Guest Speakers

Demonstrating sketching techniques used by the Civil War era “Bohemian Brigade” for middle school students at a history fair in Los Angeles in 2005. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Teaching is a team effort. Many schools have adopted a team teaching or block schedule model to replace the paradigm of solitary single subject teachers presenting separate material over the course of six consecutive periods. For those of you still working in this traditional environment, a time tested way to supplement your curriculum and reinforce state content standards is to bring in guest speakers. Experts in various fields can help your overall presentation and enrich the learning experience of your students.

The social sciences in particular offer endless possibilities for guest presentations. During my twenty years in the classroom I brought in many guest speakers and served as one myself. One of my students had a great uncle who served in World War II. His father brought in several artifacts, including a German headquarters flag captured in Italy in 1945. One of the Little Rock Nine visited the community college adjacent to our campus. Other guest speakers shared stories of travel to historical sites. In economics class, I brought in small business owners and entrepreneurs.

Over the course of my fifteen years in living history programs, I often served as a guest speaker at schools and home school programs, civic organizations, and community events. This was particularly true during the decade in which I portrayed an artist correspondent for Harper’s Weekly. I wore historical costuming and brought in artifacts for the audience to see and showed samples from my sketch portfolio. I presented for several years in the outdoor classroom program of the Fresno Historical Society at their annual Civil War Revisited event in Kearney Park.

My partner Jill and I gave many presentations to local Civil War round table groups and school history fairs. We brought extra costuming in which to dress volunteers from the audience in order to illustrate the ensembles of war correspondents of the period. We traveled throughout southern California and Nevada for many years and posted educational material online. We attended the premiere of historical films in period costume and set up tables with educational materials to share with moviegoers.

Jill was cast in several television programs and films because of her authentic materials and her background in directing numerous theatrical productions in Orange County, California. Both of us portrayed unusual characters of the American Civil War period (1861-1865). She was a Union Army vivandiere for many years and also took the field with me as a news reporter. In 2005 she created a website for my correspondent impression which included a list of guest venues in which we participated as a team.

Jill and I served as guest speakers together at several educational events throughout southern California and Nevada from 2005 to 2010. Here she is demonstrating period letter writing as a Union Army vivandiere at a Los Angeles middle school. Photo Copyright (c) 2005 Torin Finney.

Check with your district and administrator about guest speaker policies before you bring them in. When the guests arrive, introduce them to your students and explain the learning objectives for that period. Require the students to be more than passive listeners. Have them take notes or participate in a question and answer session. Structure the content of the guest speaker around a debate or Socratic seminar. Assign an essay response to what is presented. Leave some time in class for the students to divide into small groups and analyze what they have heard. Challenge them to make thematic connections and dig for deeper meaning.

Many prominent authorities in business, athletics, education, and the arts are more than willing to come to your class to share their expertise with your students. This can even include celebrities. Use your connections. Get creative in putting together your instructional units. Attend presentations by prominent speakers yourself. Most importantly, draw on the support of others to strengthen the content and structure of your class. Team effort produces better and more enduring results.

Jill and I attending a presentation by noted Civil War author and battlefield guide Ed Bearss at the Glendale Public Library in 2007. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at

November is Native American Heritage Month

One of the great and tragic ironies of American history is that the original inhabitants of what became the United States were among the last groups to be granted the full rights of citizenship. President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, more than four centuries after Europeans first arrived in the western hemisphere and nearly 150 years after the birth of the United States. Article I of the United States Constitution empowered the new federal Congress to “regulate commerce” with native peoples, but nowhere were those people identified as citizens of the new nation.

What followed was a pattern of military conquest and systematic displacement of indigenous communities which some contemporary historians have described as genocidal. As the United States expanded westward across the Appalachians and the Great Plains and into the Rocky Mountains and the Far West, the influx of new settlers encroached upon historic tribal lands. Homesteading, the discovery of gold and silver, buffalo hunting, and the construction of the transcontinental railroad all contributed to the decimation of native communities. Smallpox, influenza, cholera, and typhus took their toll. Those tribes who did not move out of the way willingly were forced to do so by the army.

Racist stereotypes labeled Native Americans as “savage” and “uncivilized” and led to their children being taken from them and placed in segregated “Indian Industrial Schools.” Children who continued to speak their indigenous languages were severely punished. Many Christian missionaries sought to suppress native religious beliefs and practices. The long history of wars and broken treaties ended with the imposition of a network of federal reservations where the remaining tribes were confined to remote, desolate locations.

Today there are 326 reservations managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior in which many of the 562 recognized American Indian nations reside. Four Native Americans currently serve in the United States Congress, including Sharice Davids of Kansas and Deb Haaland of New Mexico, the first women of indigenous tribal ancestry to represent their respective states.

