(As Told to Priscilla Sawsa Mensah)
I first met Barack Obama in September or 1975. Prior to the first day of school, I received our homeroom list and I went over all of the names. When I got to his name, I asked other teachers on campus, if they knew who he was or how to pronounce his name. I thought it looked Japanese. There is a Obama, Japan. It’s a coastal city with nice beaches, I’ve heard. Anyway, the people I asked didn’t know him or how to pronounce his name.
On the first day of school that year, I took roll and when I reached his name, I immediately mispronounced his name, saying Barack like “barrack”. He was sitting right across from me, smiled quietly and said simply, “you can call me Barry” and it was Barry all through his high school days. Till today, whenever, he hears someone call him Barry, he knows that it is someone from his high school and his high school days.
All of us in the homeroom, including Barry, stayed together for four years. We met in the same classroom, pretty much, had the same dean, and did things together everyday for four years, until they graduated in June, 1979. We met every morning at 8 am, however, I always liked to come in early, around 7 am and open the room up, open the windows, turn on the radio, and get ready for the day. I was always impressed with how many students arrived at school so early in the morning. Many of them had to commute and come in with their parents from the other side of the island, so they came in early, caught up with some work, socialized quietly, or even took naps before school started. Some went up to the snack bar to get breakfast or something to eat. I would also go up to get coffee and also check my mailbox before the school day began.
This worked out well as the students got to know each other a dn do things together and I had a chance to talk with them individually and casually, too. Barry lived close by, about four blocks down the street,so he would come to school just before 8 am usually, but he was always on time. He would always walk in the door with a big smile and great me with a “Good Morning Mr. Kusunoki! How are you doing?” He was always very well behaved and very pleasant, not over bearing at all.
He was always neat and clean, nothing fancy, but dressed for school, not ratty or disheveled. He never sought the spotlight, but he was very well known and popular among all of the students. He was able to negotiate well among the many cliches on campus, yet still had a tight core of friends that he is close with till this day. They all shared a great love of basketball and were out on the courts every spare minute they had. Now they spend a lot of time playing golf. I am glad to see that they are still good friends, ever since high school.
Academically, President Obama, Barry, was a very good student. He got all A’s and B’s. I don’t recall him ever getting a C or ever getting an interim fr anything. He never got into any trouble for behavior, etc. that I can recall and he was pleasant to work with. Whenever we had class discussions, he would always be a great listener, never dominating the discussions or being argumentative. He would listen intently to everyone. Then when all was said and done, he might say something that was very impressive and profound, and we’d all say, “Wow!”
Barry’s strengths, I would say were in English and History. Although he did well in Math and Science, I didn’t think personally, he was a Math-Science guy. He was a good writer but I didn’t know how good a writer he was until I read his books. He was also a good speaker, but we all never knew how good until he spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, when he blew everyone away. “Wow!” all over again.
I felt then that he would be successful. to me, he had all of the qualities that would enable him to be successful. He was bright, articulate, he had great people skills, and he was humble. Some may argue that because he could be gregarious and outgoing, but deep down inside, he never forgot his friends and family, and he always had a sense of humility. He never lost that and I was always deeply impressed by that.
We knew he would successful, but we never knew he would be President of the United States. However, after he was elected, we could see it. We could see how he could do it and appeal to so many people. He was older, more educated, more experienced, but he was the same good person that we all knew while he was growing up.
Barry had that charisma and the ability to get people to work together when resolution was necessary, whether it was on the basketball courts with his friends or in our classroom. However, he didn’t do it with a heavy hand, but more with gentle guidance and reason. People respected Barry because he could also be a good “indian” as well as a “chief”. We’d always celebrate birthdays, Halloween, Christmas, and Ester in our homeroom, along with other holidays like Valentine’s, Girls’ Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and Boys’ Day, and Barry would always be a willing and helpful participant, helping to set up or clean up and conscientiously involved in the activities we all planned.
Barry loved Halloween and especially loved carving pumpkins. We’d always carve a couple of pumpkins that we would take after school to the Shriner’s Hospital down the street for crippled children and help them decorate and celebrate Halloween.
He loved celebrating birthdays during the year. We always had juice and cookies or doughnuts and he enjoyed them all along with his classmates. His birthday is in August, so we never had the chance to celebrate his birthday then, so we celebrated during the year.
We did all of these things every year for four years and it never got old for these students. They were a good bunch to work with. I am glad that I had them for four years and got to spend so much time with them.
As a teacher, when students graduate and leave, you don’t expect them to remember you and if they do, you never know how they will remember you. It’s part of the job. You just hope that they will be OK and will have good lives, be good men and women, be good citizens, have nice families, and lead happy, productive lives. Teachers get satisfaction from seeing how their students have turned out, reading about them, hearing about them, or seeing them on the street once in a while.
With Barry, we have all been very blessed with what he has done with his life. We revel in his success quietly and from afar. He has made us all, very proud, and what is most impressive is, he hasn’t forgotten his roots, and he hasn’t forgotten his old friends and the people back “home” in Hawaii. No matter what he has done in his life, he is still the same humble guy. He has “walked with kings” and hasn’t lost “the common touch”. That’s what has touched me and has impressed me about him all this time.
(Eric Kusunoki’s father, a newspaper photographer, encouraged his son to keep a scrapbook when he became a teacher. Fortunately, Eric did, for his lifetime as a teacher, including the years he knew Barry Obama, 1975 – 1979. “When Barry visited our campus after nearly 25 years away, I never expected him to remember me (such is the life of a teacher), but he asked about me and looked for me, which pleasantly surprised me.”)
Honolulu-based teacher Eric Kusunoki’s April 8 correspondence to writer Priscilla Sawsani Mensah’s about Barack Obama’s high school years reveal so much about student Barry, and just as much about him. We were not surprised that the leadership qualities and scholarship that characterize President Barack Obama were evident in his younger years. We were not surprised about Mr. Kusunoki’s description of Barry’s workmanship and aptitude. Yet, in his description of Barry’s humbleness and generosity, we saw similarities in Mr. Kusunoki’s willingness to be so generous to us. Like most good teachers, Kusunoki spots a student’s singular abilities and gets to work to create a space in which the student can grow. Part of the job for the compassionate educator is to remove the layers obscuring essence and flight. And when their charges “take off,” they stand at a distance, with the understanding that job also requires , expecting not to be remembered. Mr. Kusunoki worked for 41 years in education before retiring in 2015. We suspect that every one of Mr. Kusunoki’s thousands of students remember him. And we suspect he remembers every last one of them. Bernice Elizabeth Green