My brother Sam was bitten by a scorpion. He was a little over a month old. We lived with a lot of animals. Cockroaches. Lizards (Gecko). Rats. But this scorpion was really bad, because it was infected, and Sam almost died from lockjaw (a result of tetanus infection). My dad and my uncle took him to the hospital emergency to be treated. The person at the hospital told them, “He’s in real serious condition, but we think we can save him. It’ll be real expensive. Can you afford it?”

My dad had a meltdown. Why did my dad have a meltdown? What should Dad and Uncle do?

A few months ago, I posed this test problem (in the Hawaiian pidgin dialect) to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. I wondered whether he could provide any answers that would demonstrate his critical understanding of situations that far too many Americans face every day. He never answered me, (I think it’s going on two, three months), so I thought I’d give him another chance, this time written in “Standard English.”

However, the story of Sam’s treatment by the medical establishment needs to be finished first, because … well, you’ll have to use your own critical thinking: Why is it that “frontline workers,” like nurses, teachers, and social service workers, the people who actually deal with the families who need help, always get blamed instead for society’s ills, while the selfish cream of the crop feel entitled enough to draft policy affecting people they know nothing about?

The “happy” end of the story is just as important as the beginning:

Dad and Uncle went to see another uncle who did have resources, who agreed to cover the hospital expenses. My parents were told that the doctors could release Sam to go home a week earlier than they usually allowed, but he would need to have a 24-hours/day nurse who would live with the family. They said it would greatly lower the medical bill, so my parents agreed. After a week, the nurse told my mom, “He’s going to be fine. You’ll be fine. It’s time for me to leave.”

“How much do I owe you?” Mom asked.

“You don’t owe me anything,” the nurse replied. “Use the money to buy some milk for the baby.” And she walked out the door.

Mom said that she kept the name of the nurse and tried to find her when she thought she had enough to pay her. “But,” Mom said, “she seemed to have just disappeared.”

* * *

“You’re going to major in what? Philosophy? What kind of work can you do with that?” my mom asked when I called to tell her I was switching my major from math to philosophy. “Public relations?”

I was speechless. Then I almost laughed.

But she continued, “That’s not what Dad was thinking.”

That got my attention. But I didn’t want to push the question.

My dad had always told me, “You weak, you sick all the time. Cannot do manual labor. You have to use your brains.”

After graduating from college, I picked up some cabinetmaking skills and worked at my own shop trying to prove my dad wrong. I also did some (volunteer) community organizing work in Portland.

When Mom was visiting me, I asked her, “What was Dad thinking, Mom?”

She replied, “He wanted you to be a great social reformer. He thought maybe a lawyer would be good for that.” A lawyer? I had to laugh then.

* * *

After immigrating to Hawai‘i (the Big Island) from Okinawa, Dad enrolled in Hilo Boarding School to learn English (and to have a place to live I assume). He moved to Maui and continued his studies at Lahainaluna School, another boarding school, with a high school work-study program.

There, he had a math teacher who was very impressed with Dad and thought Dad could go to college. He was also the teacher that introduced Dad to Marxism.

Unfortunately, Dad was expelled from the school in his junior year after knocking down a luna of the school’s work program during a dispute about how the luna was treating Dad and others.

* * *

“Why are you telling him all this stuff?” I overheard Mom ask.

“Well, he doesn’t understand me now, but he will when he grows up,” Dad answered.

I was in the third or fourth grade when I overheard that. I listened to a lot of Hegel and Marx stuff from dad when I was a kid. And I didn’t understand any of it. But I thought, “Well, I have until when I grow up to understand.” So I just put the stuff out of my mind.

About the same time, dad came to me with an old book called 100 Geometric Proofs. It was an old worn copy, so I think he had had it for a long time. I thought they were cool. “Puzzles. Teach you how to solve puzzles.” That’s what he said. I don’t know why. Hegel and Marx and geometric proofs.

Dad was competitive. He would challenge me and lord it over to me if he got done before me. The Richard Sherman of his time. If he didn’t, he’d count how many steps I took and say, “I did it in much less steps.”

“Yeah, but you’ve done this before,” I’d say.

“You think you’re better than me? We’ll do 5 proofs. See who can do 5 better,” he’d respond.

And we would “play” some more.

But I didn’t care. It was fun. I didn’t care about being timed or how many steps it took. Sometimes, he could do these proofs in half the time and half the steps and would get furious, because he was an impatient man, at how long I was taking. But I refused his requests to help me. I wanted to do it myself. And in most cases I did.

Once when we reached the end of the book, he asked, “How did you like that?”

“Good fun,” I answered.

“Good,” he said. “Help you solve problems with your head. That’s what you need to do. Not good trying to solve problems with body.”

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