Yet native communities still struggle for survival. While sovereign Indian nations enjoy a degree of self-government and their members hold dual citizenship, many historic tribal identities and languages have disappeared, and the reservations continue to suffer from high rates of poverty, addiction, crime, unemployment, clinical depression, suicide, and despair.

Concern over these crises and other long-standing grievances led tribal leaders to add their voices to the growing struggle for civil rights. Like other minorities, Native Americans fought bravely in World War II and returned home with expectations of increased economic opportunity, political representation, and equal treatment under the law.

The American Indian Movement (AIM) was formed in Minneapolis in 1968 to address issues of poverty and police brutality in urban native communities. The movement later expanded to include campaigns to preserve indigenous languages, land and water rights, cultural practices, and religious beliefs, as well as efforts to end the use of stereotyped images as athletic mascots.

An inter-tribal takeover of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay from November 1969 to June 1971 attracted national media coverage, as did the occupation of the 1890 battlefield at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1973. AIM activist Leonard Peltier was imprisoned for the shooting of two FBI agents at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975 and became a cause celebre for native groups convinced of his innocence.

More than 2,000 native people and their allies participated in the “Longest Walk” from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. in 1978 to protest the infringement of native land and water rights and the sanctity of historic burial grounds. Recent high-profile protests over a proposed oil pipeline through Lakota communities in South Dakota and a new observatory on Hawai’i’s Mauna Kea are painful reminders that those rights remain under threat.

In response to years of lobbying by tribal advocates, President George H. W. Bush declared November to be Native American Indian Heritage Month on August 3, 1990. Native objections to mainstream holiday portrayals of the first “Thanksgiving” and the celebration of Columbus’s “discovery of America” led many chiefs and educators to push for a more balanced view of history and cultural traditions. Some communities chose to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, beginning with the state of South Dakota in 1990 and continuing with the California cities of Berkeley in 1992 and Santa Cruz in 1994.

Native American cultures yield a rich array of curriculum materials for your students. From the turquoise and silver jewelry of the Navajo and Pueblo to the sacred dances of the Kiowa and the Cheyenne, a focus on the visual and performing arts can provide lively ways of introducing the class to indigenous traditions. The Cherokee alphabet created by Chief Sequoyah (1770-1843) can be a good starting point for written activities. So can the traumatic experience of the five southeastern “Civilized Nations” on the Trail of Tears (1838-1839). Native American religious beliefs form another body of interesting ideas for lesson development.

Authors Dee Brown (1908-2002) and Vine Deloria, Jr. (1933-2005) wrote classic nonfiction works on Native American history and culture. Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee has never gone out of print since it was first published in 1970 and has been translated into 17 languages worldwide. An award-winning film adaptation appeared on HBO in 2007. Deloria’s Custer Died For Your Sins (1969) and God is Red (1972) became part of the curriculum of burgeoning Native American Studies programs on college campuses across the country.

Popular fashion and media began to focus on a revival of American Indian music, language, and dance in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The growing environmental movement also took an interest in indigenous beliefs in the wake of the first Earth Day celebrations. Tribal groups began making their voices heard and asserting their right to occupy their historic lands and celebrate their cultures without restriction. Inter-tribal powwows have multiplied in the years since then and many are now open to the public. I attended a large one in Wichita, Kansas in 1992 hosted by the Mid-America All-Indian Center during my fifteen months on the Great Plains.

Biographies of prominent figures such as war chiefs Sitting Bull (1831-1890) and Geronimo (1829-1909), World War II hero Ira Hayes (1923-1955) and the Navajo “Code Talkers,” AIM leaders Dennis Banks (1937-2017) and Russell Means (1939-2012), Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010), and folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie can form the basis of interesting and rewarding student projects. So can regional cultural profiles and the more recent cooperation between indigenous peoples from around the world on important environmental and political issues.

Other worthwhile lesson plans may include a critical examination of the portrayal of Native Americans in popular media, from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to television programs and movies. Controversy over the use of names like “Indians,” “Redskins,” “Braves,” and “Warriors” as sports mascots continues to the present day. A chronological or thematic study of the so-called “Indian Wars” can tie in map activities as well as essays and visual display projects. From the colonial struggles of the 18th century to the Civil War and western campaigns of the 19th and the World Wars of the 20th, Native Americans have participated in every important chapter in American military history.

The iconic drawings of George Catlin (1796-1872) and photographs of Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) as well as the poetry and essays of Pulitzer Prize winner N. Scott Momaday are great sources for projects and discussion in class. So is the music of Navajo flutist R. Carlos Nakai, who has performed all over the world and has many of his recordings preserved in the Library of Congress. The recent documentary film Rumble highlighted the contribution of Native American musicians to the history of rock and other forms of contemporary popular music.

