Thursday, August 7, 2014

Getting Schooled

In recent years, the American education system's efforts to "teach to the test" or insist on a "common core" approach to curriculum have been met with hostility from parents and teachers alike. While classroom instructors have frequently been demonized as lazy, ineffectual, and presumably overpaid babysitters (who are often charged with the responsibility of educating obnoxious, obstreperous, and outsourced offspring), few critics have ever dealt with the reality of standing in front of a classroom for a protracted period of time. It ain't easy.

In his recent article on The Huffington Post, Peter Greene delivered a brutal reality check on what it's like to have one's professional life tyrannized by Teacher Time. With all of the pressures that fall on a teacher's shoulders, it should come as no surprise that no two teachers are exactly alike.
  • Some are beautiful, others look beastly.
  • Some befriend their students, others berate them.
  • Some are merely bland, others are downright boring.
  • Some are benign, others tend toward bombastic and bellicose behavior.
In an idealized situation (where all expenses are borne by the royal court and the king's wives and concubines are on hand to act as teacher's aides), an educator need not worry about class size or concealed weapons. In the 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The King and I, a teacher could delight in the simple joy of being taught by her pupils.

Students are often far more perceptive than school administrators might like to believe (anyone who has worked as a substitute teacher can offer up their fair share of horror stories). However, because of a teacher's unique position as a role model (and, hopefully, an inspiration), a good teacher can light a fire under a student's intellect which will help that child view life as a grand adventure rather than a quest for vengeance.

When teachers are graded on their performance, there is rarely enough time to assess the out-of-classroom impact they might have on students as a result of such intangible qualities as personality, patience, tone of voice, and willingness to listen.

When the term "special ed" enters the conversation, many assume it refers to the learning challenges faced by developmentally disabled students. They rarely stop to consider the plight of teachers who might be struggling with a unique constellation of challenges in their personal lives.

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Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu is one such teacher. Educated at Kamehameha Schools and the University of Hawaiʻi, she is currently the Cultural Director at Hālau Lōkahi (a public charter school dedicated to using Native Hawaiian culture, history, and education as tools for developing and empowering the next generation of warrior scholars).

The protagonist of an extremely moving documentary that was shown at the 2014 Frameline Film Festival, she is also a founding member of -- and outreach specialist for -- Kulia Na Mamo, a community organization established to improve the quality of life for māhū wahine (transgender women). In Kumu Hina, filmmakers Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson focus their attention on this unique dance teacher as she shares her strength and wisdom with her students. As the film's creative team explains:
"Kumu Hina is a different type of film that has its roots in pre-contact Polynesian culture. Like many ancient civilizations, the original Hawaiians regarded those who displayed both male and female characteristics as gifted and special. They called these people māhū and valued and respected them as caretakers of family and guardians of culture. Māhū were also admired for their healing skills; according to legend, māhū soothsayers brought their healing mana, or spirit, to Hawaiʻi from Tahiti many centuries ago, a visit commemorated by the healing stones of Kapaemahu, four basalt boulders located on Waikiki Beach. This documentary portrays a world where instead of transgender people being marginalized because of who they are, they are actually visible, included and honored. A world where youth who are searching for their own creative forms of gender expression are embraced and encouraged to be themselves rather than to hide in fear or pretend they are just like everyone else."
Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu leads her students
in a traditional chant in Kumu Hina

Some of Hina's male high school students may seem lazy or uninspired as they prepare for their school's end-of-year hula performance. The notable exception is the tomboyish Ho’onani, a spunky sixth-grader with an abundance of (male energy), who insists on joining the boys. Her potential to mature and become a māhū (a community leader with the power to heal and teach) is impossible to ignore.

Having lived the reality of being a little boy who grew up to be the woman of his dreams, Hina is determined to make sure that a young girl can rise to become a leader among men. Helping Ho’onani understand that there is a place for all “in the middle” is only one of Hina's challenges.

Ho’onani leads Hina's all-male class of hula dancers

Keeping the culture of Pacific Islanders and their values alive in modern Hawaii is easier said than done in an increasingly Westernized society. Hina is a respected cultural guardian who is involved with affairs of Hawaii's state government. Traditional Hawaiian values have suffered throughout 200 years of colonization, violence, and religious oppression by Mormon missionaries.

Hina was appointed by Hawaii's governor to the O‘ahu Island Burial Council, which oversees the management of native Hawaiian burial sites and ancestral remains. Her task was to investigate whether railroad construction on Oahu had disturbed traditional Hawaiian graves. In the following video, she can be seen on November 13, 2013, offering the opening oli (chant) at the ceremony when Hawaii's Governor, Neil Abercrombie, signed the Hawaii Marriage Equality Act of 2013 into law.

