High School: An Inside Story

Minutes before the bell for the day’s first class, kids lean against the gray cinder-block walls of the I Building, sit on the sidewalk next to the soda machine outside the Student Center, hang out on benches in Mene Square, named after the school’s mascot, the menehune.


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Moanalua’s demographics aren’t much different from any other school—the area’s median income and educational-attainment levels hover around state averages. In other words, this isn’t just a school for rich kids.

Moanalua accepts children from a district bordered by the Army’s Fort Shafter to the Red Hill Naval Reservation. Between the military housing projects lie single-family homes and a high concentration of middle- and high-rise apartments.

“Good morning, Menes!” a game show-worthy voice cuts through the quiet calculus class. “This is your daily bulletin for March 5, 2005.”

It’s the morning news for Moanalua High, broadcast from a 27-inch TV in nearly every classroom. The interruption startles me a bit. None of the students in this class even looks up from their textbooks.

The round face of a student broadcaster fills the TV screen, giving the scoop on the school’s new electronic bus-pass system, which will be launched next year; the senior class’s canned food drive; and the chicken fund-raiser for the freshmen class.

Kola mo. Kaloa moa. It takes a few tries for the kid to pronounce Koala Moa correctly. I chuckle. No one else does.

Sheez, this is an intense bunch.

 

Newspaper adviser Liane Voss starts off her newswriting class with a current-events quiz. Her students know it’s coming, but as Voss hands out the half-sheet tests to students, they groan nonetheless.

“I don’t even read the newspaper!” the girl next to me exclaims. “I don’t even watch the news. Unless something interesting happened, you know.”

The first question: “This media celebrity was released from prison last week.” An easy point—Martha Stewart.

Fewer of them know which country would begin withdrawing its troops from Lebanon or what incident involving an Italian journalist in Iraq spurred a U.S. investigation. The question on why the state closed some North Shore beaches last week inspired some interesting answers. Jellyfish? Monk seals? Treacherous sea creatures? No dice. High surf.

How many schools did the state announce it was going to “take over” the previous week? One student asks, “How about we get the point if get it within five?”

“Plus or minus two,” Voss says.

 

Joshua Huff, editor-in-chief of the Na Hoku O Moanalua, likes watching CNN. He knew that exactly 24 public schools in Hawaii would be “taken over,” that Syria planned to withdraw its troops from Lebanon and, for the bonus point, that it was Phil Mickelson who’d lost to Tiger Woods in the past weekend’s golf tournament.

“I’m really interested in politics—I want to major in political science in college,” says Huff. “I think it’s really important for people to be informed and get involved. I once asked a few kids in my class where Washington, D.C., was, and some of them said Virginia.’ That’s just scary.”

Huff rattles off his grudges against the Bush administration—its decisions on the Middle Eastern conflict, the No Child Left Behind Act. He’s written articles for his own school paper about such perceived injustices.

“I really want to be a journalist,” he says. “I know everything’s moving toward the Internet these days, but I’d like to keep newspapers around. I love the feel of them.”

He tells me he just got his acceptance letter to New York University. He’s still waiting on Georgetown. He also applied to the University of Washington—“my safe school,” he tells me.

Between 80 percent and 85 percent of Moanalua’s graduates go on to higher education, including four-year colleges, community colleges and vocational schools. In fact, DOE figures show that Moanalua’s college-bound rate is above the state’s average. Last year, college and career counselor Gwen Mau helped seniors amass close to $5 million in college scholarships.

 

In sophomore biology class, I slide into the only open seat in the room, way in the back. Teacher Erron Yoshioka goes over the difference between RNA and DNA. Each has four chemical building blocks—A, C, G, U and A, C, G, T, respectively.

Sounds vaguely familiar to me. I forgot I used to know this stuff at some point in my life.

“Do you know how I learned I’m an O [blood type]?” Yoshioka asks. “As a sophomore in my biology class. Actually, I was a freshman. We’d prick our finger, put the blood on a slide and look at it under a microscope. You can’t do that anymore. It’s almost taboo. You know why?”

“AIDS,” a few say.

“AIDS. And hepatitis,” Yoshioka says. “Now, we can’t even help you clean up a cut without putting on rubber gloves first.”

A boy to the right of me in the back row whispers to his pal about getting his braces off. The girl on my left snoozes. I sympathize.

The room looks like every other in the school, with the exception of the lab stations that border opposing walls. Tennis balls pad the leg ends of each desk. Two large filthy fish tanks, with what I think are fish in them, sit next to the windows. Sea creatures, crafted out of recycled bottles, plates and construction paper, hang on a string stretching from the front of the room to the back.

Yoshioka is still talking about genetics. “Did you know only 1 of 225 women are color blind, while 1 out of 15 men are?” he says. “God did right, I think. Can you imagine if a woman was colorblind?”

Nobody laughs.

 

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