Native Americans number around three million people today and live in every state of the Union. An emphasis on the rich diversity of their cultural traditions must be a part of any lesson plan design. Historic indigenous concerns over stewardship of the earth and its natural resources are especially timely in light of current debates over climate change and other environmental crises. These issues have moved beyond national borders to include the global community. Your students are a vital part of that community. Do what you can to get them involved. Native American studies is a helpful place to start.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at


Something drew you into teaching. Perhaps it was the desire to work with young people, or maybe one or both of your parents were teachers and you wanted to continue the family tradition. You might have been inspired by one or more of your own teachers to follow in their footsteps. Some people are also attracted to the ten month schedule with its regular holiday breaks. Whatever your reasons were, you felt called to this job (see my blog entry on “Teaching as Vocation”). Remembering the origins of your career as an educator is an important part of maintaining and nurturing that path.

In my case, it all started with a trip to Mexico in December of 1981. I was 20 years old. One of my college housemates and I were looking for a new adventure during winter break of our junior year at UC Santa Cruz. We had already been backpacking in Yosemite and Mount San Jacinto and I had just returned from a hitchhiking journey to Mount Shasta. Someone told me the Mexican peso was inexpensive and that traveling south of the border was relatively easy. All we would need is a birth certificate, bottled water, a backpack filled with casual clothing and some personal effects, a few hundred dollars in travelers checks, and a rudimentary understanding of Spanish.

This last part I had. In fact, my two years of high school Spanish had been bolstered by four quarters at the university level. Peruvian, Andalusian, and Mexican American professors immersed me in a Spanish-only language environment that produced enough fluency to converse comfortably in class and write short stories as well as a term paper on the murals of Mexican artist Diego Rivera (1886-1957). I had spent the previous July and August working with Latin American students in the summer language institute on campus. I felt confident that my linguistic skills were enough to get us through any situation we might encounter.

Accordingly, we packed our things and took off south on Highway 101 in my housemate’s old Volkswagen bug as soon as our last fall finals were finished. When we reached Los Angeles we merged onto Interstate 5 to take us the rest of the way to the border. We left the car in Chula Vista at the home of another housemate’s parents and made our way across the international border at San Ysidro, boarding a bus for La Paz at the southern end of Baja California. My first taste of Mexico was stimulating and exciting. The sun was warm, the skies were clear, the food was good, and everyone we met seemed friendly.

The bus ride down the Baja Peninsula, however, posed new challenges. After dropping off and taking on a succession of passengers, including several chickens and dogs, we reached the settlement of El Rosario, where I played soccer with some local kids while we waited for the next bus to arrive at the town’s tienda or general store. Arrival time was supposed to be around 2 pm (every query I directed at the tienda proprietor was answered by the reply “A las dos”), but the bus did not show up until after 4. Shortly after boarding, some Mexican police asked to see our birth certificates. My Spanish fluency seemed to provide satisfactory answers to their questions, and we were soon on our way again.

Hours of driving through vast deserts and legions of tall cacti at last ended with our arrival in the coastal city of La Paz. From here we took another bus to the resort town of Cabo San Lucas, at that time a small beach hamlet with a few restaurants and a discotheque. We camped on the beach with the other gringos, who included tourists from France, Germany, Sweden, Australia, the Netherlands, and a Canadian traveling with his Barbadian girlfriend. I interacted with the locals as much as I could, asking about snorkeling spots and the best places to eat.

One of these places nearly proved my undoing. I had been careful about drinking only bottled water during the entire trip, but after eating a plate of huevos rancheros in which the iceberg lettuce had been washed with local tap water, I became violently ill. The devastating effects of amoebic dysentery abated only after staggering to the local pharmacy to purchase the proper medication. This all happened on our last day in Cabo as we were about to embark on the ferry across the Gulf of California for Puerto Vallarta. I did what I could to keep myself together and showed up on time to board the ship.

More trouble followed on the crossing. Some local kids rifled through the bags of the tourists after a night of revelry, and my backpack was among those opened, despite the fact that I had gone to sleep early rather than stay up with the others. I lost my camera, some plastic shampoo containers, and my remaining $190 in travelers checks. With the assistance of some Mexican marines on board, I was able to find my backpack and recover my remaining belongings. When we arrived in port, I went immediately to the local Thomas Cook offices and was reissued $90 of my money. The thieves had managed to cash the rest within an hour of disembarking.

My knowledge of Spanish helped me navigate all these challenges, and by the time we left Puerto Vallarta, I was enjoying myself and noticed a greater fluency in my conversational skills. I was able to secure us excellent hotel deals and find the best restaurants in town (carefully avoiding local fresh produce). The journey back to the United States was filled with exciting and memorable experiences, including a train ride in a first class Pullman car from Mazatlan to Mexicali and an intense philosophical discourse in the Tepic bus terminal with a local woman who bore a remarkably uncanny resemblance in both her thinking and appearance to Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954).

