A School Upon a Hill

Images by Ijfke Ridgley

At the oldest high school west of the Mississippi, every day is steeped in history.

On a hot morning in April, while North American monarch butterflies are making their spring migrations from Mexico back to the warming northern states, one flits between the shrubs that surround Native Hawaiian scholar David Malo’s grave on Pu‘u Pa‘upa‘u, a cinder cone that rises high above Lāhainā, Maui. Malo’s resting place is marked by an oblong stack of basalt stones, encircled by tributary plaques that bear the names and class years of boarding students from Lahainaluna High School, his alma mater.

Like all the communities that populate the Valley Isle, the island’s butterflies descend from immigrants. In Malo’s Mo‘olelo Hawai‘i, the first major Hawaiian-authored work to catalogue the cultural and material world of early Hawaiians, he took careful stock of human migrations to the islands, but it was the other species that mystified him. For example, after listing the names for butterfly species—‘ōkai, pulelehua, and lepelepeohina (the last of which was given to the monarch butterflies)—Malo asks, “Whence come these little creatures? From the soil no doubt; but who knows?”

Monarch butterflies likely came to Maui as tiny pupae attached to milkweed plants, carried by the ships arriving in the 1840s at Lāhainā Harbor. The first may have even come ashore while Malo was busy publishing Mo‘olelo Hawai‘i, just a couple miles inland, on the slopes below Pu‘u Pa‘upa‘u at Lahainaluna High School’s Hale Pa‘i, which fittingly means “House of Printing.” The first edition of the nearly 300-page text was completed in 1838, and its publication speaks to the swift progress of Lahainaluna’s first graduating class, which included Malo. This cohort of Hawaiian students, each of whom were handpicked by the school’s missionary founders, had received a secondhand printing press only five years earlier, and within just three months, they had printed the first newspaper west of the Rockies, Ka Lama Hawaii.


Malo’s desire to use this new technology to record the features of his island world, and the culture of his people, was encouraged by his teachers, Christian missionaries who were sent from New England by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions with orders to educate and civilize Hawaiians, effectively establishing the first education system in the islands. In 1831, Lahainaluna Seminary was founded by Massachusetts-born William Richards and Connecticuter Lorrin Andrews, whose grandson, Lorrin A. Thurston, led the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Like many Hawaiian royals, Queen Lili‘uokalani had been educated at Honolulu’s Royal School, which was founded by missionary-turned-businessman Amos Cooke in 1839 as the Chiefs’ Children’s School. In a report to the American Board of Commissioners, Cooke outlined his central hope that his royal charges “be prepared in intellect to contend with foreigners, otherwise, the foreigners will have the superior influence.” This led to a decidedly Western curriculum, and among the texts taught, only one covered Hawaiian history: Sheldon Dibble’s History of the Sandwich Islands.

Dibble was a missionary from New York, and one of David Malo’s teachers at Lahainaluna. When Dibble arrived to Hawai‘i in 1836, he had reportedly found it “quite objectionable that the scholars, whilst they were becoming acquainted with other nations, should remain to a great degree in ignorance of their own.” Dibble embarked on an “effort to collect the main facts of Hawaiian history,” recruiting 10 of the best scholars at the seminary school to aid him.

At the head of these scholars was Malo, who had graduated in 1835 at age 42 and decided to stay on as a teacher rather than return to his home at Keauhou on Hawai‘i Island. Dibble gathered Malo and his classmates, including Samuel Kamakau from Waialua, O‘ahu, in one of the school’s new buildings and “requested them to go individually and separately to the oldest and most knowing of the chiefs and people, gain all the information that they could on the question given out, commit each his information to writing and be ready to read it on a day and hour appointed.” Sometime during that process, Malo became inspired to tell Hawai‘i’s stories on his own terms, rather than entrusting them solely to what he perceived as Dibble’s patronizing evangelical lens.

As a Native Hawaiian—in spite of being a devout Christian—Malo harbored a lifelong suspicion of foreigners, whom he witnessed behaving in inconsistent ways. After decades of laboring as a cultural go-between, including becoming the first superintendent of schools for Hawai‘i, he chose the remote summit behind the school as his final resting place. He was buried here in 1853, to be guarded by his future classmates, where only they, the birds, and a few foreign butterflies can reach him.


