Fifteen years ago I had a bad case of senioritis. Classes had been reduced to a meaningless migration from one room to the next. The only way teachers kept order was by threatening to blacklist us from participating in the graduating ceremony later in the month.
No one wanted that; especially since they made us practice it. There we were in the middle of the pitch at the War Memorial Stadium under the blazing Central Maui sun. The tinny recording of Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" played on loop.
Gather under the stadium seats quietly, walk single file across the field, take your seat on a burning-hot metal folding chair. Now sit there until it was time to walk up to the makeshift stage and receive your pretend diploma.
Graduation season was upon us. Flower trees had been raided. Seemed like every garage and sewing room was busy making lei for the graduates.
I have little recollection of the actual ceremony that night. Hundreds of friends and family filled into the stadium cheering and shooting off air horns. The boys wore maroon gowns and the girls wore light blue. We sat there facing them on the same metal folding chairs. The floodlights were on like it was a sporting event. I can't even tell you what Mrs. Boteilho - our beloved English teacher - told us in our commencement address. All I do remember is that she turned her back on our parents and the crowd and addressed us, the graduates.
High school graduation is a big deal here in the islands. I've been to other schools after Baldwin. The programs and institutions on the Mainland for college and law school were certainly much bigger and had older traditions, but my high school graduation will be the most memorable. Much to the chagrin of my parents and colleagues in later years, I didn't go to my law school and university graduation ceremonies.
Graduating from Baldwin High School was a gloriously chaotic affair. After the formal ceremony, the crowd made its way down to the field. It was madness.
Everyone was trying to find each other. We stood about the stadium covered in thousands of lei. I felt like some kind of midyear Christmas tree being decorated by my closest friends and family. I somehow managed to find my parents and brother, and then came an onslaught of lei from just about every classmate and friend. It got really hot and I was sweating through the polyester gown, but I didn't care.
I had a variety of lei made from carnations, plumeria, maile leaves, silk, ribbon, yarn and balloons in our school colors. I saw the more practical garlands made of saimin packets, cans of soda and candy. Some of my classmates had so many that they covered their faces and shoulders. Parents and younger siblings had to be recruited to carry the excess lei.
The overwhelming number of lei makes graduating here one of the best parts about going to school in the islands. For now, there was just the ceremony - and the lei. When I look back on it, I realize that all of those people taking the effort to bring me a lei on graduation night was a big deal. What better way to show that you care than with a lei at graduation?
A single graduate has the support of the entire community. Parents, family, friends, coaches and teachers all have contributed to the development of a new member of the community.
It marks the start of adulthood. Most high school graduates are either 17 or 18. They are considered - for just about every intent and purpose - an adult under the eyes of the law (except for drinking alcohol and renting a car).
Somehow I was deemed responsible enough, smart enough and competent enough to sign contracts like leases and take out loans. It meant that I could enter the workforce, continue with school, or do a little bit of both. Most importantly, it was all up to me. I was no longer legally required to attend school.
But the truth is that the legal age into adulthood is an arbitrary one. Just because the law sees no distinction between 18-year-old graduates and people in their 30s or 40s doesn't mean there isn't one. Everything is new to them in the workplace or in college. But all that is down the road for them. I'm sure they're going to learn that in some way or another.
Tonight, Baldwin's class of 2014 will gather at the same War Memorial pitch I stood at 15 years ago and proud parents and family members will sit on the same bleachers and cheer them on. I have no doubt that they will be covered in lei, too.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. "The State of Aloha" alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis' "Neighbors."