It’s a stock question, one I’ve been tossing at former high school athletes for a long time. As it turns out, maybe too long.
“How’d you guys do?”
A young man known by most as Steve Wong when he was a kid is on the receiving end this time. He graduated from Punahou in 1995, where he played soccer and ran cross country.
“Those are two programs with lots of state championships. How’d you guys do?”
Wong, now known as simply Kealoha, ever so slightly shakes the head that would have Tim Lincecum begging him to seek out a barber. Then Kealoha breaks into a wry grin and shrugs.
“I don’t know.”
He’s being polite. What he’s really saying is, “Dude, don’t you get it? I just spent 20 minutes telling you and the rest of the people here in the best way I know how that scoreboards from high school don’t really matter.”
The realization hits me quickly enough. Someone who graduated cum laude from MIT in nuclear physics, but then ditches it all to become a professional poet? Well, a person like that doesn’t live in the past.
Boil it down to its essence, and that’s the message Kealoha — who went from suits and six figures to sleeping in his car to his current status as a superstar in the world of slam poetry — imparted at HMSA’s Kaimana Awards & Scholarship program Saturday at the Prince Hotel.
Don’t be afraid to switch gears, he told the honorees … a bunch of well-rounded, huge-hearted, uber-achieving recent grads … who also happened to be solid prep jocks.
“If your dreams change don’t be afraid to change with them,” he said. “You don’t have to have all the answers right now.”
Those words may sound cliche, but Kealoha’s delivery is fresh and unique. One of his poems is about everybody’s favorite subject, recess. He wonders why we ever gave it up. Why do we have to always be so serious just because we get older? We should call up our friends to go out and play instead of to go to dinner.
Take a break. Take plenty of breaks.
“Forget about chasing 15 minutes of fame, go for 15 minutes of game.”
The kind of game you play at recess. The kind where no one remembers the score.
All of the honorees are hugely deserving, but two stand out because of what they’ve overcome.
Miracle Helekahi of Hana made all the right moves as a youngster, despite the serious challenge of homelessness. And she’s got things all planned out. When her schooling is completed, she will open “Miracles Happen,” the first bakery in her hometown.
Living in a tent for a few years gives you an appreciation for, among other things, pastry. “It was fun sometimes, but embarrassing, like when you want to have your friends come over,” she said.
She was senior class president and a member of the National Honor Society; she starred in softball, basketball and paddling. Miracle will study culinary arts at Johnson and Wales University in Denver.
Then there’s Fadi Youkhana, another Kaimana winner to remember when you think you’ve got it rough. He’s from Mosul, Iraq. His father received a grant to study for a Ph.D. at the University of Hawaii in 2004. Just in time, Fadi said.
If he still lived in Iraq?
“I’d be dead by now,” Fadi said.
Mosul is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, especially for Christians such as Fadi’s family.
“Churches are bombed,” he said. “You go to bed not knowing if you’re going to wake up the next day.”
Fadi said there was some cultural adjustment. But it didn’t take long for him to fit in. He thrived at Roosevelt, an excellent student who also played football, soccer and tennis.
He plans to major in biology at the University of Hawaii and go on to medical school.
When it was over, we all agreed we were sharing a room with 22 vessels of can’t-miss greatness.
“I have been renewed,” MC Jim Leahey said. “There are young people who are just simply superb.”
They’ve already done more for others than some folks do all their lives; they know it’s not just about the scoreboard. And they’re just getting started.