Sharing Aloha in our public schools.
Monday, October 26, 2015
Last week I had the great privilege of teaching/sharing Hawaiian music and culture at a public elementary school out in Howard Beach, New York. My friends lovingly refer to it as the “far out school.” But not in a Greg Brady or John Denver kind of “far out” way. See, this school is about a two hour commute from my apartment. To get there, I’ve got to take the subway for about an hour and then walk approximately 1.5 miles to get to the school through neighborhoods and over footbridge that crosses a busy highway. In previous years, I’ve visited this school in the scorching heat and humidity of early summer as well as the freezing cold of deep winter with icicles hanging from my nose.
But this school is a favorite place to teach/share Hawaiian music and culture. The students and the faculty celebrate music and diverse cultures. This was my third year acting as a visiting teacher via Midori & Friends, the non-profit music education organization I work with. When I walked through the door last Monday, it was a homecoming of sorts. (And they always make me feel like a rock star!)
When they ask if I can come and do a residency, the answer is always a resounding YES.
Did I mention that at this school I work with the kindergarten classes? Yup. All of ‘em. That means I’m sharing Hawaiian music and culture with about 110 students, all of ‘em about five years old. It’s like doing four back-to-back high energy shows every day. (It reminds me of college-age summers when I performed at a theme park.) It’s wild. It’s exhausting.
And it’s one of the most soul-fulfilling experiences of my life.
It dawned on me a little while ago that most of these kids have only been on the planet for about five years. They haven’t seen all of the touristy photos and movies about Hawai’i that are circulating among the masses. They’re not familiar with with the postcard “paradise” images that so many people associate with the Hawaiian islands–and that’s a blessing. (For one thing, I don’t have to spend as much time convincing them that Hawai’i is real place with real people and not just drowsy-eyed ’ukulele strummers sitting under coconut trees or majestic surfer dudes riding the waves with ladies sitting on their shoulders.)
For a lot of them, I am giving them their first taste of the islands and traditional Hawaiian culture. (But you know, no worries. No pressure or anything!) I have the privilege/honor/kuleana of introducing them to Hawai’i.
I bring my ‘ukulele. I bring maps. I bring lots and lots of photos. I share lots and lots of stories. One of the perks of being an “outsider who became an insider” of Hawai’i and her culture is that I’ve done everything–and I mean everything–wrong at some point. I’ve stumbled and stammered and put my foot in my mouth more times than I care to disclose. So when I tell them about Hawai’i, I share it from the perspective of a fellow newbie/neophyte. We laugh a lot. I try to make them feel like we’re all learning together.
We sing songs, both traditional school kid-kine songs and my own original compositions. This year, I wanted to write a new song about Hōkūleʻa and how the canoe will be visiting New York City in 2016. I wanted the kids to have a song they could carry and simple hula they could dance–something to share with the crew if they went to visit the boat. (Songs and hulas are free and portable. You can’t beat that!)
I really struggled with the song at first, wanting to make it perfect, wanting to write something profound. But it came down to this: I needed to create something simple and relatable for these kids. I wanted to share 2 things: Hōkūleʻa is sailing around the world. She’s carrying a message of Mālama Honua, taking care of the earth. Once I got my ego out of the way (Imagine standing in front of the Hōkūleʻa crew with throngs of students all singing the song and doing the simple hula!) the song basically wrote itself. A simple song. A simple hula. And an opportunity to discuss how we all have the responsibility to mālama honua.
All week long, we sang and danced ourselves silly. We laughed at stories of the goofy things that Uncle Jason has done in Hawaiʻi, about being afraid of lizards in the house, about getting a bellyache from eating too much inamona.
I told them about Hālawa Valley and its lifestyle that is so much like the traditonal lifestyle of Hawaiʻi long ago. We talked about how Mom and Pops Solatorio adopted me into their family, how I look different from all of their children, how ʻohana is family based on feeling instead of bloodline.
I gave them a very basic introduction to the Hawaiian language.
And these kids! Ah! I’ll tell you, they’re so wonderful they can make your knees buckle with their smiles and enthusiasm.
There are kids in the classroom who don’t speak English very well. But you’d be amazed to see that these are the same little kids who give you a shaka and an “Aloha, Uncle Jason!” every morning when you greet them. There are other kids who are part of the special needs program who shock me by coming up to me and saying, “Uncle Jason, did you know there are three ways to say Hawai’i (Ha-WHY-ee, Ha-WAH-ee and Ha-VAI-ee) and also I love you.”
And when I walked down the halls of the schools in between classes, I felt like a celebrity. Those shining faces with bright eyes, those little hands giving me a shaka wave and their voices ringing out, “Aloha, Uncle Jason!”
Come on! Does it get any better than that?
On Friday, all four of the classes gathered in the school’s auditorium for our big “show.” My friend, Kaina, came to dance hula for them. And they were so excited to share the songs and keiki hulas they’d learned with her! Imagine a school’s auditorium, nearly-filled to capacity with kindergarten students (and some fifth graders who’d recently done a report on Hawai’i), all singing and dancing.
Incredible. It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it.
You know, I freaked out a little bit when Pops gave me the title of Kumu Hawaii a few years ago, when he said, “Now it’s YOUR turn to be a teacher.” I asked him what I was supposed to do with that heavy responsibility. I hadn’t grown up in Hawai’i. I didn’t think anyone would want to learn from someone like me.
But that’s where I was wrong. I was hung up on my skin color, my background, the fact that I’m not Hawaiian. He had trained me and tested me. He trusted me. I needed to trust myself.
And I remind myself of that every time I do a new residency, every time I have the opportunity to share what’s been so graciously and lovingly shared with me.
When I walked away from the school on Friday, I knew that I’d planted seeds of Aloha. Some would grow. Some might not. Some kids may remember my name someday. Some might not. But I’ll bet a lot of them will remember that a man came to their school when they were kids and he brought an ‘ukulele and wore wild shirts and leis. He sang songs and taught them to hula. And he taught them that Aloha doesn’t mean “Hi” or “Goodbye” but it really means, “I love you my friend.”
And if that’s all that they remember, then I’ve done my job.
A blessing, indeed.
Mahalo for that, kids.
4 Responses to “Sharing Aloha in our public schools.”
Leave a Reply