Da Kine Rocket Science
by Janet Carpenter
The closing of the sugar mills in Hawai’i posed a great and growing concern for the economic future of the state. I had grown up in rural Ka’u on the Big Island; gone off to Honolulu for college to study English; and then had come home to work. I was hired in 1990 to develop and teach curriculum for adults changing careers. I followed a strange path through the maze of federal grants and workforce development programs and ended up in a classroom full of adults needing my help. My average student could read and write English at a 3rd-5th grade level and were on their way to enter a high school diploma program or other training to develop new work skills.
And then there was Robert, a 30-something local male, assessed to be at a very low reading level, who sat looking bored in my Basic Skills English/math class. Like most “functional illiterates”, as they were officially classified, Robert had amazing survival skills and a very sharp memory. He could converse intelligently about any documentary he had seen, thus passing himself off as “well-read” and educated. He could call any of his many friends at any moment, having memorized all their numbers, but could never make sense out of a phone book. He would pretend to “read” a document, then sign it, leading all around him to assume he read and understood the paragraphs in front of him.
His signature had been memorized but was never the same twice. Apparently his very akamai (smart) and supportive wife had, years earlier, signed his name for him to copy and practice. With the actual letters in his name meaning nothing to him, he frequently changed the spelling or left out various letters of his name entirely. That’s where I came in. I caught the mistake and realized he probably couldn’t read or spell. When I met with him privately, I found out that he didn’t even know the alphabet or the sounds the letters made. He had been a mechanic for the cane trucks at one of the mills, working his way up through the years with “hands on” instruction, never needing to actually read anything. I decided the best way for Robert to learn was with one-on-one tutoring.
I met with him privately in a classroom for an hour every day. He was shy and nervous to even be on campus, let alone “pulled out” from a regular class. He was afraid some of his friends, now security guards and janitors at the school, would see him and wonder what he was doing. I told him to say, if they asked, that he was studying “rocket science” or anything else he wanted to make up. Reassuring him in local Pidgin, I told him there were “all kine classes at college”. It seemed to ease his mind and build his confidence, but he still insisted on all the windows shut and the doors locked to avoid prying eyes.
I had no experience teaching a student below the level of 3rd grade. However, I was hired to make a difference, and I was determined to help Robert succeed. The resources for adult literacy at the time were pitifully insufficient. Most books for adults started at the 5th grade reading level or higher, and other remedial books were insultingly childish, if they existed at all. Factor in the huge differences between the Mainland’s vocabulary and culture with the local Pidgin grammar and pronunciation, plus the added challenge of finding material that was relevant to an adult male who had never left the Big Island in his entire life, and it was obvious I had my work cut out for me. So, I started like most kindergarten teachers start...with the alphabet.
After introducing the alphabet, letter recognition, and matching sounds to the correct letter, it was time for the next step. Avoiding common errors when learning English in Hawai’i, such as “S is for snow”, I decided to focus specifically on words personalized for Robert to enhance his learning. He grew up in Papaikou, had a beautiful wife and three kids, and was close to his extended family in Honoka’a and Waimea. He liked to take care of horses and fix up old cars. With all this in mind, I spent hours pouring over old magazines and cutting out appropriate pictures. I then wrote out all 26 letters of the alphabet on individual index cards and spread them on the table in order. It was time to begin the break-through lesson.
Smiling, I handed Robert my stack of pictures. “Okay, Robert,” I said, cocky in my confidence, “Put the picture on the alphabet letter that the word starts with.” Robert looked at the first picture: a sad-looking pit bull. He immediately placed it on the “D”. I was ecstatic. “Yes!” I thought to myself, “D for dog! This is great.”
The next picture was of a fine-looking horse. Robert placed it on the “D” as well. The next picture, a cute baby in diapers, joined the pit bull and the horse on the “D”. The baby was soon buried under a picture of a pineapple, a car, a truck, a fork, and a man. Picture after picture joined the pile on the “D”, until finally, intrigued and wanting to correct Robert’s actions, I interrupted.
“So, Robert, that’s very interesting. I was just wondering though, why you put the ‘huh-horse’ on the ‘D’, and the ‘buh-baby’ on the ‘D’, and the ‘puh-pineapple’ on the ‘D’...” I asked with curiosity, carefully enunciating the first consonant sound of every word.
His reply was simple and brilliant, “Da horse, da baby, da pineapple…”
I paused, stunned. “That’s right,” I said, smiling at my own ignorance. Robert had put every picture on the “D” because to him, in his local patois of Pidgin English, everything was “da kine”. This meant that every noun was preceded with the local equivalent of “the”. Robert had matched every picture to the beginning consonant of the word, “D”, because to him, every word started with “da”.
“Very good!” I nodded my appreciation at Robert’s skill. Behind my eyes, my brain was shifting gears and struggling with the ultimate question: “NOW what?” I threw out the cards and my assumptions that day and started over.
It took me a year to get Robert up to second grade level. By then he had learned the basics, was able to read danger signs, and recognize labels. He was hired by a local tofu factory to do maintenance and works there still. I’ve only seen him a couple of times since.
The last time I saw him, he asked, “Hey, Miss Janet, you stay teaching da kine?”
I smiled and said, “Yeah, Robert, I’m still at the college.”
“Good,” he said through a broad grin, “Still get plenny rockets need fixing.”
I love teaching my students; and I learn something new from them every day. But they aren’t broken rockets...to me, they are all beautifully different shooting stars.