From The Last Hawaiians, A Kingdom Lost
©Copyright 2018, Stephen Shender, all rights reserved
Struggling for composure, Ezra fidgeted with his collar as he met the gray eyes of the haole seated opposite him behind the massive koa-wood desk. Polished to a high sheen, the desk’s surface mirrored the haole’s dour features. It made no difference whether he looked directly at the man himself or down at the desk; the haole’s angular face confronted him.
Save for the sunlight streaming through a single window to Ezra’s right, gloom cloaked the wood-paneled office. Bookshelves filled with leather-bound volumes dominated the wall behind the desk. A large oil painting of a snowy New England landscape hung on the wall to Ezra’s left. A tall clock stood in the corner where the two walls met. Light from the window illuminated the left side of the haole’s face, leaving the other side in shadow. Dust motes floated languidly in the light. The haole’s desk was bare, save for a marble bust of a balding, bearded man, its visage whiter than the haole’s, if that were possible.
Outside, birds sang, and palm fronds swayed in the breeze, but neither the birds’ song nor the breeze breached the haole’s sanctum, the window being shut against them. The room was stuffy. Ezra’s collar, purchased the day before, was uncomfortably stiff. He tugged at it and averted his eyes to the clock in the corner. The haole followed Ezra’s gaze and spoke at last.
“Ah, the clock,” he said. “Handsome, isn’t it? It came by ship from New England—around the Horn.”
Ezra nodded politely and looked at the marble bust now. “Shakespeare,” said the haole. “A great English playwright. We require our pupils to study his works. Are you up to it?”
Shifting uneasily in the hard chair, Ezra met the haole’s gaze again. “Read and write I now the Hawaii talk, our ‘ōlelo,” he said in halting English. “Ali‘i Kalākaua say do me well here.”
“Ah, yes. Ali‘i Kalākaua. He is an important man in Honolulu—a kāne nui, is that not so?”
Ezra nodded. “Yes, yes,” he agreed. “Ali‘i ai moku is Kalākaua. A much important chief.”
“Just so,” said the haole, whose name was Edward Beckwith. “I am seeing you today because the important chief, Kalākaua, has asked me to.”
Ezra nodded again. “Mahalo,” he said.
Now Beckwith made a steeple of his hands, rested his forefingers against his lips, and regarded Ezra in silence for a long moment. “It is well that you read and write your own language,” he said at last. “It is pleasing to God that so many of your people have shown much aptitude in this regard. You understand aptitude?”
The English word was new to Ezra. He shook his head.
“Of course not,” Beckwith said. “It means your people learn well, and quickly.”
Ezra nodded vigorously now. “Yes, have much we Hawaii people ap..ti..tude,” he said, carefully enunciating each syllable of the new word while taking care not to add a customary vowel at the end. “Learn I read and write our ‘ōlelo fast. My mother, father also. Study I here at Punahou, learn I your ‘ōlelo quick too.”
Now Beckwith smiled at Ezra. Ezra returned the haole’s smile, not realizing that his mangling of English grammar, preceding subjects with verbs as in Hawaiian, had amused his interlocutor.
“Perhaps you will join us here someday,” Beckwith replied. “But you must understand, we conduct all classes in English only, and unfortunately, your English is not yet good enough to study here. Please tell Ali‘i Kalākaua that for this reason alone, we cannot admit you to Oahu College this term. Do you understand?”
Ezra nodded slowly. “Yes, understand I.”
“Ask Ali‘i Kalākaua to recommend you to Lahainaluna,” Beckwith said. Lahainaluna Seminary was on Maui. “Lahainaluna is better suited for you. Tell Ali‘i Kalākaua that Beckwith thinks you will do well there. And thank you for coming to see me today, young man.”
Choking back the disappointment rising in his throat, Ezra emerged from the haole Beckwith’s somber office into the bright O‘ahu sunlight. His vision of a promising future, so vividly close as recently as a few hours ago, now seemed diminished and receding. Ezra ripped off the constricting haole collar and tossed it aside. Now he could breathe freely and think clearly. Turning his back on Punahou, Ezra set off for Honolulu, where the late-morning sunlight danced on the water and winked at him amid a forest of silhouetted masts in the harbor. I will go to Maui, he resolved, quickening his pace. I will return, and when I do, these haole will see.