Photo of Frances Kakugawa giving her commencement address to Pähoa High School’s 2017 graduating class

Class of ’53 Alum Returns to Address 2017 Grads

Frances H. Kakugawa
Published with Permission

Editor’s note: Pähoa School alum and Hawai‘i Herald columnist Frances Kakugawa was invited to deliver the commencement address for her alma mater’s Class of 2017 graduating class. The school graduated about 75 students in ceremonies held May 21 at the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium in Hilo. Frances shared the text of her speech with me and, with her permission, I am sharing it with you.

Ah, Thomas Wolfe, you can go home again.

Sixty-three years ago, I sat in the bleachers in the old Pähoa School gym to receive my diploma. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be standing here. Class of 2017 . . . thank you for this honor and for bringing me home again.

To you, the graduating class, to parents, grandparents, families and friends, teachers and staff of Pähoa School and to our distinguished guests, it’s a privilege to be addressing you today.

I’m feeling very close to my years at Pähoa School, so instead of the usual commencement speeches on how this is the first day of the rest of your life kind of talk, I’m going to tell you about all the dumb and stupid things I did and how they became the most important lessons. They were the ones that really took me down the road I’ve traveled since my high school years.

Yes, I grew up in Kapoho, where we had outhouses without electricity and indoor plumbing. That outhouse, smelly as it was, was my place of refuge. It was there that I escaped to to read and get away from doing chores. No one would dare call me a second time when I would yell out, “I stay in the toilet.”

When I went to Pähoa School as a seventh grader, we still had outhouses at the school. In fact, I left more than memories at Pähoa School.

I dropped my first pair of eyeglasses in the Pähoa School outhouse. When I lifted my jacket, my glasses fell into the toilet. And it’s still there. Now that jacket, a brown corduroy jacket, was my uniform. I wore that every day to hide my undeveloped body from the boys who would whisper, “Eh, Washboard,” at my flat chest. We were all politically correct in those days because life was simpler and boys were just called rascals.

I was once suspended from fifth grade for writing a nasty letter about my teacher written all in colorful Pidgin. No, I didn’t think of swallowing the note.

And then there was the time I got caught chewing gum in class in high school. Gum chewing was a big offense.

When the teacher asked if I was chewing gum, I got my gum and tossed it out the door. Just as I tossed the gum out, the principal and the district superintendent came to the door and my gum fell on the principal’s shoe. I was so sure I was going to be suspended again. But the principal, without saying a word, pointed to his shoe and then to the trash can. I hurried to his shoe, picked up the gum and threw it in the trash can. He nodded and they walked away. I was lucky he didn’t step on it.

Years later, as a teacher, I remembered that principal and made sure my students were always allowed to correct their small mistakes rather than being punished for them. It was a dumb mistake that turned out to be one of the best lessons I ever learned because it taught me to become a better teacher, to not use punishment as a way to teach.

Even high school crushes worked to my benefit. I had a terrific crush on our counselor, who was also my social studies teacher. He reminded me of those romantic heroes in the books I was reading. I always went to class early so I could wait by the door to say “Good Morning” to him, and he would say, “What’s so good about it?” and use his foot to kick the door open. Wow! How manly and romantic!

One day, I made an appointment to see him, pretending that I wanted to talk about my future plans. He told me, “I see you as an excellent teacher someday.” I told him, “I’m not smart enough to go to college.” He quoted President [Franklin] Roosevelt: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

And because I had such a crush on him, I believed him and walked out with confidence and decided, yeah, I can go to college. Sometimes, we need only one voice to let us know that we are smart and capable. If you haven’t heard that voice yet, hear it tonight. Actually, the boys who used to call me “Washboard” were the first ones who told me secretly, “Yeah, you going college, man,” when they saw all the books in my bag. But it became a turning point in my life that day because of my great crush on the counselor.

You will walk out tonight with your own special memories. I hope some of them are slightly on the negative side because, often, they become the best of memories and lessons.

Is there anyone here who, like me, grew up thinking Kapoho and Pähoa School were places to escape from? That New York City, Paris, Hollywood, even Honolulu, were places where real glamorous living happened. I daydreamed a lot of cocktail parties and me in a long, red gown. I read a lot about life outside of Kapoho and Pähoa and could hardly wait to get out. It was this idea that Kapoho and Pähoa had nothing to offer me that led me to books.

Dreams are important. I dreamed of becoming a writer since I was 6 and held my first book at Kapoho School. Imagine what a wild dream that was for someone who only spoke pidgin. I never let that dream go, crazy as it was. It wasn’t easy. I failed my first speech course at the University [of Hawai‘i]. But I held on to that dream. When people were mean, unfair and unkind, I returned to that dream and said, “That’s OK. Someday you’ll be waiting in line to buy my book.” That dream became a tool for forgiveness. Insults strengthened that dream.

Once, I heard a group of first-generation elders in front of Uyeda Store in Kapoho talking about me. They said, “That middle Kakugawa girl, that one won’t amount to much. That one is different, not too smart.” After feeling ashamed, I got defiant and thought, ‘Someday you’ll be lining up, buying my book.”

Sure enough, one day, the Pähoa community invited me back from O‘ahu to honor me as a poet. I had a few books of poetry published by then. And guess what? At the end of the evening, I saw those elders in front of Uyeda Store standing in line to purchase my books. They bowed to me and asked me to sign a book for them. They couldn’t read English, but they each bought a book because they so honored books and authors.

It wasn’t revenge that I felt but gratitude for that day in front of Uyeda Store when they gave me the incentive to pursue my dream.

So, when things get tough, and they will, turn your dreams and future plans into a tool for forgiveness. Let all things negative turn your dreams stronger and more possible. Flow with the river that holds your name and don’t let anyone tell you you’re going to be a failure.

