In 1983, when I was 12 years old, my father made the bold decision to move us to Hawaii. He wasn’t in the military…he was just cold. As a teacher, he could work anywhere, and he thought Hawaii would be a good place for us. We had moved from Seattle to San Diego some months previously, but found that the Southern California winters weren’t as comfy as the Beach Boys would have you think.
When we arrived in Honolulu, it was during the Christmas school break. Rather than enroll me in a new school halfway through the year, he decided to give me a program of independent study while he checked out the schools available. He always took the choice of which school I’d attend very seriously.
The school he picked for me was Hawaii School for Girls, a (very) small, all-girls, secular, independent school housed in a bright pink building perched right on the side of Diamond Head. He was impressed with the headmaster, Joseph Pynchon, the teachers, the small class size, the excellent curriculum, and the feel of the place. HSG was not the least bit institutional, but rather was a true community, back in the days when community existed only in the real world, not online.
I started at HSG in 8th grade, when I was 13. I was not a social kid—being around new people made me incredibly nervous—but I quickly found real friends there. I also found teachers who had a more profound impact on me than I can put into words. Sybille Brinkman taught me French and German, and also served as a mentor, role model, occasional parent, and oftentimes friend. Jack Gillmar showed me that history is told through perspectives, and gave me a deep and abiding appreciation for the natural world around us. Carolyn Arbuckle showed me that it was preferable to be myself rather than anyone’s conception of what I should be, and also nurtured my love of reading and writing.
There were others, of course, but you get the idea. While my teenage life was as tough as everyone’s is, at HSG, I found an environment in which I thrived.
At the end of 9th grade, disaster struck. HSG was a private school, and while the fees were not enormous, they were far beyond my dad’s humble means. In the 1980s, teachers were no better paid than they are today. My first two years had been underwritten by a distant and beloved family member, but when her husband died, she couldn’t continue to pay my tuition. As much as he didn’t want to, he was going to have to pull me out of HSG.
We went together to tell Mr. Pynchon. I was in tears, although I tried to buck up. We sat in the guest chairs in front of Mr. Pynchon’s big desk, and my dad explained that I wouldn’t be able to return to HSG the next September while I whimpered.
Mr. Pynchon listened, and then, in his kind, gentle, and always authoritative manner, said, “No. Erin will be back. We’ll take care of it.”
You see, while HSG was a private school and many of the girls came from extraordinarily wealthy families, it was not elitist. Not in the least. It had a scholarship fund, and this is where my tuition came from for the following three years.
The scholarship fund came from a number of sources, including Hoopla, an annual auction, private donations, and the children’s fair that was held one weekend each year. As a scholarship recipient, I never knew where exactly the money that allowed me to receive such a stellar education came from; Mr. Pynchon never would have allowed that because to him—and everyone else at HSG—I was an equal, not a charity case. Over the years, he and the teachers and administrators at HSG guided me to get the most from my time there, and it worked. I edited the yearbook. I acted in plays. I got good grades. I thrived.
At the annual children’s fair, all the students had different jobs. Some made and served taco salad. Some manned the kiddie rides. And some of us did short plays for the kids. We had a blast. The children’s fair never would have been possible without the participation of the entire school community, as well as volunteers who came to help out. I never considered at the time that perhaps my scholarship benefactor was on campus as I slathered white makeup on.
The people of HSG formed the person I am today. My experiences there have stayed with me. I’ve always been grateful for my time there.
Almost seven years ago, my husband and I—having followed a circuitous route that led us though Chicago, Honolulu, Spokane, Boston, Dublin and London—moved into a house on a fairly small street in the relatively tiny city of St. Petersburg, Florida. We have always thought we were meant to end up in this house for many reasons, not the least of which is the lovely neighbors with whom we’re surrounded.
The couple just up the street from us, Sharyn and Alex Klahm, also traveled around before landing here on 10th Street a few years before we arrived. From Boston and LA respectively, they’ve also lived in many different places over the years, including Honolulu. We’ve always loved talking with them because they are smart, funny, deeply compassionate people, and we share a perspective on almost all things political, and most definitely all things feline. Sharyn and Alex are the most vigilant cat people I’ve ever met, and their benevolence extends to all creatures. When we ended up with two baby raccoons a while back, it was Sharyn who put us in touch with raccoon experts, and who stood and cheered with us as we watched the momma raccoon retrieve her babies.
I’d never known many details of their time in Hawaii. I knew Sharyn was a social worker there. I knew they had a huge plumeria tree at their home. But that’s about it. It only ever came up in passing, and we’d made “funny old world” remarks about the fact that we’d all experienced living on the same small and remote island.
Last week, Sharyn came with us to see Amy Goodman speak (Alex was out of town on business; he is a gifted metalwork artist). Sharyn has recommended to us in the past that we attend one of Amy’s events, and when I saw a notice in one of the free papers I happened to pick up that she was appearing in town again, I bought tickets before I had time to talk myself out of it (we’re not big ‘evening event’ types). When we saw Sharyn earlier in the week, she explained that Alex was away but she would love to go too, so we made plans to go together.
The event was fantastic—Sharyn was absolutely right that Amy is a passionate, articulate, and fearless journalist. As we chatted on the drive home, Sharyn happened to ask, “Where did you go to school in Hawaii?”
I answered as I always do, starting with the assumption that the person to whom I’m speaking, even if she’s lived in Hawaii, won’t necessarily be familiar with HSG. “Oh, it was a small school. You probably saw the building it was in, though. It’s bright pink and right on the side of Diamond Head…”
“Oh! Did you go to Hawaii School for Girls?”
“Yes, I sure did.”
“We helped put girls through that school! We used to volunteer there. I thought it was important to support because it seemed to really be encouraging young women to be leaders. When did you graduate?”
“1988. When were you and Alex there?”
And then came one of those moments when your world changes. When things shift just slightly and your sense of awe grows enormously.
“We were there until 1986.”
Which means I directly benefited from their contributions to HSG. I am one of those girls they helped put through school. I roamed around campus when they were there helping with the children’s fair. We might have even spoken briefly.
Without their kindness, I would not be who I am or where I am. And today, we’re neighbors.
Depending on how you count, there are anywhere from 43 million to a billion streets in the United States, which is populated by more than 300 million human beings. I’m no statistician, but I have to think that the chances of my ending up living on the same street as people who so deeply impacted by life almost a quarter-century ago but whom I never knew are too infinitesimal to measure.
And yet, it happened.
I’ve long believed that things happen for a reason, that there are forces greater than ourselves at work in the universe. But now, I know it for certain. I was meant to know Sharyn and Alex, and they were meant to know me. To see the very real impact their kindness had. To give us all a reason to be compassionate in a world that seems too often consumed by hate, to be humane when it’s often easier to turn a blind eye to the needs of others.
To give me the opportunity to say thank you. Thank you, Sharyn and Alex, for doing something selfless that gave me the ability to live a full and rich life, and taught me values and skills that have touched those beyond me as well. Thank you for your kindness.
I’m sharing this story because I find it too remarkable to not be told. And also because, at the conclusion of Amy Goodman’s talk, my husband, Sharyn, and I sat rapt as she told us not to be silent. To use our voices though all means available. This is my soapbox, and I hope this story illustrates for you that kindnesses, big and small, have far more impact than you might realize, and that compassion is, always and forever, worthwhile.