Discovery and Purpose: Punahou Inspires Real-World Change

A Message from President Mike Latham ’86

Each year Punahou’s chaplains join other school leaders to propose a theme that shapes our reflection on the work we do together as a community. This year, they selected “he wai nō” (“there is water here”), a line taken from one of the legends of Kapunahou that was told by Kauhi and Martha Pohipu, who lived near our School’s famous spring for many years in the mid-19th century.  

In the story, now the subject of wonderful plays by our elementary school children, an elderly couple named Mūkākā and Kealoha live on the grounds of what eventually became Punahou’s campus.  Without any fresh water source to grow kalo and other crops, they suffer through a period of drought and hardship that forces them to walk miles across a barren plain into Mō‘ili‘ili to find water and to scour the mountains for food.  

One evening, exhausted by her labor, Kealoha falls into a deep sleep and dreams that an unknown figure tells her “he wai ō,” that water is here, and that she can find it under the roots of an adjacent hala tree. When Kealoha wakes, she tells her husband of the dream but he doesn’t take her seriously, dismisses her account and suggests that her thirst is causing delusions. But when Mūkākā falls asleep that evening, he too encounters a spirit that instructs him to catch red fish, roast and wrap them in ti leaves as an offering to his family’s ancestors, and to pull up a hala tree. Finally convinced of the vision’s power, Mūkākā digs up the tree and water flows from underneath it, the source of the new spring, Kapunahou, which brings life to their community.

As our Chaplain Josh Hayashi jokes, the legend reminds us of the need to pay attention to what your spouse tells you! On a deeper level, this origin story resonates with many that center on water, the vital source for life and sustenance. In my mind, it echoes the opening verses of Genesis, in which God’s newly fashioned world remained formless and empty, but “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” leading creation to spring forth in light, sky, land and a burst of plant and animal life. 

It also parallels the Hawaiian story of Maui, the demigod who pulls the islands of Hawai‘i from the sea, providing fresh water, shelter and food for his people. More than half of our bodies, of course, are made of water, and our daily news is increasingly full of the crises that unfold when our climate shifts and regions of the globe no longer have access to it. Closer to home, the tragic news of contamination from O‘ahu’s Red Hill fuel storage tanks reminds us of our shared responsibility to protect and preserve the water sources our Islands rely on to support an ever-growing population.

He wai nō, there is water here, also reminds us that the gifts we need are often right in front of us, if only we can learn how to find them. Our work as a school, moreover, is to help our students discover the tremendous gifts within them. Our teachers, counselors, coaches, deans, advisers and chaplains all dedicate themselves to empowering children to find, realize and develop their amazing talents and skills – many of which they never knew they possessed. They also empower students to begin to think seriously about what they might want to do with their capabilities, and the greater causes that they might serve.  

A Club with a Heart

Fourth and fifth graders in the Kindness Club are on a mission to spread compassion and thoughtfulness. “It’s been exciting to have over 100 students come to the club meetings,” said club leader Fiona Hayashi, an academic support faculty member in the Junior School. “They are so excited to be involved in efforts to spread kindness throughout our school community.” This fall, a group of about 20 students covered the pavement in Kosasa Community with colorful and uplifting messages, including “Be kind always,” and “You can change the world with kindness.”

At its core, a Punahou education turns on these two fundamental themes: discovery and purpose. As our students discover the natural and human worlds around them, they also discover who they are and who they might become. That growing self-knowledge, in turn, allows them to consider the alignment between their capacities and the world’s pressing needs. It opens, in other words, a path toward purpose.

This issue of the Bulletin features the tremendous accomplishments of several Punahou alumnae who have taken their own distinctive gifts and made enduring contributions across multiple fields. Their work in supporting minority-owned businesses, nutritional equity and food security, healthcare access, educational mentoring, public health, space technology and thoughtful discussions of race and identity all demonstrate the potential for our graduates to transform the communities that they are a part of. Most remarkably, their endeavors center on the fundamental values of inclusion and equity. Together, they are working to bring resources to underserved populations and empowering individuals who all too often are unable to realize their full promise and potential.  

That work must remain a vitally important part of Punahou’s purpose as well. Whether analyzing the work of students, stockbrokers, architects, or athletes, research has demonstrated time and again that the most productive and creative problem solving happens when groups represent a wide range of backgrounds. As a school, we know that the best teaching and learning happens when we grow alongside individuals who bring their own diverse perspectives and experiences to bear. Education also remains a crucial engine for access and inclusion, a fact borne out by compelling data linking social mobility and a host of crucial life outcomes to the completion of a college degree. Our students, moreover, will graduate into a world in which their future employers will expect that they can communicate, build understanding and solve problems in high-capacity teams across cultural, racial, or socio-economic differences. 

Punahou’s need-blind admissions process is also an integral part of that work. Because we admit students of great promise and potential regardless of their family’s ability to pay for a Punahou education, we can provide access to a world-class education for many children who would not otherwise attain that opportunity. The great generosity of our alumni donors and friends of the School, moreover, enables us to provide the financial aid that makes their attendance possible. Together, we then support the future of our state and truly function as a private school with a public purpose. The examples that these graduates set, finally, also inspire our current students to make the most of their own gifts. 

Through volunteer opportunities at our Luke Center for Public Service, sustainability projects developed at our Case Accelerator for Student Entrepreneurship, service and travel experiences at our Wo International Center, and the understanding of our own place, culture, and history promoted by Kuaihelani, our Center for ‘Ike Hawai‘i, our students pursue exciting opportunities to apply what they learn to authentic, real-world problems and challenges. 

The water is indeed here, and I am profoundly grateful for your vision, energy and support of our School and its mission. 

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