The plaques surrounding Malo at Pu‘u Pa‘upa‘u, which is a steep two-mile climb from the high school campus, date back almost a century. The 2013 class left a bright red and orange wooden plank here, with their names scrawled in Sharpie within the year’s numerals. The names of 1988’s boarders are also represented, printed on a brassy surface and set within a black frame. Those graduates of 1954 and 1955 simply etched their class years into concrete blocks, while 1934 and 1929 are engraved on natural basalt stones. Left so long in the elements, some of the tributes have lost legibility, becoming essentially abstract symbols of solidarity, like safety lines left in place by students who, over time, have called the school home before wading out into the world.

Lahainaluna’s boarding program dates back to 1836—prior to which, students had to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves—and was established as a means for bringing young, moldable minds into the school. Today, Lahainaluna High School is the only public school that offers boarding in the entire state, having grandfathered the program into the school’s structure as an option for students from Maui’s rural areas, neighbor islands, and far-flung, loyal Luna families. Many of the original 32 boarders would have had Malo as a teacher, perhaps the first Native Hawaiian to equip them with skills suited to the changing socio-political landscape of the islands. Today, there are nearly 60 boarders represented at the school of 1,000 who carry on the legacy of immersive education.


The graveside plaques are small tokens of Lahainaluna’s outward appreciation for Malo, which culminates every year in April with the David Malo Day Ho‘olaulea, an event organized by the Boarders Chorus and Hawaiiana Club to honor Malo and all of the school’s subsequent graduates. The day before this year’s event, I meet Larry Hu, a former boarder who helped bring the 1955 class block to Malo’s grave. He’s on a tour of the high school campus, offered to any alumni curious about what has changed since they graduated. Since its inception in 1969, David Malo Day has steadily grown, becoming the focal event for many class reunions. Hu, who is part Hawaiian and originally from Makawao, flew in from northern California for the festivities and joined a group of 1956 graduates to see old and new sights on campus. Collectively, they comprise the oldest alumni group in town for this year’s David Malo Day weekend, making them the event’s de facto guests of honor.

“I came from ’51 to ’55, and my brothers were here a few years before me,” Hu says as we look at a historical display of trophies, typewriters, and portraits of past principals in the school’s Samuel M. Kamakau Library. “We had to work three hours a day, one in the morning and two in the afternoon, to make up for our sustenance and living.” Before water heaters were installed in the 1960s, the boarders took ice-cold showers, and they rarely left campus, except to dominate the field in football games. “At that time, Lahainaluna was considered a powerhouse,” Hu says. “My hair stands up as I remember it. They were just outstanding. They put fear into schools that considered the boarders like animals when they let them out of their cages.”

A current boarder named Jessie leads our tour, with help from the sophomore class president, Kayla, and Angelique, the student body historian. We follow them to an elevated plot of missionary graves between two classroom buildings at the back of campus. Hu stops to show me the hair again standing up on his arm, which bears a faded tattoo that says “EUROPE” above “U.S. ARMY.” He leans on his cane and nods his head at the graves. “That’s history right there,” he says.

The oldest grave among the 13 in the weedy patch of red dirt belongs to Mary Dibble, who died at 18 months old. Her parents, Sheldon Dibble and his first wife, Maria Tomlinson, buried her shortly after they relocated to Maui, and today, both lie at her side. In the corner of the cemetery rests reverend Samuel Whitney, who came to Hawai‘i with the first company of missionaries. Whitney’s and Dibble’s tombstones are engraved with the number of years they served as missionaries—25 and 14, respectively—and the shared year, 1845, that both “fell asleep in Jesus.” Our young guides wait patiently as Hu and the other alumni observe and photograph the chained-off cemetery.

For today’s students, the gravesite is mostly a wayside attraction, something passed between classes and occasionally cited for ghost stories—though Malo’s grave arguably lays claim to more of those. Some students talk of his ghost occasionally descending on the school and slamming all its doors at once. Others worry more about souls connected to Hawaiian bones found beneath the library, within which, out of respect, they never use profanity. While that kind of spirit is inevitable in a place so old, it isn’t necessarily passive fun. In fact, it is one colorful mode of fulfilling the responsibility of folding Lahainaluna’s past into the fabric of today, a task woven into many students’ senses of kuleana, or responsibility.

Leaving the graves behind, Kayla and Angelique run ahead of the staggered group to hold open the doors to the school’s airy new cafeteria. As the alums mosey about the lunch tables, Isao Osato, a retired history teacher, reminds the group about the original cafeteria, built while they were students 60 years ago. Osato also recalls the animals that the school once farmed, including 40 pigs and dozens of chickens, and laughs as he tells us about students who used to sneak down to the coop to steal eggs and eat them raw.


