Barack Obama's Neighborhood
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Punahou Days

Founded in 1841, Punahou School (pronounced "poo-na-hoe") which translates as "new spring" was originally established to educate the children of New England missionaries. This allowed them to stay in Hawaii with their families, rather than sailing thousands of miles away to attend a school on the Mainland.

Long an icon in the community, Obama described Punahou as "an incubator for the island elites". In the local lexicon it's synonymous with privilege and influence. Families with modest means will scrimp and save to send their send their children there (if the child is lucky enough to be admitted) and the Dunham family was no different. Fortunately Barack qualified for a scholarship.

Obama has often acknowledged the profound impact this institution had on his life. In a May 21, 2008 Sports Illustrated interview he said, "Punahou gave me a great foundation so that when I got older, and wiser, I knew what it was to work hard and strive for excellence. I think it instills that in a lot of kids."

Known for its academic excellence and superb sports program, Punahou provided the future President of the United States with a first class education, a rich educational environment and a chance to play for an all-state basketball team.

In 1971 he entered Punahou as a fifth grader. During a 2004 speech to Punahou students, he commented on his first days at school: "One of the challenges for a 10-year-old boy coming to a new place is to figure out how you fit in. And it was a challenge for me, partly because I was one of the few African Americans in the school, partly because I was new and a lot of the students had been together since kindergarten."

Pal Eldredge, Obama's math and science teacher in 1971, said in a piece published in the Punahou Bulletin that, "Barry was a happy kid. He had a good sense of humor and was smiling all the time. He was a rascal too - he had a little spunk to him."

There were other times, he has written, that he felt like a fish out of water. As a young man from a family of humble origins, he was surrounded by the sons and daughters of Hawaii's upper class. He was acutely aware that his schoolmates lived in large homes.One former classmate said, "Barack was the only person I knew of who lived in an apartment. The rest of us had homes." In addition to class distinctions, there were only a handful of African Americans at Punahou, which was overwhelmingly white and Asian. He commented on his search for identity in a piece in the Punahou Bulletin.

"As an African American teenager in a school with few African Americans, I probably questioned my identity a bit harder than most. As a kid from a broken home and a family of relatively modest means, I nursed more resentments than my circumstances justified, and didn't always channel those resentments in particularly constructive ways."

What brought great joy into his life was participating in Punahou's vaunted basketball program. His family, friends and former teachers seemed to agree that Barry's happiest moments at Punahou were spent on the hardwood court of the gym or on the outside courts, mixing it up with his best friends and whomever he could get to play against him."

In the 2008 SI interview Obama said, "... basketball was a refuge, a place where I made a lot of my closest friends, and picked up a lot of my sense of competition and fair play. It was very important to me all the way through my teenage years."

Former classmate Dean Ando, who spent many hours on the basketball court with Obama and knew him since the fifth grade, says that Punahou was probably the best possible place for Obama in Hawaii. Though an exclusive school it was egalitarian in the sense that anyone with academic skills, regardless of ethnicity, would be respected for their accomplishments.

Indeed his friends observed that there was more to Obama than just sports. He had an intellectual side. In a comment published in the Punahou Bulletin, his classmate, Greg Orme said, "He had a worldly view. He would talk about people in Pakistan and was a lot more aware of Middle East politics than anybody I knew. He was following conflicts around the world and talked about it all the time. He read a lot on his own, too -- books on philosophy. So we'd talk about world politics or existentialism."

Of his experience in Punahou Obama said, "There was something about this school that embraced me, gave me support and encouragement, and allowed me to grow and prosper. I am extraordinarily grateful."

Indeed there is still a warm place in his heart for his alma mater. Over the years Obama has been a guest speaker at the school and when he visited Hawaii during his 2008 summer vacation, the basketball court at the gym was opened especially for him and former classmates. It's fair to say that this will not be the last time he will have the same opportunity.


Punahou & Educational Factoids:

Years Attended

  • 1971:  (5th grade) to 1979 (12th grade)

Extra Curricular Activities

  • 1975:   Plays intermediate football at Punahou as an eighth-grader.
  • 1976:   Sings in the Punahou Boys' Chorus One - 9th grade
  • 1977:   Sings in the Punahou Concert Choir as a 10th-grader; plays junior varsity basketball
  • 1978:   Makes the Punahou varsity basketball team as a junior
  • 1979:   Plays on the state championship basketball team as the only left-hander; writes for Ka Wai Ola, Punahou's high school literary journal
  • 1979:  Graduates from Punahou

Pauahi Hall
Pauahi Hall
Site of Barry Obama's homeroom

Castle Hall
Castle Hall
Where Obama spent the 5th grade

Old School Hall
Old School Hall
The oldest building on campus--here Obama took English classes

The Gym
The Gym
Punahou grads will recognize this shot was not taken in their gym. However, that is the real Obama playing hoops with U.S. servicemen in Djibouti in 2006. If someone has a photo of the gym (with Barry would be nice) and would grant permission to publish it, that would be appreciated.

"OBAMA" in Cement
Etching in the Cement
There are two versions of how "OBAMA" appeared on a patch of cement near a popular gathering spot on campus. One is that a friend of Barry's was responsible. The other, perhaps more plausible according to a reliable source, is that Obama did the deed himself. Perhaps that's a question for a future press conference. (Disregard the "King" scrawling above "OBAMA". It appeared after the "OBAMA" graffiti and is not related.)

Comprehensive Education:

School Years Location Final degree Comments
Noelani Elementary School Kindergarten Honolulu, Hawaii    
St. Francis Assisi Catholic First through third grade Jakarta, Indonesia    
State Elementary School Menteng 01 Fourth grade Jakarta, Indonesia    
Punahou School Fifth through 12th grade Honolulu, Hawaii High School Diploma  
Occidental College Freshman and sophomore years Los Angeles, CA   Transferred to Columbia
Columbia College Junior and senior years New York, NY B.A. Political Science major with Iinternational relations focus
Harvard Law School Three-year program Cambridge, Mass. J.D. magna cum laude President, Harvard Law Review



Note that the Punahou Campus is strictly off limits to visitors. Taking photos and walking into buildings without permission is forbidden.

©2008 Rob Kay | Terms of Use