Teacher with arm around student
Kaala (left) would like to see more culturally responsive teachers like Kevin Sun (Hawai'i '14) in schools across the state. (PHOTO: Anais Gude)

Wanted in Hawai'i: More Teachers Who Value My Culture and Identity

As AAPI Heritage Month continues, a high school student explains the need for teachers to make his fellow young scholars believe that their identity matters—especially in a place as culturally diverse as Hawai'i.
Thursday, May 26, 2016

My name is Kaala Petrill-Abrojina. I am 17 years old and a rising senior at Ka'u High School on the Island of Hawai'i—the “big” island. Most importantly, I am a Hawaiian. I am the only boy in my family with three sisters, my mom, and my grandmother, so there is a lot expected of me. I take care of my sisters, do work, and be flexible with my time all while balancing my other life as a teenager, a boyfriend, and a friend.

This year was a wake-up call straight out of The Matrix, where Neo took the red pill and saw how the world was not what he originally thought. I found out I'm actually being oppressed by mechanical human farmers. Just joking.

In reality, I feel like my people and I are being oppressed by society and its institutions. Schools teach us that we all have an equal opportunity, but the truth is as a Hawaiian, I do not. Unless we are completely fluent in proper English, proficient in subjects that have little to no connection to my cultures and traditions, this equal opportunity is little more than a myth.

But amid this harsh realization, I also found my true identity, and Mr. Kevin Sun '14 (who was recently named a finalist for the Sue Lehmann Teaching and Learning Fellows) helped me do that. As a young, poor Hawaiian male, the sad truth is that at only 17 years old, I am being set up to not be all that I possibly dream to be. And it didn't start just yesterday; it's been this way for generations—throughout my years of schooling, my parents’ schooling, and long before that.

For example, my Hawaiian identity matters to me, but until recently, I was cheated out of my own language, culture, practices, and traditions. Public schools across the state do not take these into account. This is Hawai'i and yet, we only have one class that teaches us about Hawaiian history in high school.

Student addressing classmates in front of class
(PHOTO: Anais Gude)

The educational system as a whole remains un-accommodating to my people. People of color here speak English, but they also speak Hawaiian Pidgin English, and several other languages. However, not all of them seem to be valued or accepted. When English is the only language allowed for a standardized test like the ACT, it sends the message that our languages aren’t as valued in America—that one set of Western values has greater importance than the one I have at home. When you’re trying to accomplish your goals in life, that’s quite an internal conflict to be battling. “Success” or identity?

But I see myself going to college now after having Mr. Sun's class because of the mind set I developed in his classroom. College is a space for me as a Hawaiian to develop my voice, and Mr. Sun really made that clear. He emphasizes that we have the power to make our lives great, and then he teaches us how to get there. He educates us about the obstacles we’ll face, but more importantly, how we can face them.

Above all, he doesn’t sugarcoat the situation. Whether you’re white or a person of color, he teaches all his students that you don’t have to accept everything in America as is. If you feel like you and your values are being treated as expendable in the system, you should stand up for yourself and question what you feel isn’t right. In the future, I see myself as an activist and advocate for the uneducated, those in denial, and the unfortunate Hawaiians who don't use their voice.

I have a message for those of you Teach For America teachers who are staying here beyond your two-year commitment, and for those who are thinking of joining TFA to teach students like me. It matters greatly for us when you’re open about yourself. Building honest connections with your students will make a world of difference for them. Show them where you stand and express your feelings beyond the words of the textbook. Demonstrate how you can help us, and how we can help ourselves.

In the future, I hope to see more Hawaiians in power. A true kanaka maoli is someone who takes pride in being Hawaiian and wants what's truly best for the Hawaiian people regardless of the system in place. Teachers need to make students believe that their identity matters in a country where what’s idealized doesn’t always reflect it. Like Mr. Sun, they can do that by being honest and not denying a diversity of perspectives.

Learn more about our Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Initiative.

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