The morning of David Malo Day, I decide to make the pilgrimage to visit the resting place of its namesake, taking a trail that starts behind Lahainaluna’s brightly turfed football field, and meanders up the slopes backing the campus. As I embark, teachers, students, and community volunteers are arranging tables, running audio cables, and unloading scores of aluminum trays filled with lū‘au staples like laulau, purple potatoes, and lomi-lomi salmon. As I gain elevation, I can see rows of chairs dotting the lawn of Boarder’s Field, where the ho‘olaulea will kick off in a few hours.

Near the summit looms the huge Lahainaluna “L” that has marked the hillside since 1929*. Framed out of red dirt and lined with bright white lime, it is easily seen from the seaside town set 2,000 feet below, though winter rains have left it craggy and a bit washed out. In a few weeks, the boarders will make their biannual trek to add a fresh coat of lime, and strike five crossbars to mark the Lunas’ five island sports titles claimed this school year.

Although the boarders complete this task with pride, the thought of hefting sacks of the powdered stone up that trail calls to mind the Hawaiian meaning of Pa‘upa‘u: drudgery. Named long ago, on behalf of weary servants to an early chief, who were tasked with fetching water from the hill and adjacent ditch, Pa‘upa‘u has long spelled toil for those venturing up its sunbaked slopes.

According to Lahainaluna’s acting principal, Joanne Dennis, “The school was literally built by the students, who first lived in tents. They built their own houses. They farmed the land. They grew the cotton. They spun thread. They wove cloth. And [they ran] the first printing press.” Principal Dennis started teaching at Lahainaluna in 1995, in the special education program. She sees to it that all students—from boarders to those in special education to those in advanced placement classes—maintain the school’s legacy of hard work. “Our kids come out of here with skills, and are sought out by our business community here,” she says.

The school’s working relationship with the community culminates each year on a day when seniors present their capstone projects, which often involve internships and jobs in Lāhainā, to their mentors, parents, and previous teachers. “It’s so meaningful to them to see … what [the students have] become and how they can present themselves,” Dennis says. For some of their teachers, those presentations carry symbolic weight; they watched their students climb the hill from Princess Nāhi‘ena‘ena Elementary School to Lāhainā Intermediate to Lahainaluna High School.


To be Lunas, by definition, means to be elevated, above, higher. Malo, from his permanent vantage, overlooks the coast from Olowalu to Kā‘anapali, the famed Lāhainā Roads shipping lane at the center of the whale-rich ‘Au‘au Channel, the south edge of Moloka‘i, and the entirety of cloud-tufted Lāna‘i. Then there’s Front Street, once the hub of the Pacific whaling fleet, which long ago brought sinners, saints, syphilis, and butterflies ashore. Today, I see a modern fleet of tour boats waiting in port for tourists weary of shopping along the growing commercial strip.

At noon, with Lāhainā’s cruel sun squarely overhead and David Malo Day festivities commencing in a few hours, I decide it’s time to hike back. After crab-walking down the 30-foot face of the L, I wind along the trail’s broad switchbacks made from repurposed sugar plantation roads (once the domain of another kind of luna, the field boss). As the sun pounds down, I think of a conversation I had with Lahainaluna senior Kalalani “Kala” Ka‘aikala the day before, when I asked him if he recommended the hike. He replied, “I would never walk up to the L.” For Kala, being a student at Lahainaluna is demanding enough. He is captain of the basketball team and is currently rehabilitating the ACL he tore just before this year’s state tournament. Coincidentally, he did a senior internship in sports medicine and plans to pursue nursing, after playing some college ball.


“Any kid that doesn’t come here and really, really build some good memories from high school has missed the boat,” principal Dennis says. Kala, whose family has attended Lahainaluna for generations, is in the boat. He recalls with pride community elders rooting him on at games. “You win, you lose, they’re there, every game, no matter what, always 20 minutes early, all wearing red,” he says. Echoing Kala’s fond memories, Dennis cites the crimson tide that floods stadiums during football games, at home and away.

Fearsome as that sight might be, it’s likely tempered by the school’s bouncy Hawaiian alma mater, which is sung at every game. Titled simply “Lahainaluna,” it was written in 1898 by student Albert Kaleikini, following his own inspiring trek to Pu‘u Pa‘upa‘u. But the weather that day must have been far less scorching; Kaleikini wrote of Lāhainā’s delightful showers, fierce winds, cold spring waters, and happily bathing birds. Or maybe, like me, he envied the butterflies and birds, and had only his lyrical thoughts to soothe himself as he plodded down on throbbing legs.


