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Punahou School has a new claim to fame: It was the high school of President Barack Obama. But it has always been a prestigious school where wealthy island families send their children to be groomed for a mainland college education. A definite snooty attitude is somehow accomplished by the school's education system, but apart from that downside, the students enjoy marvelous sports (many go to the olympics), music, and art programs. You name it, they have it: jewelry-making studio, ceramics studio, glass-blowing facilities, and dance hall.
Positioned on sloping green land graced with abundant old trees, Punahou has a calm, regal feel in the midst of one of the busiest parts of Honolulu, Makiki. Missionaries started the school in 1841 and the marvelous architecture spread throughout the campus attests to this. The dark masonry schoolhouses are particularly appealing. It's an idyllic setting, with elementary school children running between classes in bare feet, warmed by the Hawaiian sun.
I have fond memories of going to the Punahou Carnival as a teen every year in February. The hot malasadas (Portuguese donuts) were the highlight of the night.
With its mostly asian student body, Punahou (like all Oahu schools) is a lonely place to be white. Books have been written about this, such as Punahou Blues by Kirby Wright. For Barack Obama, one of only four Black students on campus, it was even harder. But his grandfather, a relatively poor white man, saw it as Barack's ticket to better things, and it certainly turned out to be! In his autobiography, Obama writes, "Gramps...told me it would be my meal ticket, that the contacts I made at a school like Punahou would last me a lifetime, that I would move in charmed circles and have all the opportunities that he'd never had." On the school tour as they walked past the green fields, photography studio, swimming pool, Gramps said, "Hell, Bar...this isn't a school. This is heaven. You might just get me to go back to school with you." When Barack's acceptance letter came, "Gramps spent the evening reading the entire school catalog, a thick book that listed my expected progression through the next seven years- the college prep courses, the extracurricular activities, the traditions of well-rounded excellence. With each new item, Gramps grew more and more animated; several times he got up with his thumb saving his place, and headed toward the room where Toot was reading, his voice full of amazement: 'Madelyn, get a load of this!'"
Excerpts from Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama. Crown Publishers, 2007.
While in the area, check out Manoa town, a college town tucked in a beautiful valley where rainbows appear almost every afternoon. For a great walk in the jungle, go to Lyon Arboretum. Also lovely is the campus of UH Manoa and its Japanese gardens. Just off of Punahou St is the neighborhood that leads to Tantalus Lookout, a drive through lush jungle to panoramic views of Manoa, Honolulu, and Diamond Head.
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Bench around a tall tree.
Handsome brick building.
Students gather in between classes.
I love the architecture!
There is plenty of open space on the Punahou campus.
From Highway 1 Westbound, exit at Wilder Avenue. Drive on Wilder Avenue for half a mile. Turn right on Punahou St. The campus is on your right. Park on one of the side streets on your left. Then you can walk to the campus.
From Highway 1 Eastbound, exit at Punahou St. Turn left on Punahou St. The campus will be on your right after a 1/4 mile (after you pass Wilder Ave). Park on one of the side streets on your left and then walk to the campus.
1601 Punahou Street, call (808) 944-5711.
This is an interactive map, you can zoom and move it.
Overall Visitor Rating: Unrated.