Back in Santa Cruz, I reflected on the impact of those two weeks in Mexico. I felt I had undergone some kind of spiritual transformation. My first hand encounters with the language, the art, the culture, the poverty, the customs, and especially the people there had somehow changed me. The illusion of the “ivory tower” had been shattered. I found myself wanting to learn more about Latin America and was even drawn to the religious roots of my European ancestors. I enrolled in Confirmation classes and became involved in worship and educational activities at my local parish, including services in Spanish.

Earlier plans to pursue a career in academia were gradually replaced by a new interest in pastoral ministry, perhaps as a missionary in Latin America. I went on to complete a Master’s degree in my college major of American Studies, but chose a religious conscientious objector as my thesis topic (see my blog on “Discovering New Stories”). Nine weeks working as a bilingual counselor at a summer camp for disadvantaged children strengthened my resolve to devote my life to a Spanish-speaking mission. By the time the final draft of the thesis was written, I had applied and been accepted to one of the nine seminaries at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.

Three years after returning from Mexico, I spent nine weeks working as a bilingual counselor in a summer camp for disadvantaged youth in Sonoma County, California. My experiences there inspired me to pursue a career in education, first in the church and later in public schools. Photo Copyright (c) 1984 Torin Finney.

During my time as a seminarian, I led an inner-city youth group in Berkeley and spent an internship year in Hawai’i. As it turned out, I did not have too many opportunities to use my Spanish in these settings. In the Bay Area I was working with mostly African American kids and in the islands all my parishioners were native English speakers of European, Asian, or Polynesian heritage. I did take the Berkeley youth group over the border to help build new housing for homeless families in the destitute Mexican colonias (shantytowns), and I preached sermons and led classes on the war in Central America when I was in Honolulu. But my Spanish went largely unspoken over the course of those six years.

Then a new ray of hope appeared. When I returned to the mainland to complete my senior year at the seminary, the church authorities initially assigned me to their Caribbean Synod. Spanish-speaking ministerial candidates were rare in my denomination and the bishop in San Juan, Puerto Rico had an opening. He called me on the telephone and floated the possibility of taking me there for my first independent assignment. I expressed my enthusiasm for the idea and began brushing up on my Spanish. I listened regularly to Spanish radio and began seeking out pastors who had served in Spanish-speaking parishes.

A few weeks later, I was extremely disappointed when the idea of Puerto Rico was replaced at the last minute by an assignment to central Kansas. The bishop in Kansas City had read my Ben Salmon book and thought I would be a good fit for one of his two-point congregations. I dutifully accepted the post and went through graduation and ordination, but my heart was not in it. Over the course of my fifteen months on the prairie, I realized that my interest in working with Spanish-speaking children was not going to be satisfied in the context of parish work. In the fall of 1992 I resigned my position and returned to California in search of a new direction.

I soon went to work for Sprint as a bilingual operator in the California Relay Service, a state telephone service for the hearing impaired. For four years, I relayed calls between voice callers and TTY (text telephone devices for the deaf) users in both English and Spanish and honed my language skills. By 1998 I began to look at teaching as a possible path for those skills. I found myself reading history and other subjects in the social sciences in my spare time and missed the intellectual stimulation of an academic environment. With a seminary degree and nearly a decade of experience in religious education, I was able to get a job teaching theology and U.S. history at a private high school in Kern County.

While I enjoyed the experience of learning the teaching trade, most of the students at that first school came from well-to-do families who did not speak Spanish. During my two years there I obtained my state teaching credential and began interviewing for positions in the local public school districts. The principal from the middle school where I completed my student teaching in the summer of 2000 learned that I was bilingual and offered me a 6th grade social studies classroom there. He told me that four out of five of his 700 students came from Spanish-speaking households. I leapt at the opportunity and heartily accepted the job.

That first year was a hard one, filled with struggle and anguish as I learned how to manage a class of 35 rambunctious 11-year-olds. By the end of the second semester, I was assigned a mentor who helped me begin to develop my own leadership style. My Spanish definitely came in handy, particularly in parent conferences and when I walked the neighborhood to meet families and recruit their support for my burgeoning after-school drama program. Ironically, this role seemed much closer to my original conception of the ministry than most of what I had done during my years in church work. I felt I had finally found my calling.

Over the course of my eighteen years in public schools, I made good use of my Spanish language skills with both students and their families. I steadily increased my academic vocabulary and incorporated Spanish language terms into my lectures and other activities in history and economics. By the time I retired in July 2018, I calculated that I had taught more than five thousand students of all ages in five different schools. The great majority of that number came from Spanish-speaking families. To many them I became more than just another teacher. I was Maestro, a concept that goes beyond mere instruction in state-mandated curriculum.