In their Directors' Statement, Hamer and Wilson recall that:
"We met Hinaleimoana in early 2011 and were immediately captivated by her presence. Physically large, and covered in striking tattoos, she is easily identifiable to most as a transgender Polynesian woman. But rather than being cast as an outsider (as would likely be the case if we were in the continental United States or most other places), Hina is an important and respected person in her home town of Honolulu and throughout Hawai‘i. When out on the streets of Honolulu, people call out and wave to their Kumu, or teacher, Hina (as she is affectionately known), respecting her for the leadership she provides in educating their children and for being a steadfastly Hawaiian voice on important issues of the day."
Poster art for Kumu Hina
"What most compelled us to grab our cameras and begin to follow Hina as the central character of a new film was her brief mention of an upcoming trip to Fiji to pick up her Tongan husband [Haemaccelo Kalu, from Niuafoʻou Island in the Kingdom of Tonga], a man she had married a year earlier but had to leave waiting while she returned to Hawaii to get his immigration papers in order. We imagined that the trials and tribulations of this unusual Pacific Islander couple navigating the most universal terrain of the human experience (romantic love and marriage) would be fascinating, entertaining, revelatory."
Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu relaxes with her husband, Haemaccelo

Hina's patience while trying to handle her responsibilities as a cultural leader is frequently challenged by her younger husband, who will call her on the phone when he misses a bus and doesn't know how else to get to his job. Although Haemaccelo has no problems with the fact that Hina is transgender, he is subject to intense moments of jealousy when she is enjoying the companionship of her male friends or other transgenders. While Hina works to share native Hawaiian values which stress unconditional love and respect for all, sometimes her husband's petulance can really get on her nerves.

Kumu Hina offers fascinating insights into the challenges of teaching one's native culture in a contemporary charter school (in 2014, Hina announced her bid for a position on the board of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, making her the first transgender candidate to run for statewide political office in the United States).

Hina and her husband granted the filmmakers a rare level of access in recording their moments together. As a result, Kumu Hina is an especially intimate documentary wherein the personal becomes political and the political is most definitely personal. Here's the trailer:

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While Hina and her husband see themselves as "two people who just want someone to care for, and love us, someone to accept us, and someone to give us the aloha that we seek,” George Bernard Shaw left no doubt that Henry Higgins saw himself as "a confirmed old bachelor and likely to remain so!" A curmudgeon to the core, the notorious phonetics professor was a lot more abrasive in Shaw's original script for Pygmalion than in the beloved 1956 musical adaptation known to one and all as My Fair Lady.

Shaw wrote Pygmalion in 1912 (the same year that the sinking of the RMS Titanic brought Great Britain's strict class society into sharp focus). In the original script, Mrs. Eynsford Hill beseeches Mrs. Higgins to keep inviting her son Freddy to the garden parties at Mrs. Higgins's home. Why? Because the family is poor enough that Mrs. Eynsford Hill sees no hope for her daughter, Clara, but feels that the incompetent and fairly useless Freddy at least deserves a chance at happiness.

Eliza Doolittle (Irene Lucio) is a Cockney flower girl in Pygmalion
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Directed with a grand sense of sass by Jonathan Moscone, Pygmalion (which opened in London on April 11, 1914) turns out to be remarkably timely more than 100 years after its English premiere. In a world being wrenched apart by income inequality, Alfred Doolittle's description of himself as "one of the undeserving poor" seems to have become the mantra for misguided Republicans like Congressman Paul Ryan.

Because the harder edges of Shaw's social criticism were softened for the musical, theatregoers attending the California Shakespeare Theater's raucous production of Pygmalion might be shocked to hear Professor Higgins call Eliza (Irene Lucio) a slut during one of his ill-mannered temper tantrums. Any questions about the origins of the current "war on women" can be traced to Higgins's pompous misogyny (especially his vicious outbursts whenever Eliza pushes back against his preening self-absorption and genuine assholery).

Eliza Doolittle (Irene Lucio ) meets Henry Higgins (Anthony Fusco)
outside Covent Garden in Pygmalion (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

In truth, Eliza is a hard-working young woman constantly alert to any opportunity which might help her escape her social class. More than ever, the words of Mrs. Pearce (Catherine Castellanos) -- who chastises her employer for his insufferable behavior -- and Mrs. Higgins (Sharon Lockwood), who accuses both her esteemed son and Colonel Pickering (Peter L. Callender) of acting like two little boys playing with their newfound toy, lay the foundation for Eliza's transformation from a scruffy Cockney flower girl with little hope of a future into a genuine feminist threat -- an educated and self-determined woman who sees a path to economic freedom for herself that will never again force her to rely on the vicissitudes of vain and foolish men. Carpe diem, indeed!

Eliza (Irene Lucio) makes a financial proposal to Henry Higgins
(Anthony Fusco) as Colone Pickering (L. Peter Callendar) looks on.
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The CalShakes production plays out on a unit set designed by Annie Smart which is brightened by Anna Oliver's period costumes for Shaw's women. Casting is rock solid, with Anthony Fusco seemingly born to play Higgins as an arrogant sexist pig bereft of any civil graces. While James Carpenter nearly steals the show as Eliza's father, Alfred P. Doolittle, Nicholas Pelczar delivers one of the best portrayals of Freddy Eynsford Hill I've ever seen (as a clumsy young member of the upper class enthralled with the raw vitality of Eliza's presence and her thrilling use of street vernacular).

There is a very interesting shift in the play's power dynamics and collective wisdom as Mrs. Pearce, Mrs. Higgins, Mrs. Eynsford Hill, and Eliza continue to pay careful attention to human nature and psychological detail with a basic level of understanding that, as men of position and privilege, neither Higgins nor Pickering could ever master. Eliza's final triumph over Higgins leaves him deflated, helpless, and at a loss to comprehend why she would not want to return to a subservient lifestyle "for the sheer fun of it."

Henry Higgins (Anthony Fusco), Mrs. Pearce (Catherine
Castellanos), and Eliza Doolittle (Irene Lucio)
in Pygmalion (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Performances of Pygmalion continue at the Bruns Amphitheatre through August 24 (click here to order tickets).

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