Obama is a product of Hawaii's melting pot

We all know that Barack Obama can draw huge crowds, but this one was different: an overflowing chapel full of more than 400 Hawaii high schoolers who came to see the newly elected Illinois senator before he had even taken his oath of office. On this December day in 2004, "Barry" Obama had returned to his old high school to talk with the students.

I took special interest in this event: Our three sons had graduated from the same school and two of them remember Barry very well. Punahou, the largest and best private school in Honolulu, graduates many successful students and attracts distinguished speakers, but this one was unique. This son of Hawaii was achieving high office in another state, and that was rare. What he told students that day, as reported in the Punahou Alumni Bulletin, is worth sharing.

First, about his education: He didn't reach "his full promise" in high school, he said, but —¦ something about this school "¦ embraced me, gave me support and encouragement, and allowed me to grow and prosper." He learned that the important things are not always what students learn in class, but how they negotiate their lives and confront what they feel is right.

He reminded them that "to whom much is given much is expected" and that it's important to be "lifetime learners." "There is so much out there that you can be curious about and learn about ... Your task is to recognize that you are extraordinarily privileged, and that means that you have to take some responsibility in making this world a better place."

Of the difference between an ideal America and perceived current problems: "The value of the ideal is to know what it is you are shooting for."

About life goals and the satisfaction of public service: When growing up he came to realize that what is most important in life "had to do not just with me thinking about me but with me thinking about the world outside of me. Most of us aren't significant by ourselves; most of us gain significance only because we are involved in some larger project ... It is hard to find your individual potential or sense of self-worth unless you are also concerned about the collective potential and self-worth of others."

About hope and inspiration: "There is something in the human spirit that can't be conquered. It is celebrated in our religious faith but also through our art, through our music and through our writing."

His advice to students: "Dream big dreams. When ambitions are all geared towards material goods and money, I think it displays a poverty of ambition. The world is big out there and everybody here could be doing so much in whatever field is interesting to you.

"If you're into medicine, your dream should be how to cure AIDS or cancer; if you're interested in the law, you should aim for the Supreme Court; if you're into music, you should want to have Hit Number 1 on the Billboard charts or write a symphony. ... Once you have dreamed those big dreams, you'll have to work hard to achieve them. There's nothing wrong with hard work."

How did this exceptional man grow so wise and thrive so well? As a longtime resident of Hawaii, now living in Medford, and as the mother of men who are contemporaries of our new president-elect, I've spent time thinking about how living in Hawaii helped shape their lives.

One usually thinks of Hawaii in vivid colors, but we were color blind when it came to people! Hawaii is the melting pot of the Pacific; people of all races from numerous nations settle there. Hawaii has no one racial majority: Caucasian people comprise about a third of the population, Asian people (Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Filipino) are another third and a widely varied list of other national/racial origins make up the final third, including native Hawaiians and African-Americans.

So many families are mixtures of two, three or more of these groups that it is difficult to separate people into ethnic categories, especially for the national Census! In Hawaii, all cultures are celebrated in ethnic festivals and friendly jokes—not offensively but respectfully.

Punahou School works hard to achieve an authentic cross-section of Hawaii's school-age population, so scholarships are made available to multi-racial children of promise—like Barry Obama. Everyone has an even chance at success.

To be honest, Hawaii's egalitarian atmosphere is not utopia; some racial issues occasionally (but rarely) rise to the surface. It was in this nonviolent and benign atmosphere that a "hapa-haole" teenager, (half white, half something else) could come closer to terms with all cultures that formed his intelligent, introspective person, and laid a foundation for his future.

Now, the ethical values of Hawaii's harmonious and hospitable culture that celebrate the good in all people are headed for the White House. That should be something to celebrate and inspire us — children and adults — everywhere.

Claire Engle is a former business executive who lived in Honolulu for 41 years before moving to Medford with her husband, a retired Naval officer.

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