When I finally reach the school, the bleachers on Boarder’s Field are already filling up. Fathers carry boxes loaded with stacked plates of food, and mothers deftly pinch multiple plastic cups of fruit punch between their fingers. A growing congregation of girls in tī leaf skirts and haku lei huddle together at one end of the field. The event’s faculty advisor, Lori Gomez-Karinen, dashes to and fro, giving last minute instructions to the dancers, emcees, and choir.

Flitting about with equal urgency is alumna Florence Makekau, a master lei-maker who has brought intricate garlands to adorn each member of the class of 1956. Unlike many of her far-flung fellow classmates who have gathered once again on campus, Makekau has stayed close to the school. “A lot has changed, and some of them haven’t come back until now,” she says during a brief lull between greeting new arrivals with hugs and lei. At a long table near the stage, she finds Larry Hu joyfully eating beside his old roommate Thomas Tamura. They all hug, and Hu bows over his cane as Makekau places a bright red lei around his neck.

When most of the crowd is seated, save for a few kids tumbling around on the bleachers, the boys and girls of the choir, all clad in white, mount the stage on the mauka side of the field and line up along tiers cut into the hill. Sitting on the ground at center stage, with an ipu gourd in her lap, is Ilima Greig-Hong, a school counselor, co-adviser to the Hawaiiana Club, and daughter of David Malo Day founder Jimmie Greig. If Lahainaluna carries some kind of continuum of spirit, Greig-Hong sits at the nexus of past and present—and all the students, current and graduated, sitting behind and before her, look to her for the starting cue.

“Auntie Ilima,” as students call her, bears her role in the event with a smile. David Malo Day, she says, is a way for students to get “a good taste of Hawaiian culture as we see it passed down from our kūpuna to them,” as well as being an exercise in project-based learning via the hosting of a large program for the community from start to finish.


When Greig-Hong takes up her ipu, all of their preparation comes together—starting with a rendition of “Hilo Hanakahi.” The boys and girls call and respond, then slip into layered harmonies as they sing of the rains, winds, and seas at Hilo, Ka‘u, Kona, Kohala, Kawaihae, and Waimea. This tour is central to this year’s theme, “Pelehonuamea: Sacred Earth,” which inaugurates a multi-year trek through the island chain, starting with Hawai‘i, Malo’s home island. Next, the program shifts into its annual biographical tableau, “David Malo: His Story,” presented by two student emcees. Malo, played by boarding student Donavan Defang, goes to the front of the stage. He looks from side to side, bright-eyed and smiling. Then the school’s founder, William Richards, who is played by assistant soccer coach Steve Pisacano, walks onto the stage and shakes Malo’s hand. The two pantomime all of the conversation, reading, writing, and publishing that once filled the narrow, lime-plastered walls of Hale Pa‘i. The audience, seated in bleachers and rows upon rows of folding chairs, is silently enrapt as the school’s oldest memories unfold.

The emcees narrate on, quoting the famous prophecy Malo wrote in a letter to Kuhina Nui Elizabeth Kīna‘u in 1837, as our thespian Malo looks out on the crowd and mouths along: “If a big wave comes in, large fishes will come from the dark ocean … and when they see the small fishes, they will eat them up. … The ships of the white men have come, and smart people have arrived from the Great Countries which you have never seen before, they know our people are few in number and living in a small country; they will eat us up, such has always been the case with large countries, the small ones have been gobbled up.”

To a large extent, Malo’s prophecies have been fulfilled. And yet, to see the faces of the students, community, and alumni, which reflect generations of migration to Lāhainā by land, sea, and air, it would seem nothing was lost. In a way, those who call Lāhainā home seem to echo the unwavering faith that, no matter which way the town below goes, Lahainaluna remains safe upon this hill. No longer a secluded seminary, the school has grown into a living, breathing, cheering, singing, and dancing place of learning and innovation informed by the past. Each graduating class adds to the school’s weight in this community, and magnifies the power of its pull to make the climb again and again. As Greig-Hong told me prior to the show, “We have a saying, ʻkūlia i ka nu‘u, strive for the summit.ʼ”

The tableau ends, giving way again to song. As the setting sun clings to purple clouds rolling down from the mountains, the young Malo crosses the stage, climbs up the tiered choir seats, pushes through the backdrop of areca palms, and is gone for another year.

This story is part of our School Spirit Issue.

*Editorʼs note: This story originally stated that the Lahainaluna L was built in 1904. While multiple sources state this, Lahainaluna High School has interviewed those who were students when it was built, and determined the date to be 1929.

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