Life is not an easy ride, and this is how it ought to be. They taught me that the greatest lessons often come from the struggles and grief and boulders that fall in front of us. A writer once said, “If you had a perfect childhood, don’t become a writer.”

Whatever it is that you become or do with your life, whether auto mechanic or stockbroker, biologist or farmer, builder or teacher, it’s those other little things that make you special. If you let them teach you, they will be uniquely yours.

Remember the teacher I wrote nasty notes about? When I left Kapoho School, she told me, “Don’t ever stop writing. Keep on writing.” The principal who suspended me said, “Next time, just think these nasty thoughts in your head; don’t write them down.” I took those lessons with me, along with the principal who caught me listening to the World Series in the basement of Pähoa School — I was a great New York Yankees fan. When the principal found me in the basement, he took the radio to the gym and sent a note to all the teachers, inviting those interested in the World Series to go to the gym to listen to the baseball games with me.

We may not have had the best of equipment and curriculum, but we had what mattered most, and they were the teachers and administrators and our fellow classmates. One year, during prom time, a teacher sent me to Hilo and treated me to a hair permanent. Of course, the boys asked me if I had stuck my finger in the electrical socket when they saw all my curls.

Pähoa School and life after graduation taught me this: make mistakes. Mistakes turn into wisdom — if we learn from them. Mistakes are just another way of taking risks and being fearless. I don’t mean taking risks by jumping off a cliff. Taking risks to say, “Why not me?” To think outside your box in pursuing your dreams. If those dreams and grand goals mean anything, they are going to mean taking risks. The same kind you’ve taken all along without even knowing it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it won’t. Sometimes you get suspended, sometimes you get the World Series in the gym.

Passion. Remember this word. Passion. Be passionate about who you are, all of who you are. Whatever career you choose for yourself, let that come from your passion. Once, a young teacher told me she became a teacher because she wanted her summers off. I felt sorry for her and her students. Choose a job that brings meaning to your life. Not a career chosen by others — not a career based on money, fame, titles or vacation time.

Choose a job that makes you want to get up every morning, happy and so inspired to meet the day ahead. Choose to do what brings meaning to your life. If you ignore this part of you, money, fame or titles won’t make you pleased with what you see in the mirror every morning. If you can embrace all of it, you are doing the right thing and you are being true to who you really are.

We cannot imagine the kind of world that awaits you graduates. All this advancement in science and technology is already creating a world unimaginable. The politics of our country cannot be ignored, so there is a greater demand on you. In my generation, being a good citizen meant following the laws: Drive within the speed limit. Do not steal. Pay our taxes. It was so much easier then.

Today, that is not enough. There are demands that are not within our rulebooks. These demands will become your survival skill and we will depend on you to meet those demands, because whatever you do with those demands will affect the rest of us. I’m sorry we have not succeeded in creating a better world for you.

Call these demands compassion, empathy, being kind and helpful to others, honesty, being decent and generous and welcoming, even to strangers — especially to strangers who are different or who need a special helping hand. That is really the principle that must be put before all others, that humanity and compassion come before self-interest and competition.

Whatever your world, take your heart with you. Human kindness, compassion and looking out for the next person are values that will survive in any world that keeps on changing on us. And you are the one who can do this. If you can find the way to be kind to yourself for your mistakes, you will find the way to be kind to others for theirs. [Anthropologist] Margaret Mead said, “Never believe that a small group of people cannot go out and change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

For you who are entering our work force soon after graduation to become wage earners, we honor you. You are the ones we depend on in our daily life. You are the ones we rely on in restaurants, garages, hotels, markets. To you who plan to continue your education, study hard and focus on graduation, so you can return to us to make a difference. We need all of you in our daily lives. So go out and fulfill your dreams so you can make a difference in the world. Return with your knowledge and help turn your community, your own island, your own state, your own country and the planet into a better place each day,

I thank you in advance for the difference you’ll be making in our lives. You will be facing many roads in your life, just as you did these years.

Many of you graduates evacuated during the eruption, just as I did. To you who chose to return to graduate from Pähoa School, that is loyalty, and this says a lot about who you are.

You will be making many decisions. Always take the road that will make you a better human being. Once we lose our humanity, nothing else will matter much. To be able to say, “Wow, I am a good human being,” will be the most valuable accomplishment of all. It is this that your younger brothers and sisters and their children and your children will inherit from you.

There are many good people out there. Keep a place in yourself to become one of them. Be a human first, a career second. And busy as you are, make books and poetry part of your life. Find your own outhouse to read. Books help to make us more knowledgeable, more humane and wiser than we were yesterday.

To all of you in the audience, thank you for filling this auditorium with so much love and aloha. Tonight is not a one-night deal. Continue your support, continue to treat each of our graduates with respect and dignity, because someday, they will be here for you, too, with everything that they have learned from you.

I can’t leave without saying this to you. The best of us are the poet scientist, the poet attorney, the poet farmer, the poet teacher, the poet mechanic, the poet astronaut, the poet doctor, the poet CEO, the poet bus driver. The poet us.

Years from now, should I meet you on the road, I hope there will be a book of poems and a pen in your backpack or in your briefcase or in your hand. And you will tell me you have poetry books in your office or in your bedroom. And I will rejoice.

In conclusion, there is nothing more heartwarming than to hear someone ask me, “Ey, you Pähoa School grad, eh?”

Tonight, it is an honor to say to you, Class of 2017: Congratulations, go and have a fun and meaningful adventure of a life. And yeah, I’m a Pähoa School grad, too. Go Daggers!

Frances H. Kakugawa writes The Hawai‘i Herald’s monthly “Dear Frances” column on caregiving.


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