii tech industry?

In post-war Hawaii the Maui High experiment was ultimately subversive, especially the study of Greek city-states, the Enlightenment, and American and French revolutions — historical lessons linked to acquiring political power and creating new societal institutions.

Maui High teachers in the Territory of Hawaii followed John Dewey’s progressive philosophy that educational content allows the student to relate the information to his or her own specific environment — a radical teaching method for 1937. The outcome was that on the sugarcane train from Kahului to Paia, Maui High students planned for the territory under new political leadership — themselves.

Barely 17 years after his senior prom, my father’s ’37 classmate leveraged his “politics” lessons to “take power” throughout the territory — Dan Aoki, 442nd veteran, UH dorm-mate of U.S. Sen. Spark Matsunaga, and Gov. John A. Burns’ right-hand “political strategist,” before there was a term for his transformational role.

Maui High teachers embedded in Aoki and other visionary graduates — Patsy Mink, Tadao Beppu, Elmer Cravalho and Nadao Yoshinaga — a “skill-set” to change Hawaii society.

Without Aoki’s “grand strategy” there would be no ’54 Democratic Party election victory and no Hawaii state in ’59. Many forget today that the Big Five plantation leaders expected the territory to continue for another century.

The seeds for statehood were sown by idealistic Maui High School teachers in cool, leafy Hamakuapoko. They taught students to “see” an alternative “modern” future other than the daily reality of plantation life.

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