Author’s Visit Ignites Conversation
By Jack Kiyonaga, Editor
As the new school year swings into action, award winning author Ryan La Sala visited Molokai High School (MHS). La Sala was welcomed by many; however, his talk also evoked a strong response from some members of the Molokai community, who believed La Sala’s identity as LBGTQ+ and focus on LGBTQ+ stories sent messages to their children that they weren’t comfortable with.
MHS librarian Diane Mokuau used her 2021 School Librarian of the Year Award, sponsored by Scholastic, to invite La Sala to speak at MHS.
Mokuau believed La Sala’s visit contributed to MHS’s focus on college and career pathways through the newly established academy model. Academies are designed to help students gain real experience in career fields.
The students “have so little exposure to the variety of professional careers and opportunities that are out there. This makes it real to them. Here is a person who is [writing professionally], who can speak about it, who can explain details,” explained long time MHS teacher Ric Ornellas.
This kind of modeling allows students to “realize these are real life skills, which are what the academies are all about,” said Ornellas. “The educational value is [La Sala] is a professional writer. [La Sala] makes his living by writing. That is a very rare opportunity for our students to meet a professional in [creative writing].”
La Sala is a young adult fantasy author, who writes “books in which surreal things happen to queer people,” according to his website.
Through this visit, La Sala explained he wanted to share his journey as an author, represent this kind of career path for kids, and encourage students to “tell stories their way” in the hopes that students “leave a session with me believing in their own ability to tell a story.”
“I don’t want a facet of myself to create an exclusion between me and the audience,” said La Sala. “I’m not the focus here.”
Mokuau was very deliberate in her selection of an LGBTQ+ author.
“Everyone is welcome in the library,” said Mokuau. “Libraries are some of the last free places.”
Mokuau believed that much of the controversy around the visit, which included a book talk and creative writing class as well as a discussion at the Molokai Public Library, was due to the spreading of inaccurate information. According to Mokuau, La Sala’s talk was not a required assembly, but rather an event students could elect to attend.
“None of [the students] are mandated,” to attend the author talk, explained Mokuau. Students either signed up to attend during their advisory time, or certain writing focused classes elected to participate.
All MHS parents were sent an opt out letter, by which they could stop their child from attending La Sala’s talk. According to Mokuau, about 20 parents had opted their child out of joining the talk. Of these, only one was a student who had signed up to hear La Sala speak.
Community conversation around the talk bubbled up on social media the week of La Sala’s Aug. 31 visit. La Sala said that he received death threats via direct messages on social media, causing Scholastic to insist that police be present at La Sala’s talk at the public library. Molokai community members who disagreed with the school’s selection of La Sala protested the day of his visit outside of MHS and the Molokai Public Library.
“Our children are confused, they’re vulnerable, impressionable, and we have the responsibility as guardians to make sure we’re protecting them…certain lifestyles should not be pushed onto them,” said one of the protesters outside the public library.
Rethysia Horner, a MHS parent, took to Facebook to voice her opposition, saying to “take your agendas elsewhere.”
For Horner, conversations around LGBTQ+ should revolve around parents, rather than schools.
“I try to understand both sides, but don’t use our kids to push your beliefs,” said Horner. She explained that MHS should allow “parents to make an informed decision.”
The response of some Molokai community members to the author’s visit surprised Mokuau.
“It’s been unexpected,” she said.
La Sala’s visit “is the beginning of a really important conversation for our students and our community,” said Ornellas. “As a public school we must accept all students,” he explained. “There is a diverse population in our school and in our community.”
The hope in bringing in a LGBTQ+ author is that all students can feel included, according to Mokuau.
Mokuau explained that she wished to expose students to different kinds of ideas and people through books.
“Books can be a mirror” for one’s own life, and “books can be a window,” into the lives of others, she explained.
For Mokuau, La Sala’s visit was a vital step in “re-imagining” the school library as an educational and social space for students.
To this end, Mokuau has brought in new comfortable furniture, more bean bag chairs, better lighting, and more areas to read for students to start the new year. Likewise, through new grants, Mokuau has been able to supply the MHS library with a maker space, replete with sewing and jewelry machines and circuit design.
The hope, according to Mokuau, is to make the school library inviting, accessible and educational by “expanding the use of the library.”
Libraries can “change your life,” said Mokuau. “That’s why this author is kicking [the year] off.”
As La Sala’s talk at the Molokai Public Library came to a close, attendees gathered outside to pule and remember La Sala’s sister — whose death is commemorated in his book, “The Honeys.”
As the more than 40 participants formed a circle, the protestors crossed the courtyard, joining them hand-in-hand.