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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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1 Week. That’s what’s written on the chalkboard at the front of the band room. That’s exactly how long the 100-plus members of the school’s symphony orchestra have to rehearse before they head off to New York, to perform at Carnegie Hall.

As soon as they enter Room F-102, they get to work, pulling chairs out of their stacks and arranging them into sections—violins, violas, cellos and basses. No shoes are allowed inside the carpeted room. Students sit in their chairs, barefoot, tuning their instruments.

Musical director Elden Seta has taught at Moanalua for 17 years. He’s been recognized for his work by such prominent nationwide organizations as the Milken Foundation. Seta’s music program, which now has more than 500 members, attracts students to the school from all over the island.

When Seta—a tall, lanky figure—steps up to his podium, all of the musicians stand. Like everyone else in the room, Seta feels the pressure of the upcoming Carnegie Hall concert, even though this marks the third time his orchestra has been invited to play there.

Everyone must be seated at least 10 minutes before the full orchestra’s 6 p.m. rehearsal tonight, Seta tells his students. He’ll lock out any latecomers.

“I know it’s been a tough few weeks, but let’s keep working,” Seta says. “It’s not about New York. It’s about doing your best, whether you’re playing at the Pearl City auditorium, Carnegie Hall or our cafeteria. Now, let’s go straight to Tchaikovsky.”

Seta takes a deep breath, closes his eyes and raises his hand. When he opens his eyes, he’s a man possessed.

His hand comes down, and the students, sitting at the edge of their seats, their backs ramrod straight, begin to play.

“I need it to gallop,” Seta yells out over the violins, the cellos, the basses. “It needs to gallop with energy!”

Seta’s entire body swoops up and down, following the swing and sway of his hands. His eyes almost roll to the back of his head. He stomps the platform with the flat of his sock-clad foot.

This is just the string section, about half of the orchestra that will play Carnegie Hall in one week. Their sound is full, brilliant.

“No!” Seta cries out, clapping his hands together suddenly and spinning around on one foot. The music stops. “No, you can’t have everyone going bom bom bom and one person going bum bum bum!”

The students understand exactly what he means. Seta puts the palms of his hands against his temples. He is exhausting to watch.

He raises his hand once more, and the orchestra tries again. They’ve got it this time.

“Great!” Seta yells out.


School life doesn’t end when the 2:30 p.m. bell rings. A few hours later, when the sun is about to set, the faculty parking lot still looks full, with the cars of many of the school’s 130 teachers.

Lots of students leave as soon as they’re allowed, but many stay behind or come back later for cheerleading practice, basketball games, track meets. For club meetings and band rehearsals.

About 800 students participate in one or more of the school’s sports. During football season, sophomore Savaii Eselu’s school day is bookended with a 6:30 a.m. team workout and an after-school practice that runs till 10 p.m. I wonder if I could do that.

In the weeks leading up to the Carnegie Hall concert, symphony orchestra musicians—Eselu included—practice about three nights a week, from 6 to 8:30. Last Friday, the school’s newspaper staff worked till 2 a.m. to get their March edition to press on time.

I go back to the campus for a girl’s basketball game, to watch Moanalua’s varsity team trounce Waialua, just two games away from a potential championship. Even when the game wraps up at 9 p.m., the light in Galera’s office is still on. He’s pulling his typical 12- to 15-hour workday, getting by on three to four hours of sleep a night.


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Honolulu Magazine December 2017
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