Looking back

Kaleo is twelve going on thirteen when Child Welfare Services takes him from his mother and places him with his father, his father’s new wife and their young daughter.

His mother is not there to see him off from the Hilo airport bound for Honolulu where his new family lives. The only person to see him off is Mr. Lee, the state child welfare worker, who is a pale, thin Korean man whose wickedly odorous kimchee breath had Kaleo sucking in fresh air at every discreet opportunity.

Before boarding his flight, Mr. Lee presses a plain white envelope into Kaleo’s hand. Thin lips move from the narrow contours of his expressionless face, “From your mother.”

From his window seat, Kaleo watches the world he has known his whole life recede to an open, lapping sea; stringy white clouds parting as the plane moved toward the warmth beckoning from a dazzling, yellow sun.

Awaiting at arrivals is Willy Palaoa, a big man and former high school football linebacker whose presence swallowed shadows of lesser beings. His step-mother is younger than his mother; petite and pretty with dark shoulder-length hair. Beside her stood Lulu, his step-sister, whose dark eyes silently appraise him.

“Welcome son,” greets Willy, emotion choking his words as he embraces his gangly son like a bear hugs a twig. Below him, Lulu tugs at Kaleo’s T-shirt. As he bends down, a soft kiss brushes his cheek and a plumeria lei showers over his head.

The ipu thumps a rhythm against a thin cloth that separates it from the hardwood floor. “Kaholo,” commands Aunty Pua, tapping a oo-oo-oo-te beat on the ipu. Kaleo was asked to take Lulu to her hula lesson when her mother’s meeting ran overtime. “I’ll pick you up at seven,” she adds before hurriedly hanging up. Lulu is in the the Plumeria group. As they move through their basic steps, Kaleo feels the beating of his own heart resonate with every beat of the ipu. Behind closed lids, he absorbs its message and relaxes for the first time since arriving in Honolulu.

Willy receives a call from Mr. Horikawa, Kalakaua Intermediate School’s Vice Principal, the third day after Kaleo’s enrollment. “Mr. Palaoa, Kaleo is in the office. He was involved in an altercation with a couple other students.” His suspension is for two days.

A dark cloud settles over Kaleo on the car ride home. Willy’s voice rumbles, “What was you thinking, BOY? This a new school! New beginning! What you DOING starting trouble? Your MAMA let you do what you wanted back in Hilo. That’s NOT gonna happen HERE. With ME! You HEAR ME BOY?!” Through the car’s rear view mirror, Willy glares at the sullen young man sitting in the back seat, his lower lip split and swollen purple; eyes avoiding contact.

Lulu insists that Kaleo be the one to take her to hula lessons. Her hula sisters ask for him when he isn’t there. Aunty Pua shows him how to play the double-ipu. “The sound made from the double-ipu combine the air from both gourds, so become one sound, one bass note,” she explains. He plays in perfect rhythm as they dance. He’s a natural, a quick learn , thought Aunty Pua, and she imagines his potential.

His first quarter report card are straight F’s. Willy is called to attend a Student Study Team to discuss his teachers’ concerns.

“He seems unmotivated. Just sits there and doesn’t do any work.”

“He doesn’t seem focused. Won’t listen.”

“He seems to be more interested in what other students are saying or doing. He isn’t paying attention to class instruction.”

Someone suggests he has Attention Deficit Disorder.

“Maybe medication would help?”

“Nothing wrong with Kaleo,” growls Willy. “His mother neglected him, THAT’s the problem!”

That wasn’t Kaleo’s only problem. It was his hearing.

Willy wouldn’t believe it at first. The audiologist explained how Kaleo had gotten very good at reading lips and body language in general. He could hear normal conversational tones well enough to get by. The challenge was being one of thirty or more students in a classroom.

