Blessed Be The Peacemakers
A PEACEMAKERS CLUB GIVES STUDENTS POSITIVE LESSONS IN CONFLICT RESOLUTION, AND A QUIET ESCAPE
“Yeah, I’ve been beaten up, but I’m not beaten. I’m not beaten, and I’m not quittin’.” - Glenn Ford, playing a teacher in the 1955 movie “Blackboard Jungle”
The message was ominous. “Friday isn’t such a good day. It’s the last day of school (before Christmas break) and is a half day. There are usually some pretty big fights on the last day before break.”
That was Nanakuli Intermediate School teacher Scot Matayoshi’s reply to an interview request regarding his organizing a Peacemakers Club against student violence.
Did he realize the irony of his statement?
After persuading Matayoshi to do the interview, I turn to our photographer, Nathalie Walker, to confirm the assignment. Her usually genial and spontaneous manner turns to ice.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“It’s ‘kill haole day,’” she says meekly. “I’m haole.”
I am stunned and embarrassed to be so insensitive. Am I so culturally nave and blind to the realities of this community?
It is troubling, but I compose myself enough to dissuade her from a threatening situation.
“If you’re concerned about your personal safety, I will understand,” I say.
She shrugs it off and answers, “If you’re going, I’m going.”
What are we getting into? Is Nanakuli really a hotbed of restlessness and resentment? Is the aloha spirit between people of the inner core of Honolulu and a rural community 25 miles away so radically different? What is young Matayoshi facing as a teacher in this supposedly troubled neighborhood?
More importantly, how effective can a so-called Peacemakers Club be in this local version of Blackboard Jungle?
As I drive along Farrington Highway to Nanakuli, my fearful state is conflicted with the incredible natural beauty of the Waianae Coast. As I pass Ko Olina and veer toward Nanakuli Valley, I am enraptured by the exquisite green mountains and the expanse of open space unfettered by commercial development. It is picture-postcard Hawaii.
Entering Nanakuli Intermediate and High School’s parking lot, an attendant greets me with a smile and directs me to a guest stall. At the school office, I am greeted warmly and directed to a waiting area while Matayoshi is summoned.
“He’s returning to class with his science students,” I am told. Within minutes, a tall, slender figure surrounded by giddy students enters the building.
Thus began what I thought would be an uneventful interview with a seventh-grade geek science teacher, who moments before had kids shooting toy rockets in the air to explain the law of physics.
It was the calm before the storm.
Matayoshi gets a call in his classroom from the administrative office, instructing him to direct students to the fourth period class. Today’s class schedule is to be modified to accommodate a campus-wide assembly for the “Brown Bags to Stardom” auditions.
As if mindful of what happens when there’s a change in routine, Matayoshi cautiously defers our interview to later in the day. He seems tense, worried, as if a storm were approaching.
The bell rings as students file out of the classroom.
“Stay together,” Matayoshi implores his students.
The minute the door opens, there’s a sense that something is wrong. Students dissipate and rush to the parking lot toward the high school campus.
A fight has broken out on upper campus. There is chaos, as some students are attracted to the big event and others shuffle along the corridor as if it were just another day.
“We had six policemen here yesterday,” Matayoshi says. “There were disruptions all day. It’s starting up again.”
Anxious, authoritative voices - supposedly that of other teachers or adult supervisors - boom through the crowd. They mean business.
Students rush past us and out the gates toward the fight outside.
Suddenly, the gates close and Matayoshi turns the lock. He sternly instructs students inside the gate to proceed to their fourth-period class.
Those outside the gates are not permitted back in the classroom. They are locked out.
That is how decorum is maintained. Some students proceed obediently to the next class. Several others have already found safe haven in a room known as the Peacemakers Club.
The reconfigured classroom space is the brainchild of Matayoshi. It is filled with video games, recreational equipment and a living room setting where kids can relax during recess and find peace.
It’s a different world inside. The bullies might call this the losers’ den. But members of the Peacemakers Club consider it a hall of honor for those who walk away from senseless conflict and violence. They have been told by people like Matayoshi that irresponsible behavior is a blight on the Nanakuli community, and if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.
Matayoshi got the idea for a Peacemakers Club from colleagues at Waipahu and Aiea high schools. He got a $4,500 grant from Na Lei Aloha Foundation and nudged his relatives for in-kind donations, such as old TV sets and furniture.
“With more funding, I hope to get the club off to a running start early next year and make a real difference in the culture of the school,” he says.
“The club will not stop the fighting. There will always be fights on any campus. My hope is that it will curb the fighting and make students aware that their actions affect the way the rest of the island views and treats their community.”
Peacemakers wear yellow wristbands to identify themselves. About 150 out of a student enrollment of 1,200 wear this badge of courage. It marks those who have done some soul-searching to decide right from wrong.
They seem mature beyond their years to have clicked into this insight.
But do not underestimate the power of 12-year-olds and their peers.
The important thing, according to Matayoshi, is to stimulate a young mind with logical choices.
Often a temperamental flare-up on campus is just a form of staging.
“It’s a matter of getting attention,” he explains. “It’s not a good fight without a crowd. One of the only ways neglected kids get attention is by fighting -on and off campus.”
Matayoshi finds this puzzling in a community that has such a strong sense of Hawaiian values and ohana. In some cases, kids are encouraged to fight to stand up for their rights. Parents occasionally join the fracas, coming to campus with baseball bats and weapons.
Disruptions of this sort make Nanakuli one of the most challenging teaching and learning environments on Oahu. It makes teaching a day-by-day, moment-to-moment scenario. One moment you’re breaking up ignorance, the next moment you’re breaking up fights.
But Matayoshi knew exactly what he was getting into when he asked for the Nanakuli assignment from the Teach for America program. TFA is a national teacher corps of recent college graduates who commit to two years to teach and effect change in under-resourced urban and rural public schools.
The 24-year-old Punahou and Claremont McKenna College graduate says, “I wanted to be sent to the worst school possible. I wanted a local school with the lowest test scores, poorest parent participation and the most challenging classroom situation.”
While his parents protested, he accepted the assignment at Nanakuli.
Now the Kunia resident takes the daily 20-minute drive to Nanakuli and has devoted the past three years to influencing young minds at the intermediate-grade level. He delayed law school to devote an extra year to teaching at Nanakuli.
“I wish people could see the potential my students have,” he says. “When I mention that I work in Nanakuli, the looks I get are ones of sympathy, even dread. It is a stigma that I know my students will have to live with the rest of their lives, and that makes me sad and angry.
“I have never felt a stronger sense of community than I have at Nanakuli. My students are genuinely curious about science. Of course, there are difficult days and challenges, but the potential for success is there.”
If he sounds like a public-spirited soul, it could be his family heritage. The dedicated teacher is the grandson of former Big Island Mayor Herbert Matayoshi and local volunteerism champion Mary Matayoshi. His parents are Ron Matayoshi, director of international programs at the UH School of Social Work, and Coralie Matayoshi, CEO of the Hawaii Red Cross chapter.
As we sit outside a noisy student assembly, Matayoshi exhibits his confidence to cope with all that life brings him.
He concludes, quoting Gandhi: “We must be the change we wish to see.”
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