When I was a child, I was considered smart simply because I had good grades, like top-of-the-class good grades from elementary through high school. College introduced me to the latter letters of school grades, but that is another story.
My dad was proud of me. He was born in the Philippines, orphaned at fourteen, then raised by Catholic nuns. At nineteen, he immigrated to Hawaii to labor in sugar fields. He often reminded me he had “only a third grade education.”
Until I was fifteen, Dad worked two jobs. He cleaned hotel rooms at the iconic Royal Hawaiian Hotel from eight to four, came home to a rushed dinner, then drove back to Waikiki to wait on tables from six to ten. One of my favorite tasks was to count coins and crumpled bills the next morning. His tip money reeked of cigarette smoke.
One Saturday afternoon, when I was in the fourth grade, I was loudly complaining about my homework on finding definitions and using the words in a sentence. I normally loved this kind of homework. Made me feel smart. However, in this assignment, I could not find a couple of words in an old dictionary that no one used except me. I was almost in tears. He asked me what I needed, grabbed some money from the tip bowl, and left.
A couple of hours later, he returned with a purchase from the now-defunct Honolulu Book Store. He had me sit at the kitchen table and presented a big black dictionary. “Is this what you need?”
Even as a nine year old, I knew he had done something very special and courageous. He drove to a bookstore that he would never normally visit and, in his Filipino-accented broken English, he shyly asked a store clerk about dictionaries. He purchased this book with his hard-earned tip money. When I told him this dictionary was perfect and gave him a big hug, he smiled and said, “Now go do your homework.”
A few weeks later, he asked me for a favor. Would I teach him how to multiply and divide? I had proudly shown him my graded math tests and he thought I could help him. He had to fill out tip reports at the restaurant, and did not know how to calculate averages. He also wanted to see how much money he might make a week if he could earn $50 a night.
We spent a lot of time at the kitchen table. He was a good student and learned his multiplication table quickly. Division was a challenge, but he managed to calculate simple equations. I came up with math problems and graded his homework. These were light-hearted moments. We both laughed. We both learned.
When my dad died, I asked my mom for two things. The black dictionary and his bolo knife. Both sit in my living room. I will tell you about the knife some other day.