Every now and then, parents who've relocated from the Mainland will ask me about what it was like going to public school here. Some would ask if it was dangerous for me because I didn't, you know, look "local."
I didn't think going to Baldwin High School was all that different from any other high school. There was nothing to compare it to. We had football games, a school paper, JROTC, punk rock and all the other things you'd find in any typical high school across the rest of the United States.
Of course, there were exceptions. Hawaii high schools are probably one of the only places where lockers and hallways are outside and exposed to the elements. I always thought how strange and stuffy it'd be to spend all that time enclosed in a high school between classes.
But these concerned parents weren't inquiring about the school's open-air campus. They were worried about what challenges their own children would face. Maybe they thought it was just like that cult movie "North Shore," where Caucasians who dream of the islands from swimming pools in Arizona come out here and find a rude awakening as they try to drop in at a local surf spot?
Or maybe they had heard about an ominous event called "Kill Haole Day" - the traditional last day of school? I personally can't remember a day where whites were targeted and faced a beating on the last day of school. Then again, there weren't too many people who stuck around that day anyways. A few years back, columnist and fellow Baldwin alum Lee Cataluna caused a stir when she denied the existence of "Kill Haole Day."
That doesn't mean it didn't happen. In the 1960s, my friend at Kailua High School would ditch the last day of school and surf instead of facing a beating. There are other frightening experiences, too. About 20 years ago, Maui High School was the scene of a terrible clash between haole students from Upcountry and locals from Central Maui.
But racial tensions playing out in our high schools are much more complicated than "local" versus haole. Just before I got to Baldwin High School, the upperclassmen, teachers and especially the security guards were still talking about the biggest brawl they had ever seen. It involved something like 20 students fighting with one another. This conflict was not between haoles and locals, but among Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders.
Recently on the Big Island, a school locked its doors for a few days due to escalating racial tensions. It wasn't a traditional local conflict. The situation at Kealakehe High School in Kona had little to do with haoles at all. The conflict was between Micronesians and new immigrant groups from the Western Pacific on one side and Polynesian students on the other.
And not too long ago at a function at a high school in Honolulu, I discovered the conflict may not even be a racial one. I overheard two students teasing each other. They were teasing each other about who immigrated to the United States sooner - the old "FOB" (fresh off the boat) taunt. The retort was commendable: "I'm not FOB anymore."
So even though the conflict playing out throughout our schools is often labeled and discussed as a racial one, that label is too one-dimensional. During the heyday of "Kill Haole Day," whites from the Mainland were pretty new to the state's public school system. Forty years ago, there still weren't a lot of newcomers from the Mainland on Maui, aside from a few in remote parts of the island. And people remember how rough it was to be among the "hippies" in places at Makena and on the north shore.
Times have certainly changed. With more and more Mainlanders moving to Maui, entire communities of newcomers are not uncommon. The racial composition of the student body at my own elementary school in Haiku is dramatically different from my school days.
Unfortunately, the clearest way to identify newcomers to the island is sometimes the person's ethnicity. Other times, as I saw in Honolulu, it's by one's accent. The conflict with haoles, Samoans, Micronesians or anybody else is a crude way of showing frustration with the changing times. It started with haoles and has moved on to the newest of the newcomers to the islands. So maybe it's not a racial conflict at all. Perhaps it's just a newcomer-versus-not-as-newcomer clash. And that's not new at all.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is email@example.com. "The State of Aloha" alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis' "Neighbors."