Returning home from his audiology appointment, Kaleo closes the door to his tiny room. Dropping onto his bed, he stares absently at the ceiling’s chrome light fixture. Then he rolls over to reach for his abandoned history book, removing from it a distressed white envelope containing a single sheath of paper. It was a drawing he did years ago, of small brown boy with Crayola colored curly black hair whose arms reach towards a smiling woman whose own arms are extended. “I love you” appear in a speech balloon by her mouth. His ears are huge, as if to amplify the words. Her ears are normal sized.

The audiologist persuades Willy to purchase the smallest hearing aids, reasoning that Kaleo would be more willing to wear them if they weren’t so visible. Kaleo seems encouraged when the audiologist tells him that the hearing aids would stop the ringing in his ears. The new hearing aids are worn for three months before they become “lost.”

Aunty Pua chants “Ke Ao Nani,” and demonstrates the steps to the kahiko. Kaleo, seated on the floor with the ipu, joins her in the chant. “I luna la i luna, na manu o ka lewa,” then in English, “Up above, above, birds of the heavens.” Oo-te, oo-te, pulses the double ipu. The young dancers wear serious expressions, eyes focusing hard on their kumu. Except for Lulu’s. Her eyes are on Kaleo, and they are radiant.

The next meeting with the school led to a discussion of having Kaleo tested for Special Education.

“Kaleo is NOT retarded!” bellows an indignant Willy at the suggestion.

“We’re not saying that he is, Mr. Palaoa,” says the school counselor nervously, wondering if the plastic chair beneath Willy would hold.

“Special Education will help give him the extra help he needs. He won’t graduate at the rate he’s going,” says Mr. Horikawa defensively, a hand on a walkie talkie at his belt, a link to a member of the Kalihi Community Police Team placed on stand by.

Willy slumps, air wheezing out of his chest in a long sigh. Defeated, he mutters, “Deaf and dumb…”

Aunty Pua telephones Lulu’s mother. “There is a local male kumu master renowned for his chants,” she said,” And he wants to meet Kaleo.”

“He’s what?!” A surprised Willy exclaims, “NO son of MINE going dance OR chant ANY-thing! He’s NOT even doing good in SCHOOL!” Mollified by the fright he sees reflected in his wife’s wide eyes, Willy dampens the volume but with visible effort. “He’s gonna stop going to Aunty Pua’s halau. He’s got to do better in school. Understand me?” Meekly, she nods her head.

The next day, Mr. Horikawa calls Willy to the school. Kaleo was caught in the boys bathroom smoking pakalolo. Another offense, and he’d be expelled.

At home at the time of the call, Willy put a hole in the plaster where he imagined Kaleo’s face. His wife flees to her mother’s place in Manoa with Lulu, afraid for their safety. That night, alone in bed for the first time in nine years, Willy falls into a fitful sleep. He is driving his car, screaming at Kaleo who is sitting in the back seat. Before he could act on a murderous rage engulfing him, boulders tumble down from the large hill bordering the road they are traveling. Deftly maneuvering the car, Willy avoids hitting the debris but the instant he is triumphant, there is a loud explosion in the back seat and the roof of the car caves in where Kaleo sits. A loud whimper erupts from deep inside his throat, and the last image Willy recalls when fully awake is that of Kaleo, standing and facing the car. He is unharmed. Behind him, an avalanche of rocks, block the road.

In his small room, Kaleo sobs mournfully into his pillow. His history book is on the floor, the white envelope separated from the young Kaleo’s drawing. Crayoned around the little boy’s neck and that of his mother’s are bright yellow plumeria leis. Lulu had found what he thought he had hid.

Looking forward

[Translated from Hawaiian]

My spirit journeys from ancestral lands

To an island across the sea

Called forth by a mountain

Captured by a voice

Caught in the rhythm of a beating heart.

Beauty surrounds me

The color of a bright yellow sun

The spell of a lovely lei maker.

Written and chanted by Kaleo Palaoa. Dedicated to dancer and sister, Lulu Palaoa

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