90: Feeling Ohana

90: Feeling Ohana

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

Feeling Ohana

We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.

~Franklin Delano Roosevelt

As a new high school teacher struggling to fit in, I became a “yes man.” Yes, I would chaperone Homecoming. Yes, I would tutor in the library after school. Yes, I would join the committee that the seasoned teachers avoided. If I continued to say yes, maybe I’d be granted tenure.

By my fourth year I knew better. A former student asked me to be the advisor for KIWIN’S, which is a community service club within Kiwanis International, which also sponsors Key Club. I had over seventy essays analyzing Oedipus Rex to grade and I wanted to say “no.”

The girl sensed my reluctance. “We’ve asked other teachers. No one can.”

“What would I have to do?” I didn’t mean to sound uninterested, but I knew I’d be stabbing my eyes after reading those essays and, timewise, being an advisor for another club seemed out of the question.

“We’d need your room for lunch meetings. And… maybe you would chaperone a few events?”

Like Oedipus, I couldn’t escape my destiny. My classroom filled with students on Thursdays yelling “Awooga, Awooga,” a strange club cheer, while I graded papers. They’d bait me to join in, but I was too busy. And too embarrassed.

But I did participate. I joined a jog-a-thon, supervised bake sales, and stuck roses on floats for the New Year. A few years passed and I remained the advisor to the KIWIN’S club, but I was determined to remain just a chaperone. I let the kids do the work. After all, they were learning how to be leaders.

Then Christine Chau, a short girl with long black hair and dark-rimmed glasses, came along.

It soon became evident why Christine’s peers elected her club president. She lived by their motto: “One Family. One Mission. One word: KIWIN’S.” Though seemingly quiet, I’d watch her personally invite students to club events. She’d strike up conversations with new people who came into the room. She especially believed in the Hawaiian concept of ohana, the feeling that family extends beyond the classic definition. She wouldn’t leave anyone behind, including me.

During one lunch meeting, the classroom was filled wall to wall with students. The cacophony of chatter made it chaotic. Christine stood up, adjusted her dark-rimmed glasses, and prepared to speak. Uh-oh, I thought. This could be bad. But she spoke, and they quietly listened. She had their attention and respect. I remember sitting at my desk, watching in awe. Here was a student leading a room full of teenagers better than some teachers. Better than me.

I felt guilty. I had been just an observer for too long. She was a senior who managed AP classes in addition to weekly KIWIN’S meetings, district meetings, and community service events. Certainly, I could do more.

Like a true leader, Christine sensed this and invited me to fulfill a more active role. We worked together by adding two video-game tournaments to support local, struggling families. We invited other clubs, like Red Cross and Make-a-Wish, to participate in some of our events. It was clear that Christine believed that ohana extended beyond our club and embraced the school as a whole.

The year sped by and DCON, the district convention and final hurrah, was upon us. Students from schools from all over California stayed at a hotel for a weekend of teenage leadership conferences and seminars. But the event was also used for Kiwanis to recognize the clubs that were most inspiring in giving back to their schools and communities. There were several awards and scholarships to be earned. There was one, however, that I had my eye on: Distinguished President, for Christine Chau.

Saturday night, as we finished dinner in a banquet room with hundreds of students, advisors, and educators, my students huddled together in anticipation. I checked items off my program with my pen as the evening progressed to the award for which Christine was nominated.

The tension had me shredding the corner of my fabric napkin underneath the table. Sorry, Marriott. My hands were restless.

Suddenly, it was time. Two other schools earned third and second place for Distinguished President. As the student who earned second place took pictures on the stage, I watched the large projection screen. Christine’s name would either appear on the top slot or it would be a bust.

I closed my eyes. Opened them. Took a long breath.

The announcer finished taking photos with the student on the stage and was back at the microphone.

Our students were on the edges of their seats, phones ready. What would I say to the club if she didn’t win? But I knew that the sense of ohana she helped create over the course of the school year would soften any loss. We tried. Award or no award, we did our best to serve those in need. Though it’s good to be recognized, whether it’s a teacher earning tenure or a club president winning a plaque, putting heart into helping others is the real award. Our club achieved that. But I so wanted her to win.

The announcer cleared his throat.

“And in first place… from Marina High School… Christine Chau!”

Her friends embraced her. Chaperones stood, clapping. My knees wobbled, but I stood. Tears streamed down my cheeks. It was the first time in my life that I had ever cried with such admiration and pride for another human being. I clapped loudly until my hands were red and sore.

That year, our KIWIN’S club left DCON with fifteen trophies, ten of them first-place victories, a true testament to Christine’s leadership and an amazing year of service for our members. Since graduating, Christine has visited on multiple occasions. She always returns with a smile and gives hugs to current members. She currently studies business at California State Fullerton.

As for me, I’m still trying to balance my regular duties with adjunct duties, grad school, and life. But if KIWIN’S has taught me anything, it’s that by creating that spirit of ohana, I’ve also created a network of people for guidance and support.

And though I now have tenure, I’m still a “yes man” — by choice. Christine taught me that even busy people can make time to give back to others. Now, when my KIWIN’S students ask me, “How do you feel?” I don’t wave them off and continue to grade papers during their club meeting. I stand with pride and shout at the top of my lungs, “I feel good! Oh, I feel so good! I feel fine, all of the time! Awooga! Awooga! Awooga-Awooga-Awooga!”

~Cory Rasmussen

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