Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Trip to Pearl Harbor: Learning Outside the Classroom

In 1991, I was a high school freshman. That year, I deliberately missed 10 days of school for a cause other than illness. Under the new Nebraska truancy law, this absence would have been classified as an unexcused “family vacation.” My parents and I would have been dragged into the GOALS system to have our personal family choices analyzed by a government official.

Perhaps we wouldn’t have been prosecuted, or informed that we would be “monitored” by others with only our best interests at heart, but perhaps we would have been. In any case, living under the threat of such action is not consistent with living in a free society, and it also completely lacks common sense, as my story illustrates.

1991 was the year that marked the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor survivors from all around the country were gathering in Hawaii to commemorate the event with many days’ worth of ceremonies and events. My Grandpa had been a boatswain’s mate on the USS St. Louis on that fateful day, so my family made plans to travel with him and my Grandma to Hawaii to be part of it all.

We spent a whole year saving money and planning our 10 days. We kids each took jobs - babysitting, paper routes, whatever we could get. We had to earn enough to pay half our airfare and all our spending cash. We mapped out our schedule and all the events and sites we would visit, packing every day with so much education, it was like months of reading books. We still give my mother a hard time about that fact that we spent ten days in Hawaii, and only three hours at the beach! At 14 years old, I thought that wasn’t quite fair!

So, what did we do on this unexcused family vacation?

We learned about the agricultural industry of our country’s island state with a visit to the Dole Pineapple Fields and Factory. We experienced the exotic botanical wealth of the islands and learned about part of the ancient Hawaiian lifestyle and culture of bravery as we watched cliff divers at Waimea Falls.

We spent an entire day at the incredible Polynesian Cultural Center, where we experienced Samoan, Tongan, Hawaiian, Fijian, Tahitian, and Maori culture first-hand, weaving our own palm leaf tiaras, watching hula dancers, musicians, and islanders who shimmied up a coconut tree bare-footed. We experienced the culinary traditions of the Hawaiian islands as we ate a full luau meal, then broadened our understanding of dance and the way it is used in different cultures as we watched a spectacular showcase of the cultural dances of the Pacific islands.

We experienced first-hand the ecology of a natural reef as we spent that notorious three hours of beach time snorkeling at Hanauma Bay. A visit to Sea Life Park gave me my first experience with dolphins, orcas and an array of other sea animals. We learned about nautical physics and experienced how generations past had traveled when we spent a couple of hours sailing on one of the oldest working wooden sailing ships in the world. We learned about aeronautic physics and topography in a glider that soared above the tree-laden cliffs that plunge to the sea along the coast of Oahu.

And then there was the historical education. Along with hundreds of Pearl Harbor survivors, we attended a ceremony on the bank of the Harbor itself, with the Arizona Memorial as backdrop, where the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, spoke about the meaning of what happened on December 7. We went and stood at that sacred memorial ourselves, learning through the unmistakable spirit of the place, what no textbook could teach.


On December 7, we boarded a bus at 5:00 a.m. to reach the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in time for the sunrise ceremony where President George Bush, the keynote dignitary and speaker, graciously thanked the veterans on behalf of a nation, and remembered all those veterans from throughout the Pacific theater who were buried there in that holy ground.

As we attended these ceremonies, we heard the veterans themselves talk about that day. Where else could you get so many first-hand stories of such a significant part of our nation’s history? Wouldn’t any teacher be pleased if their student could take part in such an opportunity? My teachers were pleased. They sent me off on my two-week absence with my homework, and had me tell about it when I returned.

Coincidentally, we couldn’t have planned this trip for the summer, because Pearl Harbor was bombed December 7, and the commemoration events fell around that day.

The Governor keeps saying that “kids can’t learn if they’re not in school.” But in my case – and I think he would agree that this is true not only for me, but for many other families like mine in countless variations of the same story – I couldn’t have learned those things if I had been in school.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent example of why Nebraska needs to rewrite it's flawed truancy law. Definitely an experience of a lifetime, and "what no textbook can teach" for sure.