An 1800s Haole Teacher’s View

Bob Jones
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Wednesday - September 14, 2005
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I’ve had great fun reading the diaries and letters of early Hilo missionary-school teacher Sarah Joiner Lyman, thanks to the Lyman House Memorial Museum.

It struck me that few haole who have come here have ever been satisfied with Hawaii’s schools - certainly not Mrs. Lyman, and certainly not today’s critics, mainly, it seems to me, from the Mainland and from the rightist side of politics.

I’m never sure how much of the unhappiness is strictly about the quality of our education and how much is about the island-style culture newcomers discover and don’t appreciate.

A military/ex-Iraq parent wrote me that his kid was picked on because he was the new white boy in a Leeward school. Maybe. But I suspect there was more to it than just skin and former residence. The parent says he feels the school was a pit and the teachers wretched. I suspect he communicated that to his child.

Sarah Lyman was horrified in 1832 by what she perceived as people “more filthy than swine. Their houses are wretched hovels, and the abode of vermin, and the inhabitants covered with sores from head to foot.”

She understood no Hawaiian or local ways. She admits on July 25, 1832, that “I go regularly to school every morning, read a bit of scripture, call upon someone to pray, hear the class read and recite in history and close the school with singing a hymn. I enjoy it pretty well, but am exceedingly tried in consequence of not being able to talk with them.”

Like some of today’s critics, school appearances bothered her. “I was truly disgusted with the scene that presented itself within. Calabashes, baskets and fishing utensils, and a place to bake food. The ground was covered over with dead grass which gave it a stable-like appearance.” But how was the teaching? On Sept. 4, 1834, she writes that “native teachers are a source of vexation. They are exceedingly indolent and do not seem to possess a faculty of interesting their pupils.”

And discipline? On Jan. 31, 1835, she says “a case of discipline occurred last week which, for a while, I feared would produce an unhappy effect, but which has proved to the contrary. A boy perhaps 10 years of age made so much disturbance that I was obliged to separate him from his class; at the close of school ... I took him home with me where I kept him tied (my italics) two or three hours ... Monday morning ... he appeared quite humble and has since been a good boy ...”

She also tells of “a painful case of discipline in school today. One of the boys has been detected in lying and stealing for which he was severely flogged. I feel confident that the course pursued will exert a salutary effect on the school.”

Sarah Lyman found, as do many of us today, that “the influence exerted on students by their parents and guardians is of a dreadful nature, and so parylises (her spelling) our efforts.”

By April 5, 1887, however, Sarah Lyman felt there was occasional hope amid the detritus. “Some of our educated girls have made reliable, useful women, whilst others have become mistresses of foreigners who have no sympathy with our work and who feel little interest in the prosperity of the nation.”

By May 4, 1880, she was writing that “our school which kept up so long in the ruts, and which used up all my husband’s energies all too soon is now in good hands and is coming up from the languishing state it was in when in the hands of natives, which it was for five years.”

To tell you the truth, my suspicion when I came here 43 years ago and heard haole complaining about our schools was that they were put off by the great racial imbalance of the time - the heavy influence of teachers and principals who were Americans of Japanese ancestry.

Today, I think there’s still some discomfort among haole parents if their kids are in heavily local schools (read “non-white”) with local teachers and principals.

I’m not saying our schools are all they could and should be. We’ve got work to do to get our reading and comprehension levels up to and beyond the national average.

But the book The Lymans of Hilo made me realize that the general bitching about our schools isn’t anything new.

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