Find the inspiration in your own story. You were called to teach for a reason. It is easy to forget this in times of stress and exhaustion when the demanding duties of teaching take their toll. Remember what attracted you to the profession in the first place. Your calling is unique to your gifts and personality. Believe in that calling as your pursue your career. That faith in yourself will sustain you in times of trial. Get the support you need and take care of your health. Utilize your breaks to rejuvenate and renew your motivation. For every step you take in following your own path, the way will be opened more for you.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at

Reading on the Go

Some of the titles I read during my ten years commuting by train in Orange County, California, 2007-2017. Photo Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney.

Effective teaching depends in large part on continual learning. The demanding duties of being a teacher sometimes make it difficult to find time to be a student. Yet the mind of the educator must always be honed by exposure to new material and methodology. I often told my students that reading is the key to succeeding. Over the course of my twenty years in the classroom, I realized that it was important to take my own advice. Consequently, I determined to augment my social science curriculum through reading in subjects that had hitherto escaped my attention.

This proved easier said than done. For the first nine years of my teaching career, I commuted back and forth to school by automobile, as did most of my colleagues. My time on campus was dominated by lesson planning and classroom management and my time at home by grading, particularly when I was teaching middle school by day and community college classes in the evening. On weekends I participated in living history programs. On winter and summer breaks I traveled or caught up on rest and errands. There was little time for reading. I owned an extensive library in my chosen subjects but was unable to make much use of it. I was simply too busy.

I had not always been too busy to read. As a college and graduate student in the 1980s I read hundreds of pages a week. I did not own a car in those days and took public transportation back and forth to school. I rode the MBTA while earning my M.A. at UMass/Boston and the BART when I was studying at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. In Washington, D.C. I took the Metro and in San Francisco I took the Muni. Whenever I boarded a bus, shuttle, train, or plane, I took a book with me. Reading occupied much of my free time. I even read during breaks when I began working full-time in the early 1990s. But when I began my teaching career at the end of that decade, my time for reading disappeared.

The irony of this dilemma did not escape me, and I wanted to do something about it. By my tenth year I was teaching high school in a tenured position and weary of commuting by car. The opportunity then arose to travel back and forth to school by train and I decided to take advantage of it. Gas prices were high at the time and the monthly train pass was cost effective. I had to leave home a half hour earlier and returned a half hour later, but I would have time during the thirty minutes in the train car to rest, catch up on the news, or read. My school was only a few blocks walk from the train station and I could use the exercise.

Here is the shoulder bag I carried with me on the train from 2007 to 2017. Some books would fit in one of the three interior pocket sleeves. There were also smaller pockets for office supplies and a mesh bag for my water bottle.

That walk exposed me to the elements, and I learned by trial and error how to adapt my wardrobe. I carried my papers in a shoulder bag and wore a wool hat in winter and a broad-brimmed straw one in summer. I brought along a portable umbrella, sunscreen, a water bottle, and proper footwear. I kept my work shoes in my classroom and changed into them when I arrived on campus. I also had to be mindful of heavy automobile traffic when I waited at lights to enter crosswalks. Traveling to school this way had its challenges, but I enjoyed the adventure of it and the opportunity to catch up on reading.

I began with the books I already owned and then added what I needed to my home and classroom libraries by ordering new material online or making purchases at local bookstores. Any expense that related to my career as an educator could potentially be counted as a tax deduction, so I kept meticulous records of receipts for my accountant. I focused on authors whose work highlighted the subjects I was teaching. United States and world history formed the bulk of my material, but I also explored studies in geography, religion, political science, current events, and economics.

Some of my favorite authors included British geographer Simon Winchester, American journalist Rick Perlstein, and historians Candice Millard, David McCullough, H. W. Brands, and Donald L. Miller. I read biographies, memoirs, dispatches, regimental histories, classic novels, anthologies, textbooks, travel guides, illustrated atlases, collections of speeches, and autobiographies. I obtained a library card and checked out whatever my local branch had to offer. Some books were heavier than others, and I had to be careful not to take on too much weight for my walk from the train station to school and back. On rainy days I had to carry my books in a plastic bag in one hand and my umbrella in the other.

I purchased this portable umbrella from a shop near Trinity College in Dublin during my Ireland trip in April of 2000 and carried it with me on rainy days over the ten years I commuted to school by train in Orange County, California. Photo Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney.

My commuter train had seating areas with tables and electrical outlets, and I sat in these seats as often as I could. This allowed me to charge my smartphone and use it to look up information. I could spread out paperwork on the table and take notes on what I was reading or catch up on grading tests, homework, classwork, and essays. I often wore earbuds and listened to music and other audio files. The train was punctual most of the time, but the inevitable delays due to rail traffic, accidents, or mechanical trouble provided extra time in which I could work. I also read while waiting on the platform for trains to arrive. My latest book became my constant companion during my daily commute.

