Thursday, August 30, 2012

25 Years Ago I Asked for a Library

My Library
The Salt Lake/Moanalua Public Library at dusk.

I grew up in a small town in Honolulu called Salt Lake. Formerly a string of small volcanic craters, Salt Lake was sold to commercial and residential developers just before statehood. After statehood, then governor, John A. Burns promoted development as a modernization project. In the 1970's Salt Lake had become popular for its proximity to downtown and Waikiki. My dad bought an empty lot and built the house I grew up in, in 1979.

Despite its growth, the town went for years without a public library. Before the Internet, yes, BEFORE THE INTERNET, research was limited to the aging set of encyclopedias you had or maybe a book in your school library. God forbid you needed more, in Salt Lake, it meant catching a bus or begging your parents to drive you to libraries in neighboring towns.

The problem did not go unnoticed. The public library system regularly had a "library on wheels" park at the local shopping center. But as you'd imagine, it was filled with children's books and the occasional science magazine for good measure. I remember thinking a library on wheels was so cool, and I guess it was, just not after I was over the age of 8. At some point we finally got a "satellite" location in the same shopping center. It was a lot like the one on wheels, probably stocked with the same books after they realized it was probably cheaper to rent a Chinese restaurant and fill it with said books than it was to maintain that RV.

Needless to say, the library still sucked. In the 5th grade we took a class trip to the library so we could all work on our research papers. I was researching earth worms. I had recently read Thomas Rockwell's How to Eat Fried Worms and thought it'd be a great topic for my "big" research paper. I had to write a whole five pages, five pages back then might as well have been my entire life's story at that point, longer than War and Peace had I known what that was. But I was excited nonetheless. This would be serious work and as a wee nerd-in-training, I already had a bad pair of prescription glasses and a backpack ready to haul my information payload.

Fishy Toons
Illustrator and artist Allen Tsukamoto provided a fun distraction for the celebration. As a kid I loved his work in the Hawai`i Fishing News.

Alas the two shelves of books and stack of periodicals fell short of my expectations. Disappointed, I left empty-handed, I couldn't even find one of Ed Emberly's How to Draw books to borrow. Worse yet, I had to have my mom drive me to the Aiea library after school so I could do my research there. Sure going to the library was fun, but it was still school, and as a 5th grader, a full day at school without having to go to the library was more than enough to satisfy my nascent academic aspirations.

"Why does our library suck?" I asked my teacher and mentor Patricia "Miss Pat" Bal.

Her response was Socratically also a question, "Why don't you change it?"

"Change it?" I puzzled. "How do I change it?"

"Petition for a new one."

"What's a petition?" Remember, I'm in the 5th grade. I was smart, but not that smart.

"You get everyone who wants a new library to sign a letter saying so."

"That's it?"

"That's it." She concluded exhaling a cloud of Virginia Slims smoke.

Miss Pat was my first real mentor and aside from chain smoking in her meetings with me, she was also great at getting me motivated. Get people to sign a paper saying we need a new library? No problem.

Meanwhile a young newly elected house representative, Donna Mercado Kim, was eager to serve her constituency. Perhaps as green and naive as my 5th grade self, she set out to listen to the needs of her community and take action. Many clamored for a library.

Of course I had no idea that Representative Kim was working to secure funding for the purchase and construction of a library for Salt Lake. Part of that was to collect 2,000 signatures in 10 days in preparation to pitch Governor John Waihe`e to prove the community indeed wanted a library.

I was told all we needed was 500. As a 5th grader, 500 is at once a huge number and a meaningless one. I mean the only way I could conceive of 500 was think of $5 in pennies. That's ten rolls of pennies. Of course this was not a useful way to conceive of 500, it was just the only one I had. So without the shackles of experience and failure to hold me down, I set out to collect signatures. For an entire week I spent everyday after school walking for what seemed at least 500 miles door to door through my entire town with my mom. Repeating the same speech over and over, at first reading it, then pitching it, words sliding off my tongue like a miniature vacuum cleaner salesman.

Turns out being a little kid collecting signatures for a library petition was a potent combination. By weeks end I had more than 500 signatures.

"Okay Miss Pat, I got my signatures," I dramatically laid them in front of her like photo evidence of Big Foot, "now what?"

"Well now we need to take them to the Governor and ask him to give us a library."

That's seemed simple enough, of course, she'd already talked to State Senator Wong, Representative Kim, so all I had to do was write up a speech to make the request. By this point, I had a certain confidence, one grounded in canvasing more than 500 people in my area, one unfettered by the experience of failure.

I took my signatures to the capital and remembered thinking how big a place it was. Huge doors and huge hallways. It smelled of koa wood and office supplies. It felt important, and I felt important. I can barely remember standing across the desk of Governor Waihe`e asking for a library, but I do remember shaking his hand. He was a big man who fit this big place and his hand swallowed my tiny hand as he granted me a library.

I Was the Class President
My Mom and I presenting the petition to Governor John Waihe`e.

Of course, back then, that's how I thought it worked. You get everyone to agree that we need a library and the governor says yes. In the 5th grade I took this all with a sense of lightness, it was perhaps a cool thing, but one that I had expected should work out as it did. My current self thinks back on that day and wants to do some serious hi-fiving followed by a round of drinks at the bar on me.

25 years later, Ethyl Shima, President of the Salt Lake Community Association and Chair of the Petition Drive, shows up at my sister's house, the house I grew up in, to see if she could find my mom and I. Of course, it's easier to find me today on the Internet than it is IRL, but in an anachronism, Mrs. Shima came from a different era to find me. She handed my sister an invitation to the 20th anniversary of the Salt Lake Public Library, which my sister took a photo of and texted it to me a couple weeks ago.

Yesterday, I went back to the Salt Lake Public Library for the first time since I was in high school. It seems smaller than it did back then, but it still thrives and houses a worthy collection of material beyond Beezus and Ramona. State politicians from then and now came to talk about themselves and the library. Young and old hula dancers from the neighboring community hula program came to dance for us. They were a snapshot of a Hawai`i I had thought was lost. They were of every race, of every age, paying homage to the ancient culture of the place, and honoring those who had once helped their community. It was an easy place to feel the nostalgia of my childhood.

Hula dancers from Halau Na Maka O'Ka Laua'e came to honor us with a performance.

It was also, I think, sent to me by fate. As I near my wedding day, I have almost all but forgotten about the details of my life growing up in Hawaii. My days have been filled with wedding decor, stationery, seating charts, and the day to day of being an independent user experience designer in the startup world. I've been focused on getting my tuxedo tailored just right, worrying about the shoes I'm going to wear, and living with my bride-to-be in a 400 square foot studio apartment, quickly filling itself to the brim with the accoutrements of an impending wedding.

But today, today was a wonderful day for remembering and reconnecting. For uncovering a new curiosity for the place I grew up in and feeling the un-sullied pride and accomplishment of a wide-eyed 5th grader who didn't know yet what politics and failure meant. Unbeknownst to either my mom or I, we were also on the program to say a few words. I've not given a public address in so long I can't remember. My dad, my sister, my brother-in-law, and my three nephews were all in the audience. I was nervous, but channeled my fifth grade self to talk about Miss Pat. To thank her for making me understand the importance of contributing to my community, for being my mentor, and for making me the lucky little kid who asked for a library and ended up getting one.

For Luck
A traditional lion dance completed the celebration.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012