I was the only white person in the classroom, and I didn’t know how to do the hula, which was embarrassing.
Have you ever been the only person of your race or sex in a classroom or meeting? If so, you know what it’s like to be the odd one out.
My first experience with being “different” was in third grade when I spent a month attending the Hana School, a small three-room school on the remote side of the island of Maui. It was 1972, Hawaii was a state, but much of it was still very Hawaiian, especially Hana.
The white people lived primarily in Honolulu. About the time Obama was the only black kid in the elite Punahou School in Honolulu, my brother and I were the only white kids at the Hana School.
We weren’t just white, we were chalk white, two pasty-face kids with yellow blonde hair in a class full of native Hawaiians. We were also the only kids who wore shoes, and who didn’t know how to do the hula, or surf. Oddities, for sure.
Back in the 1970s – a lax time when seat belts were optional and kids played unsupervised – schools weren’t as strict about attendance. My mother took us out of school for a month to go to Hawaii. We were a middle class family, but we had relatives with money, and a home in Hana. My mother was a schoolteacher, who had taken the year off because she’d had a baby.
We saved up for the plane tickets, and flew to Hawaii and made the trek out to Hana, where for the first time in my life, I was the different one.
One of my most vivid memories is sitting on the toilet in the girl’s room, and looking up to see a Hawaiian girl peeking eagerly over the stall wall, hanging on for dear life at the top of the wall, looking down at me with a huge curious smile on her face. I wonder if she thought I might have a long blonde tail under my shorts.
But the curiosity wasn’t mean; the kids were as friendly as they could be. When we went to the beach to do the hula, a daily practice that was much more challenging than the dodge ball I was used to, no one made fun of me. Several kids stood right beside me, helping me learn. They all wanted to sit by me at lunch.
At the age of 8, I remember two things: First – When you’re the different one, every ritual or system you don’t know is a potential landmine of embarrassment and alienation. Second – You never forget the people who are kind to you. The people who show you the ropes with no judgment are like angels, a lifeline to feeling normal.
If you’ve never been the only person of your race or sex in a situation, try it. You’ll quickly realize how many unspoken rules and mores exist in every group. Imagine walking into an alien world where unspoken rituals, communication styles, and work habits are widely understood by everyone but you. Now imagine everyone staring at you wondering if you’ll fit in, judging everything you do by their secret template.
Now imagine someone reaches out to you and says, “Stand by me. I’ll be your friend. I’ll teach you the hula.”