This was a welcome respite from the thousands of miles and many hours I had to drive during my first nine years as a teacher. For the next ten years, I took the train almost every day, unless I had to remain at school after the last train because of extra-curricular duties. My car sat safely in the parking garage at my home station and I enjoyed walking through the restored historic downtown district in which my school was located. My monthly pass allowed me to ride the local commuter rail service as well as the Amtrak trains that used the same routes. I made new friends and acquaintances among my fellow commuters, some of whom shared my reading interests.

My colleagues in the Digital Arts and Humanities Program helped me plan an annual field trip into downtown Los Angeles to visit the museums there, and we decided to ride the train as a group. I was able to secure a school rate for the three teachers and thirty or so students we took every year. Many of the kids had never traveled by train before and enjoyed the experience immensely. I even inspired some of my other colleagues to begin commuting by rail themselves. My social science colleagues in particular were intrigued with my return to regular reading and began finding time in their own schedules for new books.

Technology changed the nature of reading as an activity over the course of my decade on the rails. The decline of local bookstores and newspapers as part of the “retail apocalypse” of the new millennium made it more challenging to obtain new reading material, at least in traditional form. Amazon became an excellent resource for rare books and educational videos I could use in class. I incorporated new material I was reading into my slideshows and lectures and came up with new lesson plans for my students. The rise of smartphones and online classrooms allowed for new ways of learning. I tried to make connections between these innovative digital platforms and traditional books and magazines.

When I retired from full-time teaching last year, I gave away much of my collection of books to the local public library. Many of them were volumes I enjoyed reading during my years on the train. I was happy to share with others the resources I had used to augment my own knowledge and understanding and that of my students. Websites, podcasts, sound bytes, downloads, blogs, and online forums have their place, but none can substitute for the experience of holding a book in one’s hands and turning its pages to follow an engaging story. I tried to teach that to my students and continue to support the work of public libraries through my donations and patronage.

Read what you can, when you can. If you commute to school using public transportation, bring a book along with your other personal effects. There is always something new to learn, especially in the study of history and the other social sciences. If you still drive or walk to work, find time elsewhere in your schedule to sit down with a good book. Follow book reviews online. Experiment with new authors. Reread old classics. Check out books from your local public library. Reading is indeed the key to succeeding, in personal as well as professional development. In our busy, distracted, digital world, taking quiet time for learning and reflection can make a positive difference.

Sign on the train platform at the Irvine Transportation Center in Orange County, California. I commuted by rail between Irvine and Fullerton for ten years and led an annual field trip by train from Fullerton to Los Angeles Union Station. Photo Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at

October is German American Heritage Month and Italian American Heritage and Culture Month

German Americans are the single largest ethnic group in the United States, with numbers estimated at more than 50 million people, one sixth of the general population. President Ronald Reagan proclaimed October 6, 1983 as German American Day to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the arrival of thirteen Rhenish families in colonial Philadelphia. Four years later, Congress established the day as an official annual observance to recognize the contributions of German Americans to the nation’s history and culture.

When East and West Germany reunited on October 3, 1990 after nearly five decades of Cold War division, German Unity Day was included in American celebrations as well. The Bavarian tradition of Oktoberfest spread to other German immigrant communities and then made the leap to American popular culture. Many local associations and municipalities, particularly in the “German Belt” of Pennsylvania and the Upper Midwest, organized parades, festivals, concerts, and other special events to highlight historic German American communities.

When the United States proclaimed independence from Great Britain in 1776, there were more than 300 separate German-speaking states and free cities in central Europe. Immigrants from all of them helped to develop the new nation. German doctor Johannes Fleischer (1582-1608) was among the first settlers in the Jamestown colony in Virginia, and Lutheran pastor Peter Muhlenberg (1746-1807) was a general in the Continental Army and later a United States congressman. More than seven million Germans came to America in the century between 1820 and 1920. They augmented the already substantial German populations of New York and Pennsylvania and helped to settle new states from Ohio to Oregon.

Among them was my great-great-grandfather, Heinrich (Henry) Meiring, born in Hannover in 1849. He fought in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 but then fled the anti-Catholic purges of Otto von Bismarck’s Kulturkampf. First arriving in Canada, he later made his way to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where he opened a flour mill near the town of Sheridan. His daughter Anna married one of his mill workers, George Finney (1868-1936), the son of Irish immigrants. In 1900 Anna Meiring Finney gave birth to my paternal grandfather, who later married the daughter of another German immigrant from Frankfurt.

The 300 German states had consolidated into 39 by 1820, but internal political, religious, and economic unrest drove many to seek a better life across the Atlantic. Many brought skilled trades, education, and distinct cultural traditions with them. The Christmas tree, kindergarten programs, glee clubs, lager beer, gymnasiums, and many other aspects of American daily life all originated with these German-speaking newcomers. German churches and German language newspapers proliferated in the young republic. St. Louis, Milwaukee, Chicago, and the farm communities of the Great Lakes region soon had large German populations.

