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‘Aloha oe,’ coach Wong | Guest Column
Editor’s note: The following column is written by a former Norman Rockwell Elementary School student in remembrance of Don Wong, who died last month at age 61.
Even when snow blanketed the playground in a white fluffy comforter and the rain washed out parts of the soccer field in a small monsoon, it was impossible not to miss those floral print Hawaiian shorts standing out in the cold, greeting each of us as we arrived at school. Something about reaching for those high fives had an uplifting effect on a day that had not begun yet, and that contagious smile warmed the heart instantly. Don Wong was an educator, a mentor, a coach, a life coach, a friend, family member and perhaps just shy of an angel.
I am so lucky to have known Wong for 13 years. It wasn’t until I was older that I learned just how powerful his impact was on my life, and as I graduated high school, I knew I wanted to earn my teaching degree and physical education MA to go right back to the very walls he taught in to teach class myself. His outreach to students beyond those brick walls was incredible. He attended my junior high basketball games, and in high school, I was a volunteer as a camp counselor for two years working with Wong, other teachers from Rockwell and students outside of a school setting. Inside the classroom, he was a phenomenal educator. What I admired most about his teaching was his classroom. He did not have desks, chairs, whiteboards or homework. His instruments were his composure, knowledge and passion. It was admirable how he kept his patience and worked with various age groups, teaching each of them as individuals.
The depth of his teaching was inspirational. I often visited him while in college working on my associates in elementary education where we talked about the aspects of physical education. He once told me, “they see sharks and minnows” (a game the students were playing), “but they’re learning teamwork and agility. You cannot teach teamwork anywhere else like you can here.” I think that was the coach in him talking, but as he looked out over the gym watching like a father hawk, I could see he truly loved his profession. He made me believe that certain people were born to do certain things and be great.
He was a life coach for me, sharing stories and tips from his successful career. During a discussion, I asked him “why a teacher?” He told me he went to law school but as he got deeper into the profession, he felt a void, it was not fulfilling. So he went back and got his master’s in education, and as he began teaching, he knew this is what he was meant to do. “I felt like a part of a community for a greater cause, really giving back,” he said to me. The last time I visited him, just like every time before, he looked at me with a straight face and asked me, “so you are going to take over when I retire, right?” He began to crack that smile, “no seriously, right?” All I could do was smile and nod yes while he told me never, no matter how long the road, never give up on school because it will be my career one day. I knew I had so much more to learn and that he had so much to teach me even after the last 13 years. We planned on doing my student teaching in his classroom in spring 2014.
Wong is an unforgettable spirit that continues to inspire my career in education. His words of wisdom ring with every credit I come closer to my degree, and his impact on my life weighs heavy as the days crawl by since his passing. May he rest in peace, be recognized for the inspirational educator and friend he was, and surf some choice waves wherever he is.
‘Aloha oe’ Don, until we meet again.
Keli Mineishi attended Norman Rockwell Elementary School from 1999-2004.