How to listen: Stories of a Hawaiian student

A story about listening, from the archives of my teaching in the middle of the Pacific. We often say that children have so much to teach us; however, talking is not what creates change: it is listening and learning. This excerpt from my role as an educator will be included in Start Now, Love, a little guide to keep going. – Kate

Brains storming.  A component of writing that is essential, whether acknowledged, or not. For some it happens easily, for some a struggle.  Huddled over their work, in a fluorescently lit, tan cinder-block room, the none-too convinced class of community-college writers awaited their next wrestling match.

            I had been teaching writing, in one form or another, for a decade. I was still adjusting to the fact that I had been doing anything for a decade, professionally, but that’s another story. On the Mainland, as the contiguous United States are called in Hawai’i, I had wrangled minds into the finer arts of language and writing. The concepts were the same; now, however, my playing field contained coconut trees and luscious greenery.

“Okay, so  the important part is not to censor yourself,” I scanned the eyes that peered back at me. “Just write whatever comes to mind, and keep writing. Good, bad, ugly, makes-no-sense,” a couple threw me some chuckles, “just keep writing.     Your topic to brainstorm, both sides of the argument: Taking Art Out of the Schools.”

            A few groans escaped, as I continued, “What would someone say that would advocate the schools saying. And advocate means…?”

            “Argue for,” a voice offered.

            “Right. Who would argue for, or advocate, to keep the Art in schools. And then, who or – what would the reasons be – to argue that art doesn’t need to stay in schools?” Then heads went down, the pencils started, and I began making my laps of paper-peering.

            Heated scribbles, waning sighs, and labored breathing were among the indications that the students had begun. One student, I shall call him Koa, was clearly thinking, but nothing was moving into form. It was only the second week of classes, but I had already come to admire this student: strong, intelligent, independent and kind.

           I slipped into a chair next to him and asked,   “So–?” with a my leading pause.

            “I can’t think of anything, Miss.”

            “No?” I thought of the countless times that I had given this prompt on the Mainland, and students promptly spit back their utilitarian answers.

            “No – I mean, I know that you are asking, and I know why you would want me to think of something, but I don’t agree…”

            Intrigued, I cocked my head to the side.

            “I mean, you want me to say why someone would want to pull art out – right?”

            “Yes,” I answered. “Now, Koa..I am not asking you to agree with art being taken out – “

            “Yeah, but you are asking me to imagine why someone would tell you that it is ok to take art out?”


           “Yeah, see that’s the problem.  I know,” Koa continued, “that you want me to say, that it saves money and that everyone is not an artist, and stuff like that…”

           “Yesssss,” I repeated, hearing my own predictability. “But – you don’t have to believe the reasons; it’s just a way to see what the other side would say, so you can predict their argument. See it from both sides, and understand…”

          “That’s it, Miss,” Koa switched gears, to explain to his teacher. “Ok, so someone would say, ‘Take art out of schools, because not everyone is an artist.’”

          I shook my head.

          “See, I don’t think that is true. I think everyone is an artist. And people think they aren’t good at art because they sat next to some kid that was better than them, or someone told them they were bad.”

           I exhaled.

          “See, there is always going to be someone that is better than you, but it doesn’t mean that you aren’t good at Art. You could play ukulele, do ceramics, draw – everyone can create something.”

           I listened.

          “And, maybe the teacher thought there was only one way, or they liked one style better than another, so then the kid thinks he’s crap – Sorry, Miss – but it’s not true. It’s just one teacher’s opinion.”

          I drank Koa’s every word.

         “And because this kid thinks he’s no good, then he just decides that art isn’t needed. Or maybe that art doesn’t make money, but art helps everything. If you sing, you dance, you draw, whatevah (his Pidgin slipped in) — then that makes you a more well rounded person, and that leads to things, too. It’s not just the one step of money, or whatevah, like Math or writing…it’s not just one thing.. I just don’t agree –”

        This, to me is the practically imperceptible difference of Hawaii: When tourists land here, they breath in the air; they soak in the sun; they pull in the beauty, but they can’t pinpoint the one thing that is unmistakably, Hawaiian.  And this twenty-something who was returning to school, after being out for ten years and waitering-car-parking-tourist-catering service jobs, until realizing he would need his own business to afford a home on the island that me loved, served up to me, the aloha difference. Just a sliver. I, in reality, was a tourist, too, although I lived here, and  am sure there is a depth that I may never access. But in this moment, I was listening.

       Life was not just about the creation for consumption. Life was more. There is value in beauty – look out the window – there is value in song – listen to the pules- there is value in who you are, as you, for you. Just being you. Expression is a product of living; creating beauty was what the island of Kauai was all about. Beauty around. Beauty within. Respect for all. Hō‘ihi.

       I wanted to rush this man, with the brilliance and innocence of a loved child, and hold him in gratefulness, then clone him, and send him all over the Mainland, and plead and pray that people would actually hear what it was that he was saying.

      What I did: was smile. What else could I do? I smiled. I shook my head and gratefully, graciously, accepted “defeat.”

     “You don’t have to.”

     “What, Miss?” Koa asked.

“Just  – you don’t have to. You don’t have to bother with the other side. I hear you.”

“No, Miss, I can if you want I just was saying–”

And our eyes met, and I hope – although I will never know-  that Koa saw my gratitude and admiration. I hoped,  and still do, that he will be heard, in the quiet way he will live his life on this beautiful Kaua`i, land of boundless gifts, by anyone who is able to listen.

The moment broke, and I muttered, “Just, just go ahead with your thesis. You’re done brainstorming.”

“Alright Miss,” he chuckled. “Whatevah you say.”

Sign up to be notified when Kate Brenton’s new book Start Now, Love will be available. Click here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *