MY FIFTH GRADE classroom at Punahou, a private school in Honolulu founded by nineteenth-century Congregational ministers, was on the third floor of Castle Hall, in an airy room with big windows that Mrs. Hefty covered with blackout curtains when she showed us films. We thought nothing of the room-darkening curtains, until, one day, Mrs. Hefty explained to us that they were left over from curfew after Pearl Harbor, when everyone feared the Japanese would come back to bomb Oahu again. A veteran teacher, old-fashioned, Christian, strict, Mabel Hefty wasn’t shy about imparting history. Not one to tolerate pidgin English in her class, she insisted that each of us learn to recite Psalm 23 in the King James Version. Never one to ignore politics, she wore orange on St. Patrick’s Day, because, as she explained to us, she sided with the English in Ireland. Her voice was matter of fact; her manner old-school. When she taught sex-ed, she stood before our class of ten-year-olds and knit her fingers together to show what it was like when a man and a woman came together, wanting a baby. Nobody laughed.
SIX YEARS BEFORE she taught my class, Mabel Hefty had taught a boy named Barack Obama who grew up to name her as his favorite teacher for her ability to make “every single child feel special.” To Mrs. Hefty, special did not simply mean loved—special meant singular. This was a particularly strong message to her diverse students. Mrs. Hefty’s students were Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian, Korean, Tongan, white, and, more often than that, hapa, a combination of many races and traditions. On the surface, our classroom looked like a melting pot. A girl with honey blond hair, cafe-au-lait skin, and green eyes might say proudly, “I’m part Hawaiian, part Portuguese, part Chinese, and part Irish.” And, yet, despite this melding of cultures—indeed, because of it—we were all struggling to define ourselves and find a place in the world. What did it mean to live in Hawaii—especially for those of us who had no native Hawaiian ancestry? Were we immigrants? Invaders? Americans? These questions now frame Obama’s campaign.
OBAMA IS A singular presidential candidate, a galvanizing force for the younger generation of Democrats and independents. He’s had a short political life—necessarily scant in accomplishments and compromises, and rich in symbolism. He speaks as a man with an unusual personal history: “My father ... grew up herding goats ... my mother ... was born in a town on the other side of the world, in Kansas.” He speaks as a newcomer, an achiever, the embodiment of the American dream. His story excites his audiences, as does his savvy understanding of a historical moment in which Mainland America seems poised to catch up to the Hawaii of his youth.
TO ENVISION A WORLD where racial identity is more fluid, where men and women are more mobile, and where segregation is a thing of the past is not to envision a post-racial world. Obama knows this, as anyone who has lived in Hawaii must. The lovely tropical home of so many diverse people is not beyond distinctions—it is all about them. Tensions simmer between native Hawaiians and newcomers. The rich layered cultures of Polynesia, Asia, and America bump up against bigotry and ignorance, often voiced in racist jokes and sometimes expressed in physical violence. Punahou’s student body is multicultural, and its financial aid generous. But, for some, Punahou symbolizes exclusive privilege. More than once when I was a student there, rough kids from outside breached the walls. Teachers sounded the alarm: “The mokes are on campus again”—the word “mokes” designating kids who were native and poor. They’d come with pipes or with their fists and scare a few students and administrators, but sporadic displays of anger were no match for Punahou, with its wealth of resources and manicured grounds. The kids’ protest was sad, and the gap between their opportunities and ours was sadder.
HONOLULU IS NO utopia; its socioeconomic climate is far from Edenic. However, Honolulu’s complexity and diversity are great gifts for a reflective future leader. To grow up in Hawaii is to see the United States from the inside and the outside. The inside view comes from pride in statehood and military tradition. Long before September 11, residents of Hawaii knew what foreign attack was like and valued American protection—Pearl Harbor remains a vital piece of Hawaiian history. The outside view of the United States comes from geographic distance. The Hawaiian islands stand as tiny meeting points for immigrants from Japan, China, Korea, the Philippines, and the far reaches of Polynesia. Hawaii is an outpost among many nations, not a state connected by highways to other states. As a meeting place, the islands are cosmopolitan. As an isolated island chain, the islands are also parochial. The haves in Hawaii travel and see the world. The have-nots, many of them native Hawaiians, lack the means to get away. To grow up in Hawaii is to envision the future of a multiracial society, and also to view up close the disappointment of those left behind.
HOW WILL OBAMA convert his colorful background into action? How will his Hawaiian experience with race and class inform his decisions? It’s impossible to say now. But Obama did have Mrs. Hefty’s endorsement. Before she died, Mrs. Hefty reportedly told her daughter, “I know he’s going to be somebody.” Who would Obama be? For a start, perhaps, he would become a little like his favorite teacher. Shrewd and dramatic, he would mesmerize audiences with his confidence in his own story. He would speak of his background without apology, and without notes. He’d strive to make each voter feel special. He would always remember his time at Punahou. And he would know Psalm 23, with its credo of private conviction and public destiny: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. ... Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou anointest my head with oil ...” He’d know those lines by heart.
This article appeared in the February 13, 2008 issue of the Magazine.