Many German Americans opposed slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War, and 200,000 served in the Union Army, including my maternal great-great-grandfather. New York and Ohio each provided ten divisions. They fought in every major campaign of the war. Some German settlements in the Confederate states endured persecution for their Unionist views. German Americans were derided as “Dutchmen” by Southern sympathizers in Missouri and attacked by Confederate guerrilla bands. After the war, most German American newspapers and civic groups sided with the Republican Party’s Reconstruction platform, particularly its support of full civil rights for African American freedmen.

German immigrants included Roman Catholics, Jews, and a number of Protestant groups, including Lutherans, Moravians, Pietists, and Mennonites. Targeted during the First World War, they sought to prove their loyalty in the Second. General (and later President) Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz (1885-1966) both came from German ancestry and helped lead America to victory in World War II. German Americans contributed to the tremendous growth of the postwar economy and shaped the future of American politics, business, education, music, and art.

October is also Italian American Heritage and Culture Month, declared by Congress in 1989 during the presidency of George H. W. Bush (1924-2018). Italian Americans constitute 6% of the U.S. population and are the fourth largest group of European heritage after those with German, Irish, and English roots. Local celebrations of Columbus Day on October 12 eventually developed into an entire month of special events and festivals. More than five million Italian immigrants became Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the vast majority arriving in the decades between 1880 and 1920.

Like Germany, Italy became a single unified nation in 1871, ending centuries of feudalism and regional conflict. Unification led to improved living conditions, but local infrastructure could not support a growing and more mobile population of largely unskilled labor. Poverty and oppression throughout the country, particularly in the former Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, drove many to emigrate. Millions fled the country over the next several decades. Many of them followed friends and relatives to America. In 1892 the U.S. government opened the immigration station at Ellis Island in New York Harbor. Many Italians arrived here until the First World War restricted new arrivals from Europe.

Italians formed tight-knit communities in the cities of the Northeast and Midwest and became involved in local business and politics. They built on the contributions of earlier generations of newcomers. The Italian American 39th New York Infantry or “Garibaldi Guard” was one of the first regiments to answer President Lincoln’s call to preserve the Union in 1861. Others went West and developed agriculture and other industries. Most were Roman Catholic and contributed to the growth of parishes, schools, hospitals, universities, and social service organizations. California native Amadeo Giannini (1870-1949), whose father came from Genoa in 1849 to participate in the Gold Rush, founded the Bank of Italy in San Francisco in 1904. In 1930 Bank of Italy became Bank of America.

As was the case in many immigrant communities, discrimination and hardship were daily reminders that success in their adopted land would not be easy. The Sacco and Vanzetti trial of 1927 exposed anti-immigrant prejudice and popular hostility to the radical labor movements in which many Italian workers became involved. The bootlegging empire of Al Capone (1899-1947) generated sensational news during the Prohibition years and inaugurated a popular obsession with Italian American organized crime families for decades.

Many Italian Americans pursued careers in public service. Four have been Mayor of New York City, including Fiorello La Guardia (1882-1947), Rudolph Giuliani (who led the city through the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks), and current Mayor Bill de Blasio. Mario Cuomo (1932-2015) was the 52nd Governor of New York. His son Andrew has been the 56th since 2011. In 1984, Democratic Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro (1935-2011) became the first candidate of Italian descent to be nominated for Vice President. World War II Marine John Basilone (1916-1945) won the Congressional Medal of Honor at Guadalcanal and became a national hero. When he was killed at Iwo Jima, the entire country mourned.

The observance of Columbus Day became controversial in the closing decades of the 20th century as the emerging Native American civil rights movement challenged the idea that early European explorers had “discovered” the land and peoples of the western hemisphere. This debate cast a shadow across many local celebrations of the holiday, much to the chagrin of some Italian American communities. President Bush designated November as Native American Indian Heritage Month in 1990 to address these concerns and similar objections to the portrayal of native peoples in Thanksgiving traditions. This allowed October to remain a focus for educational and festive events on Italian culture and heritage.

The impressive list of prominent politicians, business leaders, artists, actors, musicians, athletes, writers, intellectuals, and military heroes of German and Italian heritage can serve as a starting point for developing a host of engaging curriculum activities in your classroom. So can cuisine, language, music, decor, and costuming. From portraits of Ellis Island immigrants to famous paintings and films, the material available to the resourceful and creative teacher is without limit. Have your students design a board game on the immigrant experience. Draw maps showing the settlement and growth of historic ethnic communities. Assign projects and special reports on important figures and events in history.

