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Obama at Punahou School

President Obama's Education in Hawaii

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Obama at Punahou School

Obama at Punahou graduation with Laura Kong, May 1, 1979.

Laura S.L. Kong

Obama’s Early Life

Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii on August 4, 1961, attended a private school called Punahou from fifth through twelfth grade. His time at this private school had a strong effect on him, though he arrived at the school already having experienced more than most children his age. His father was a Kenyan economist, and his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was at the time of his birth a student at the University of Hawaii. Born in Kansas and raised in a suburb of Seattle, she moved to Hawaii with her parents in 1960, the year after Hawaii became a state. She later earned a doctoral degree and became an anthropologist who studied women’s handiwork and ceramics, and she married a man from Indonesia, and Barack and his sister, Maya, lived in Indonesia before he returned to Hawaii to live with his grandparents and attend Punahou.

Obama at Punahou

Obama entered Punahou in 1971, when he was 10. In his book Dreams from My Father, Obama described how his grandfather worked his connections to get Barack admitted to Punahou. Obama’s mother was at that time still living in Indonesia, and Obama’s father had left the family when Obama was a baby. Though Punahou had long educated the children of privileged families, Obama attended the private school on a scholarship and worked at a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop to earn extra money. Obama was one of a few black students at the school at the time (the school is now very diverse and the appreciation of cultural diversity is part of its mission statement). He quickly found a place for himself as a scholar and athlete at the school, and his teachers later recalled him as a friendly, slightly pudgy kid who brought with him a knowledge of other cultures and ways of life from his time living in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Punahou made its mark on Obama from the beginning, even though he at first felt different from most of the students. According to the school’s website, Obama recalled of his fifth grade teacher, “She didn’t let me withdraw into myself. She helped me believe that I had something special to say... She reinforced the sense of empathy and thoughtfulness that my mother and my grandparents had tried hard to instill in me – and that’s a lesson that I still carry with me as President.”

At Punahou, Obama played basketball and was a member of the 1979 varsity team that won the state championship, and he also wrote for Ka Wai Ola, the high school literary journal, and sang in the school choir. Though he took a course called “Law in Society,” and presented himself as a likeable and serious student, Obama, according to his former classmates, spent most of his time playing basketball and particularly enjoyed pick-up games on the school’s outdoor courts. Nonetheless, the school allowed him to feel that he could forge a path to success and that he had the skills to achieve great things.

Like many other students who go on to achieve greatness, Obama did not seem destined for particular greatness, and many of his classmates did not predict that Obama’s path would take him so far, or that it would involve politics. According to a story on NPR, or National Public Radio, broadcast in October of 2012, many of his classmates thought Obama would go on to become a basketball coach, not ascend to the nation’s highest office. And by his own report, Obama spent a great deal of his time during high school on the local beaches. His teachers described him as a student with a great deal of “pizzazz” and one able to make friends with kids from different cliques but not necessarily as the student with the greatest intellectual fervor. Obama would go home from the basketball court to raid the refrigerator in his grandparents’ tiny two-bedroom apartment and then read books voraciously while listening to jazz or Stevie Wonder. The confidence and skills Punahou provided Obama would later be in evidence as he ascended to the Presidency.

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