Monday, February 24, 2020

Hawaii Aloha in the heartland

If you had the chance to teach a class on whatever subject you wanted for one week, what would you teach? That question was one I had the opportunity to answer for myself last week at the public high school where I’m working this academic year. For one week, regular classes are suspended, and teachers and students can create and take classes on anything from cake decorating to calligraphy, in-depth analysis of the musical Hamilton and even-more-in-depth analysis of the cartoon Spongebob. It’s how school would be if “learning solely for the sake of learning” really were a thing and not just wistful idealism from teachers hearing for the zillionth time, “Is this going to be on the test?”

Colleagues gave me a few suggestions based on what they knew of my background—novel writing, marathon running, parrot training—but I’ve found that there are often substantial differences between what you know, what you enjoy, and what you can teach. I’ve taught a lot of creative writing classes already; I wanted to do something different. I love running but I’d hardly consider myself expert enough to teach a class about it, plus with both those subjects, writing and running, if you’re talking about it, you aren’t actually doing it, and I’d infinitely prefer the latter. As for parrot training, well, I wrote a whole book about just how bad I am at that. I suppose that counts as expertise of a sort, but still I wanted to do something else.

It’s February in central Illinois. Everything is a dull greyish brown. It’s cold, dark, and dreary. I decided to teach a class about Hawaii.

I would hardly call myself an expert on that subject either; I was born and raised there but haven’t been back in a long time, and I’m not native Hawaiian, which means my views on history, culture, and language—the focus of my class—remain the views of an outsider. But as the week neared, I began to think of all sorts of mini-lessons to cover and fun activities to do, beginning with the single most important fact of all: pineapple pizza is not Hawaiian. The pineapple is not native to Hawaii; it was brought in as a cash crop, and not one meant to go with mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce. Please, people. Stop the madness.

Teaching something for the first time, you never know what’s going to go over well and what isn’t. Hawaiian language lessons went so-so; the students had fun creating their names in Hawaiian, and they gamely learned the song I taught them, though their shyness and my mediocre musical ability meant a half-hearted rendition at best. They were much more enthusiastic about making tapa cloth designs on brown paper lunch bags. The ancient Hawaiians didn’t have wool or cotton or any typical fibers, so they used the bark of certain kinds of trees, pounded to flexibility to make cloth. The cloth was brown, so to make it more interesting, intricate geometrical designs were painted on it. I showed the class samples of tapa cloth designs and let them do their own crafting. This was an activity I had done when I was a lot younger than they are, but sometimes the very thing a person of any age needs is to grab some crayons and get to coloring.

Even more interest was generated by the talk I gave about the Hawaiian royalty, much to my surprise, especially the last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani. Her name means “the salt air of heaven,” which may sound odd at first, but if you’ve ever been to an ocean beach, you notice right away that the air is different, briny from the spray but still invigorating, refreshing. The Queen’s name thus suggested a deep, cleansing breath on a heavenly beach. Now that’s a name.

The Queen herself was an amazing woman, highly educated, talented, much revered by her people. She wrote the well-known song “Aloha Oe,” which seems like a simple song about lovers parting but is often poignantly suggested as the Queen’s farewell to the old Hawaii she loved. When the U.S. decided Hawaii would make a nice addition to its domain, you see, government officials went through the motions of negotiations before imprisoning her in the royal palace for ten months while they took over and made the islands their official territory. Locked in her room in Iolani Palace, the Queen knew this was the end. “Aloha Oe”—“farewell to thee”—was composed during this time. As the Queen was a talented artist as well as musician, she further crafted an intricate quilt—but not just any quilt. Embedded in the bits of cloth were protest messages expressing her unhappiness with the events that had unfolded, messages for her people.

The students were fascinated by this “protest quilt,” and by the end of the week, we pasted our brown paper bag “tapa cloth” rectangles onto a posterboard to make a sort of quasi-quilt of our own, in honor of the Queen, interspersed with everyone’s Hawaiian names. I’m not an art teacher, a history teacher, a language teacher, or a music teacher (though I can almost play four whole chords on the ukulele without my fingers slipping up), but still I think I’ll call this week a success. It’s midwinter in the Midwest, and yet, at least fleetingly, I got back to Hawaii.