It’s graduation season, and Läna‘i High and Elementary School recently held its commencement ceremony for the Class of 2014. This year, 37 proud seniors received their diplomas. Every weekend since graduation, Läna‘i City has been bustling with neighborhood block parties and huge celebrations at the various community halls around town.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Läna‘i, it is that people here know how to throw a mean party. Similar to other rural areas, it seems like the whole town shows up, whether they received a formal invitation or not. And everyone pitches in to help. Aunties and uncles help prepare and serve food, and cousins, nieces and nephews are on decoration duty and assist with set-up and breakdown. Folks donate their time and talent to dance hula, play music or emcee. Celebrations in a small town, whether it’s a graduation party, baby lü‘au or wedding, feel extra special because they truly are community events.
The commencement speaker at this year’s LHES graduation was my big boss, Kurt Matsumoto, who is the chief operating officer of Pülama Läna‘i, the company that billionaire Larry Ellison formed to operate the island when he purchased it in 2011. Kurt’s speech was honest, moving and inspirational. It made me think back to my years at Kaimukï High School. I didn’t realize it when I was 14 years old and consumed with boys, football games and homework, but my high school years were probably the best years of my life. Things were easy, albeit filled with drama, mainly because of how I am. But I didn’t have to worry about paying bills, saving for the future or watching my diet. I could eat Funyun chips and drink a Mountain Dew every morning for breakfast and not gain a single pound. Studying for quizzes for Japanese class and finishing essays for English class were the most taxing things on my mind, next to worrying about who was going to be my date for the prom and what I was going to wear, of course.
I have so many fond memories of high school, like the time seven of us piled into my friend’s mom’s beat-up sedan like sardines stuffed in a can and drove all the way out to Nänäkuli to cheer on our Bulldogs’ football team. Nobody could accuse us of being fair-weather fans since our team lost just about every game. But win or lose, rain or shine, we were always there. We pulled the same clown-car routine when we cruised down Kaläkaua Avenue, burning gas every Friday night. Good thing we were all less than 100 pounds. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure what was so exciting about seeing the same cars and the same people cruise the streets for two hours straight, but back then, we thought we were pretty cool, even though we were practically sitting on each other’s laps.
I also spent half of my teenage years at “Walls” at Waikïkï Beach, bombing off the end of the wall and body boarding during the summertime when there was a south swell. My friends and I would pool our money and buy a couple of Jumbo Jacks from the Jack in the Box across the street and we’d hang out all day until the sun went down. Those were the best days. All of our fun was outdoors. I wouldn’t be caught dead watching TV on a nice sunny day. That was like punishment for us. Instead, we created our own fun —we went hiking in Pälolo Valley, drove out to Waimea Bay and jumped off the cliffs, caught the bus to Kahala Mall to watch movies, and hung out at Crane Park and walked to the old Himuro Store to buy frozen ICEEs.
But I’ll be the first to admit that I was no angel; I wasn’t always occupying my time with innocent fun. I was a rowdy, hardheaded teenager who was rebellious at times and didn’t always appreciate the good things and loving people in my life. When I think back to all the stress and worry I caused my mom and dad, I still can’t believe they didn’t disown me. Remember that campaign from the ’80s and ’90s that warned adults about the negative effects of shaken baby syndrome? I think I could have been the poster child for that public service campaign because God knows — and my parents will attest to it — that I needed a good shaking throughout my adolescence. My parents ran a tight ship — if I didn’t like the rules and chose not to follow them, they reminded me constantly that I could find someplace else to live. I hope I don’t get bachi and end up having a daughter who is as stubborn and strong-willed as I was back then. It’s a good thing my husband was an easy-going child and teenager — maybe his good karma will balance things out.
Somehow, I made it through high school, and then it was time to enter the real world. I still remember my aunty telling me on the day I graduated: “The gravy train is over!”
For my freshman year of college, I moved to San Francisco — a fear-filled 17-year-old. I felt so out of place. Everyone else was bigger and so much more experienced, having grown up on the Mainland. There I was — no friends, not much money to do anything, just trying to find myself.
In his commencement address, Kurt told the seniors that life outside of Läna‘i and Hawai‘i would seem scary at first, but in time, as things become more familiar, they will develop more confidence. I could relate to that.
At first, I was overwhelmed and intimidated to be on a campus with 26,000 other students. People told me I had an accent. By that, I assumed they meant my pidgin. I didn’t have nice jackets and boots like everyone else, and I got sick of eating hamburgers and mashed potatoes in the cafeteria after the first week.
Many of us local kids think we are at a disadvantage because we grew up and were educated in Hawai‘i, a mere dot on the map when compared to the rest of the United States and the world. But Kurt told this year’s graduating class that being raised in an environment in which diversity is celebrated and where the small things in life, such as being a good neighbor, count more than what kind of car you drive and is a huge advantage. Going to school in Hawai‘i, he said, means that in addition to the standard, required educational curriculum that everyone receives, local kids also learn about respecting our elders, being humble, sharing and valuing the opinions of others, even when they’re different from our own.
The concept of being a good neighbor really hit home for me. In my grandparents’ neighborhood in Käne‘ohe, where my mom and her siblings grew up, neighbors still look out for one another and often go beyond the call of duty, whether you like it or not. It seems like you can’t do anything on that street without the entire block knowing about it. They know when your relatives come over for dinner by the number of cars in the driveway, and when you’ve been putting in extra hours at work because your yard is overgrown.
It’s exactly like that on Läna‘i times 10. You can’t go anywhere here without being seen: People know your car, where you work and in what activities your kids are involved. If you’re a teenager who is up to no good, everyone knows about it, and the adults in this community are not shy about putting you back in your place. To me, that’s the way it should be. If everyone were a good neighbor, we wouldn’t have the kinds of problems we have with truancy, drugs and kids making bad decisions.
Läna‘i is a great community in which to raise a family. It’s a small town and life is quaint and simple. But that’s what makes it so special. There’s no Dave and Busters or Ala Moana, so you learn to create your own fun. Families spend the weekends at the beach, or hunting, hiking or barbecuing outside, and there are lots of activities and organizations to get involved in that reinforce the strong sense of community that is so important here.
When I looked at this year’s graduates, with their bright eyes and big dreams, it made me emotional. I thought of how proud their parents must be on such a momentous day. I thought about how the seniors must have been feeling to know that they were now alumni — not students — of Läna‘i High and Elementary School. And I thought about all of the opportunities and adventures that lay ahead for these 37 young adults. Even though I graduated from high school 16 years ago, I still often look at life and the world through those same 17-year-old eyes. I am excited about learning, traveling and seeing the world, meeting great people and creating opportunities to make a difference in my community. I hope that feeling never fades.
Shara Enay Birbirsa resides on the island of Läna‘i, where she is Pulama Läna‘i’s liaison with the island’s community. Shara is a former writer for The Hawai‘i Herald and Hawai‘i Business magazine. She has been writing this Drama Queen Journals column since 2006.