Autobiography brings school, self together
By Christine Thomas
Special to The Advertiser
By Christine Thomas
"LOST GENERATIONS: A BOY, A SCHOOL, A PRINCESS," BY J. ARTHUR RATH, UNIVERSITY OF HAWAI'I PRESS; $35
In Hawai'i, when someone inquires where you went to school, it's almost certain that person is asking not which college but which high school you attended. In his autobiography, J. Arthur Rath makes clear just how much "a person's high school carries a lifelong impression in Hawai'i," demonstrating how his alma mater has been integral to his life and success.
A retired public relations executive and inductee into the Kamehameha hall of fame, Rath credits the school with instilling "a sense of bonding, giving its students racial and individual pride" and for being "a lifesaver for Native Hawaiians." The bulk of his book is dedicated to a discussion of the school.
Told in eight parts and via separate, talk-story-style narrations, "Lost Generations" moves beyond traditional autobiography and, remarkably for its length, achieves the intimacy of casual conversation. Not only Rath's but friends' and family members' talk stories comprise a large portion of the book, humbly revealing old-time Hawai'i life and culture, and the character of Kamehameha students, as well as details about the running of the school.
Although the shifts among different topics and styles are sometimes abrupt, the reader is guided by Rath's command of the writing and the genuineness of his storytelling.
The first parts of the book offer a compassionate recounting of Rath's tumultuous boyhood. He lived with Hualani, his single mother, for just three years, and spent his early years in foster homes, with relatives and with friends. His only stability was the five years of ordered life he spent as a boarder at Kamehameha School for Boys, his "only real boyhood home." These recollections are part of an organic journey, with meditative, prayerful musings about life and Kamehameha.
His "youthful experiences, often meandering" are viewed and presented as "routes to wisdom and lifetime values."
His pride in Kamehameha is perpetually evident, and the story is moving in its devotion to and feeling for his benefactress, Princess Pauahi.
But when Rath reaches the time when Oswald "Oz" Stender, Rath's classmate and friend from Kamehameha, becomes a Kamehameha Schools Bishop Estate trustee (succeeding the son of Rath's great-uncle, Richard Lyman), the book's focus narrows to a thorough look at the KSBE trustee controversy throughout the 1990s. This move is intended purely as a kind of ho'oponopono, and Rath states directly that an "opportunity for resolution is the cusp within this book — a potential point for change."
Rath does an exceptional job of tracing the intricacies of the trust, explaining its tax-exempt status, the state's leasehold conversion act and subsequent Bishop Estate-owned land conversions achieved through eminent domain in the early 1990s, and the spike in trustee compensation resulting from land sales between 1980 and 1990. Appearing to leave nothing out, the book doesn't shy away from disclosing KSBE's overseas and Mainland investments, disparate educational visions or former state attorney general Margery Bronster's protracted investigation, with both financial and personal specifics that provide a broader perspective of this time when, "although assets grew, the school did not."
Although he says "as a storyteller, I recount others' actions without judging or criticizing these individuals as lacking spirit and values," Rath is not hesitant to point out arrogance and straying from traditional Hawaiian principles.
Although Stender is lauded as "very different from the other trustees" for his quiet fight within through memos and questioning, the other trustees appear in a much different light.
Lokelani Lindsey is flayed for what Rath describes as a reign of fear and intimidation, and for "resurrect(ing) feelings of inadequacy that almost wiped out our race." Rath portrays Henry Peters' racism as winning out over fiscal responsibility, while the general lack of ethics, due diligence and honest financial practice of Lindsey, Peters, Wong and Jervis, take center stage.
Rath makes clear that the real consequence of the trustees' actions before their ouster in late 1999, and his real issue with it, is the resulting lost generations of Hawaiian students that could have been reached.
When the scandal is over, Rath returns to personal reflections about "Princess Pauahi's influence on her spiritual children," an aim of the book that is almost subsumed by the controversy. The form of the book, then, appropriately and cleverly echoes its subject, since the controversy ultimately did divert focus on Pauahi's legacy and the subsequent generations of children she intended and continues to help.
Christine Thomas is from O'ahu, and is writing a novel about modern Hawai'i.