By Alan D. McNarie
I was struck recently by two random items encountered on Facebook. One was a thread about the lack of a football program at Pahoa High and Intermediate School; there was a spirited exchange of views, both for and against football, in which one participant cursed and threatened those, including myself, who expressed opposing views.
The other was an announcement of an online petition by two Pahoa teachers, Susan Anderson and Virginia Aste, asking the state to fill Pahoa High and Intermediate’s long-vacant school librarian position. (http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/senator-russel-ruderman.fb62?source=s.icn.fb&r_by=8213965)
“Pahoa High and Intermediate School has not had a School Librarian for the past five years and could benefit from services that most Hawaii public school students enjoy. Students begin post-secondary experiences already at a great disadvantage: they don’t know how to use a library. As educators, we are demanding equity for all Pahoa area students that they may have universal access to educational resources,” reads the petition.
I know where my natural sympathies lie. I don’t live in Pahoa, but I went to school in the football-mad Midwest, and as a lifelong nerd, I suffered for it. I’d love to have gone to a school with no football. From my perspective, the football programs at J. C. Penney High School in Hamilton, Missouri promoted a chauvinistic, sexist caste system that celebrated physical prowess in men and physical beauty in women, with the female cheerleaders in a segregated, subordinate role to the all-male football team. The coaches touted their programs’ roles in building students’ “character”—yet they themselves tended to be the most socially unbalanced people in the school: authoritarians at best and outright bullies at worst, whose ideal of society was everyone doing what they said. One of them even stabbed another teacher with a fork for reaching across the table in front of him.
I quickly learned that, however much the English teacher taught the value of logical argumentation, it was not to be practiced in front of a coach. And that made sense, in an odd way, since in the coach’s world the entire school’s self-esteem rested on the ability of a few boys (under his control) to move 100 yards while carrying the abstract representation of a cow’s stomach, while pretty girls on the sidelines shouted bad poetry. (“Two bits! Four bits! Six bits! A dollar! All for the Big Blue, stand up an Hollar!”)
But the winners and losers weren’t just on the playing field. Unfortunately, much of the school body was convinced that their self-esteem really did rest on the ability of a few boys to carry that oblong ball a hundred yards. That worked okay when the team was winning—but when it was losing, the whole student body suffered.
And at least at J.C. Penney High, those of us who didn’t respect or fit into this system were disrespected, derided—and all too frequently beaten up. The locker room was a place of fear for me and others who valued our brains over our brawn. The coaches, of course, disciplined the bullies if they caught them—but they also provided examples for the bullies to follow, and the beaten up were often disciplined right along with the beaters. And I strongly suspect J.C. Penney High was not exceptional in this regard. For me and many other kids, athletics was a negative—though in later life I learned to love hiking and bicycling and participated in Aikido clubs, and today am probably much more fit than the average American in his late 50s.
And of course, my refuge, my favorite place in the entire school, was the library. I devoured books at the rate of several a week. I learned at least as much from those books, maybe more, than I did from classroom assignments. For me, the athletics program was a negative lesson—what not to do, what not But books opened me up to whole new worlds, whole new possibilities.And the ability to read, to do research, to explore facts and ideas, is just as valuable to future employment as the ability to be a “team player.” But books opened up whole new worlds for me, and led to their own skills—literacy, research, the ability to grasp facts and put them together into knowledge—that were just as important in the workplace as teamwork and discipline are.
Still I know that for some, athletics really is a positive thing for those who do fit in the system. That bully on the Facebook page kept insisting that the important thing was his keiki—he probably had a very positive experience in high school football, and wanted the same chance for his kids.
Sadly, Pahoa High and Intermediate students are being deprived of both those systems and their potentials. They should have those opportunities and perhaps something even better. It might be possible to create a football program without all the negatives—though I think there’s a huge momentum to create the same old stuff. But certainly there are other team activities that can boost school morale just as well. A few years ago, I covered a poetry slam at Pahoa High that had students cheering just as wildly as at any pep rally. The same can be said for volleyball or basketball or any number of other activities. But those activities, those possibilities, need to be there—as rich and abundant as possible—though, in the school’s defense, it does have athletic teams in 36 other sports. But this school and its students are being cheated of some basic possibilities, and it has been for a long time. And they aren’t the only ones. Puna may be an extreme case, but in outlying districts across the state, the nerds aren’t getting to be best they could be, and the jocks aren’t either. That needs to change.
So sign that petition for the librarian. Lobby for a football team if you want. But get your legislators’ attention, for the children’s sake. Deprived kids in lower Puna (or anywhere else) are a weight on all of us. It has to stop.
But please, people: Play fair and respect each other. The friggin’ bullying also has to stop, too.
(Alan McNarie has been reporting on Big Island issues for two decades. As Senior Contributing Writer, then Senior Contributing Editor at Ka’u Landing and its successor the Hawaii Island Journal, McNarie became known for in-depth investigative stories on such issues as the proposed Ka’u prison, the continuing East Hawai’i garbage crisis, the problems with Puna Geothermal and the influence of outside money on local elections. He’s also done investigative reporting for Honolulu Weekly, Big Island Weekly and the Hawaii Independent, and feature stories for Hana Hou and Ke Ola. He’s published a few dozen poems and one novel, Yeshua, which won the Editor’s Book Award in 1991.)