Puanani Burgess tells the story of one student with a gift—a gift our schools are not cultivating.
A sought-after mediator, poet, community organizer, and Zen priest, Pua attributes her abilities as a cultural translator to a personal heritage as varied as her homeland, Hawai’i. She’s Japanese, Chinese, Native Hawai’ian, German, and French, and grew up poor in one of the Islands’ roughest towns. It is fostering that connection—with self, with place, with community—that is the key to her success in bringing people together.
Here is a story she told at the Seattle Green Festival that shows the power of discovering your gift.
One of the processes I use to help people talk to each other I call Building the Beloved Community. There’s an exercise that requires people to tell three stories.
The first is the story of all of your names. The second is the story of your community. The third story I ask them to tell is the story of your gift.
One time, I did this process with a group in our local high school. We went around the circle and we got to this young man, and he told the story of his names well and the story of his community well, but when it came time to tell the story of his gift, he asked, “What, Miss? What kind gift you think I get, eh? I stay in this special ed class and I get a hard time read and I cannot do that math. And why you make me shame for, ask me that kind question? What kind gift you have? If I had gift, you think I be here?”
He just shut down and shut up, and I felt really shamed. In all the time I have ever done that, I have never, never shamed anybody before.
What would happen if our community was gift-based?
Two weeks later, I am in our local grocery store, and I see him down one of those aisles and I see his back and I’m going down there with my cart and I think “Nope I’m not going there.” So I start to back up as fast as I can and I’m trying to run away from him. And then he turns around and he sees me, and he throws his arms open, and he says, “Aunty! I have been thinking about you, you know. Two weeks I have been thinking: ‘What my gift? What my gift?’ ”
I say “OK bruddah, so what’s your gift?”
He says, “You know, I’ve been thinking, thinking, thinking. I cannot do that math stuff and I cannot read so good, but Aunty, when I stay in the ocean, I can call the fish, and the fish he come, every time. Every time I can put food on my family table. Every time. And sometimes when I stay in the ocean and the Shark he come, and he look at me and I look at him and I tell him, ‘Uncle I not going take plenty fish. I just going to take one, two fish, just for my family. All the rest I leave for you.’ And so the Shark he say, ‘Oh, you cool, brother.’ And I tell the Shark, ‘Uncle, you cool.’ And the Shark, he go his way and I go my way.”
And I look at this boy and I know what a genius he is, and I mean, certifiable. But in our society, the way schools are run, he is rubbish. He is totally destroyed, not appreciated at all. So when I talked to his teacher and the principal of the school, I asked them what would his life have been like if this curriculum were gift-based? If we were able to see the gift in each of our children and taught around that gift? What would happen if our community was gift-based? If we could really understand what the gift of each of our communities were, and really began to support that?
So that for me is a very native approach—being able to see the giftedness in every aspect of life.