Custodians of Education

This story was written by educator tia North.

I keep a map because the world is always trying to make me forget. Here is my father, who cleaned classrooms for 30 years, and my brothers, who clean classrooms today. My kuku wahine, who baked in the school cafeteria, and my obaasan, here, a different kind of custodian of education. She left school in the 9th grade because Jiichan said school wasn’t for girls. At 92, she still refers to her time in the classroom with delight. This is my mother, a ferocious leader and advocate, the principal of her school. And here is Bernice Pauahi Bishop. I come from a long legacy of custodians of education, and I hold these constellated histories to orient myself as a Kānaka Maoli and Yonsei teaching within a predominantly white institution.

When teachers talk about what anti-racist pedagogy looks like, I can barely imagine it. I am a product of a colonial education, and because of it, my hope does not have feathers. In 1887, Pauahi founded Kamehameha Schools as a school for Hawaiians. She believed that education was the way to keep her people safe and carry her culture forward. I am a beneficiary of this vision.

In a sprawling campus on a mountain side in Kalihi, I rose at 5am to clean my room for inspection. I made my bed, took out the trash, tidied the closet and floors, and wiped down the sink and mirror. I tended to my dorm job, sometimes sweeping the stairwell or wiping down the kitchen, sometimes cleaning toilets or showers. I went to school for eight hours and did what I was told. I played sports. I arrived in uniform for every facet of my day, always on time for fear of detention. I ate when I was fed. At dinner in aloha attire and after prayer, I sat at an assigned table. I worked as the wait staff, host, dishwasher, or cleaning crew. I spent the evenings silently in study hall till lights out.

I don’t know if I am what my ancestors hoped for.

Looking back as a student, I don’t know how to be grateful for my education and joyous in learning at the same time. As a teacher today, I am sure that I don’t want students to have to make this distinction. I worry about what it means to build a future out of fear and am attempting to do this work free from such enslavement. Often, to remember myself as an act of resistance, I ask: What kind of custodian of education do I want to be? Is it one that tends to the classroom or offers sustenance to students? One that believes knowledge is delight? One who serves with endless devotion? Or is it one that can carry her people forward but this time to a future where gratitude and joy can co-exist?

I am still trying to find my place.

Educator tia North shares her story of carrying her culture forward and finding her place as an educator. Follow in her footsteps by enrolling in one of National Geographic’s Storytelling for Impact courses.

Featured photo by Paul Nicklen.

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