Lei Away

Hawaiʻi Graduation Leis
Image courtesy of Mitchell Fong

Nothing compares to celebrating a high school graduation in Hawai’i.

Image courtesy of Mitchell Fong

Somewhere beneath the kukui nuts, burrowed deep below layers of tuberose, vivid orchid, heavenly pikake, fragrant maile, plump plumeria, and slippery tī—somewhere even further under $250-worth of delicately folded U.S. tender, personalized fortune cookies, and 96 snack-sized packets of M&Ms, mini Snickers bars, Haribo gummi bears, and furikake arare—is a human head.

It is difficult to say if that human head is smiling or crying or gasping for breath, smothered beneath the strata of salutations, but that human head is connected to a Hawai‘i high school graduate’s body, fresh off the podium, posing awkwardly for photos like a modern wonder of anthropology.

The gifting of graduation lei is one of the most prevalent—and extravagant—of contemporary local traditions. These headless students are present post-ceremony at Waikiki Shell, Aloha Stadium, the Neil S. Blaisdell Arena, school fields and auditoriums across the Hawaiian Islands, and even campuses 3,000 miles yonder.

But seriously, someone get a shovel, because that one’s being buried alive.


It seems there is an unspoken competition between high schools students in Hawai‘i during graduation—an arms race to be smothered with as many lei as their teenaged bodies can physically hold. And there have been rumors about the various marvels and indulgences, about the great lengths to which lei givers have gone to adorn their sons, daughters, nieces, and cousins.

Allegedly, at a ceremony at ‘Aiea High School, the ‘awapuhi ginger of one lei was packed and woven so tightly, with sagging tiers of Saran-wrapped delicacies piled above it, that the grad needed a dive snorkel to respire through the foliage. At Kahuku High School, someone purportedly macraméd a lei encompassing an assortment of baked goods and snacks from the nearest 7-Eleven, including a 32-ounce Slurpee … that did not spill. Supposedly, at Maui’s King Kekaulike High School, some grads came prepared with rollerblades and Heelys, so that when they would be inevitably immobilized by the sheer weight and restraints of their lei, they at least could skate away with assistance.

Other reports are even more outrageous. At Punahou, it is said that someone braided a lei of IV bags holding rare AB-negative blood, an exceptional gesture to a future medical student on her way to Johns Hopkins University. On a similar note, one student at Saint Louis received a lei of kittens encapsulated in nylon netting to wish him well en route to Cornell University. The boy had big dreams of becoming a veterinarian.

Indeed, it seems like these lei have become grand bets on children’s futures—perhaps the adornments will even manifest success. But maybe there is a method to the madness. With the extraordinary debt most students will find themselves in upon graduating, that sedge of $20 origami cranes should be invested immediately. All those snacks, foodstuffs, and Capri Sun pouches should be hoarded and rationed accordingly throughout the following years.

Possibly, the answer was draped upon their shoulders this whole time. One day, kukui nut and tī leaf oils may be converted into futuristic petroleum substitutes by the right brainiac to crack the code—a brain currently somewhere amid the garlands and regal haku lei.

Or perhaps it’s nothing of the sort, and the ritual is much more selfish. Perhaps loved ones pile on these lei of pīkake and plumeria and snack-sized Nestlé Crunch bars to weigh young grads down so that they might not flee. Perhaps they are anchors of love, with the very literal message, “Don’t leave me!” Ironically, in Hawaiian, lei means a song of flowers, a child on one’s shoulders, and to spring, to cast, to rise, to leap forth—perhaps into the future.

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