There is an ordinary cluttered room, one wall shelved top to bottom with books in various stages of decay from overuse, on the fifth floor of an aged, ordinary building that is home-on-campus to an inexplicably infectious teacher who conveys intelligence and passion in every breath. Kuhio Walters sits contemplatively in his swivel chair, legs crossed, content smile on his face, surrounded by instruments that exercise his mind, and anybody that sees him cannot help but notice there is something more to his story.
Born in Central Valley, California, this clean-cut intellectual took a sporadic path through life to get to where he is today: a successful teacher who inspires his students, with a beautiful wife, and two unparalleled boys at home.
If you have been lucky enough to be in one of Walters’ writing or theory classes, you have felt the reverberation of his academic astuteness pulse through the walls, the desks, and your own brain. He is the ultimate “students’ teacher” – he takes a genuine interest in his students, and knows what works for who and how hard to push them. Beyond that, he knows his students as individuals.
At 16, Walters did what almost every 16-year-old in the country wishes they could do – he dropped out of high school. His parents signed for him to join the military, and a month after 17 he began his term in boot camp. Before entering boot camp, he had to take an entrance exam, which (not surprisingly) he scored exceedingly well on. “They automatically put me in a position of leadership because of my entrance scores. That lasted a day,” he tells me as he cracks a broad smile that shouts reminiscence, “I got in trouble a lot.”
Leaning forward on his knees, he begins relaying the memories of the levels of punishment because, after all, he spent multiple hours serving time in these, and the flicker as the reel of images from his past flashing through his head was impossible to not notice.
Level 1: (He shakes his buzzed head slightly and smirks, going through the circular motion with his hand in the air) Shine brass on a fake ship
Level 2: (Dips his head with a deeper smile) Intensive training
Level 3: (Coughs out a laugh as he looks up and demonstrates) Locked in a room with the other Level 3’s with all winter gear on, no air, running in place holding a lead filled M2 at 90 degrees for an hour, then sprinting.
He holds up three fingers, shakes his head with a nostalgic smile. “Three times. There would be men passing out after 15 minutes and you just stand there and keep going.”
Not one to pass up an opportunity to laugh, or make a lasting impression, on the second day of boot camp as Platoon Leader, he ran up to get the key for the gun cabinet. As he turned to run back, the rest of his platoon, lined up, stiff and robotic, was too tempting for the young soldier. Approaching the line, he held up his hand and slapped each person in the face. About four men in, he heard his name shouted, and his reign as Platoon Leader was over.
“Silly things would get me in trouble, I would have my Chit in the wrong pocket or the wrong way, I was a smart aleck, and a little bit recalcitrant,” his pointer finger and thumb are held an inch apart as he cocks his head to the side and squints one eye with a smirk.
Stationed on the West Coast, he began learning his electrical trade, and became first in nautical technician and a fireman. Working 16-18 hour days, he was responsible for fixing everything electrical on his ship, making every part of its motors. As a young, aspiring electrician or motorcycle mechanic (a career inspired by The Fonz), working on the amphibious aircraft career showed him what working with his hands was really like, and Walters knew that was not for him.
After serving four West Pacific tours, each one six months long, around Hawaii, Southeast Asia, Australia, Korea, and Hong Kong, and earning his G.E.D., Walters started a new chapter in his life in academia. He began at a community college and finished at California State University; studying the hard sciences to be pre-med his first three years until taking a creative nonfiction course for an elective.
Putting his hands up and shrugging, as if to surrender to something that was predetermined for him, he confessed. “That was it; there was no question of ‘Should I be doing anything else?’ I’ve always been a big reader.” He looks through everything in front of him as though transparent, searching for the precise words, “and I like the academic treatment of ideas.”
He continued to get his MA at Cal State and moved across the country to further his education at the University of New Hampshire, where he got his PhD.
Not unlike the rest of his life, Walters’ list of favorites hits every spot on the spectrum. From using his books in the classroom recently, his interest in Roland Barthes, a French literary theorist, is newly revamped. His love for Rudyard Kipling (best known for “The Jungle Book”), however, has not dwindled.
Walters flexes his academic muscles, “He was a British author who spent his life in India. He brought the colonialist/imperialist perspective to the continent. He was subversive, cranky, and a racist. His anthology was given to me when I was 10, and that was my first idea of literature,” he says, always smiling, scanning his packed bookcase for the book, guaranteed to be browned and worn.
After listening to Walters speak, especially in the classroom, for even the shortest amount of time, one cannot help but wonder if he has ever wanted his ideas to be published. He just tilts his head back and laughs, “I try never to write like I talk. It doesn’t translate well to the written word.”
His oldest son, now a sophomore in high school, is talented beyond his years, and is sure to be a great baseball player and a force to be reckoned with on the field for years to come. His youngest, however, is still playing with colorful plastic bats and balls in the yard. His chubby face never goes without a smile as he runs around the yard away from and toward the outstretched arms of his parents.
This is the Kuhio Walters that will forever be prominent to most people that are fortunate enough to know him outside of the classroom; clad in basketball shorts, surrounded by the most important people to him, and radiating happiness, love and passion.
Gabrielle Rosati is a fourth-year English major with a minor in Journalism. She can be reached at GR688985@wcupa.edu