Whatever you decide to do in class, strive for inclusiveness and inspiration in your lesson plans. Engage the kids in activities that celebrate all the cultural traditions that have shaped the course of modern American history. October is a good time to focus on the contributions of Italian and German immigrants and their descendants. As in other special cultural commemorations throughout the year, teach your students that each of them has something important to offer. Each ethnic heritage has contributed to the strength and richness of the society as a whole. Learning about one another can help us work together to build a better future.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at

September 15-October 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month

Latinos are the nation’s largest minority, with some estimates counting Americans of Spanish or Portuguese heritage as 20-25% of the United States population. President Lyndon Johnson created Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968 from a bill sponsored by Mexican American Democratic Representative Edward Roybal (1916-2005) of Los Angeles. September 15-22 was chosen as the commemorative week because it included the independence days of Mexico, Chile, and several Central American nations. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan expanded the observance to the entire month period between September 15 and October 15.

“Hispanic” is a cultural rather than a racial designation, and pertains to anyone who has Spanish ancestry and/or was raised in a Spanish-speaking household. This, of course, includes people of all conceivable racial backgrounds. Latino/a (or the gender neutral Latinx) broadens this ethnic base to include Portuguese, Brazilian, and other non-Hispanic Latin American heritage. Chicano/a is a term coined during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s to refer specifically to Mexican Americans, many of whom are descended from families already living in the Southwest when those territories were annexed by the United States in 1848.

The incredible diversity within Hispanic/Latino culture provides innumerable learning opportunities for your students, especially in history and other social science classes. There is much to celebrate, from music, art, dance, and cuisine to the annual festivals of Cinco de Mayo (commemorating the May 5, 1862 Battle of Puebla) and Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Civil rights leaders such as Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta can be the focus of special lesson plans. So can elected federal, state, and local officials of Hispanic heritage; there are 38 members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus as of January 2019.

Landmark court decisions such as Mendez v. Westminster (1947) and Hernandez v. Texas (1954) call attention to historic civil rights struggles within the Hispanic community. I included these and others in my regular Civil Rights Movement unit in U.S. History when I taught grade 11. At the middle school level, I assigned different Latin American countries to student groups and had them construct “travel brochures” highlighting demographic, political, and economic profiles as well as the connection of those nations to cultural communities within the United States.

One of the keys to Hispanic identity is an understanding of the Spanish language. While teaching in Spanish is not a required part of social science instruction (see my blog entry on “Bilingual Education”), understanding proper pronunciation of Spanish words and names can help make some lecture topics more meaningful for your students. Individual cultures are shaped in part by their particular idiomatic expressions, including members of those communities who no longer speak the language. The three largest Hispanic communities in the United States, namely Mexican American, Cuban American, and Puerto Rican, each have their own dialects of Spanish as well as distinctive food, family traditions, and historical narratives.

A sensitivity to these varieties of Hispanic culture and identity is important in constructing lesson plans and dealing with your students and their families. There are Hispanic and Latino families, for example, of exclusively European, African, Asian, or Native American ancestry, as well as many that are a mixture of one or more of the above. Some speak Spanish as their primary language and others do not. Many speak “Spanglish,” a colloquial mixture of English and Spanish that has its own slang and idiomatic cadences. Mexican culture is very different from Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Venezuelan, or Chilean cultures. The Spanish-speaking cultures of the Caribbean have their own unique characteristics.

Historical topics to highlight in National Hispanic Heritage Month can include the United Farm Workers union, the building of the Panama Canal, debates over bilingual ballots and education, legal battles over immigration and desegregation, and the contribution of Hispanic veterans in the nation’s wars. The Chicano Movement that swept across the nation’s schools and university campuses in the 1960s, particularly in southern California, helped to define a generation and call attention to long-neglected political and economic inequities. The struggle for equality in the Latina community can be a fascinating study within the broader modern feminist movement. Latinx LGBT issues are a significant part of civil rights discussions today.

Your goal as a history teacher is to paint the national story with the broadest strokes and in the largest variety of colors as you can muster. In government and economics, focusing on diversity in campaigning and business will help your students better understand the complexities of today’s society. The story of Hispanic America is a microcosm of the American story as a whole. The mixture of native culture and successive waves of immigrants from all across the world is at the heart of the Hispanic story. Celebrate this story in fun ways this month. Your students will appreciate your efforts.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at

Chasing Sunsets

Bushwhackers cheating at cards with a “captive” President Lincoln at Lil’s Saloon in Calico Ghost Town, February 2009.

I grew up back East with a romanticized view of the West, fed by a childhood obsession with the Lone Ranger, Zorro, and classic western movies. Whenever tedium, frustration, or restlessness overtook me, I would escape into the forbidding cinematic landscapes of Sergio Leone, where gritty gunslingers would square off against each other to a dramatic score by Ennio Morricone. Somehow the “Wild West” seemed like a place where problems had simple solutions, courage and individualism were rewarded, the past didn’t matter, and dreams could come true.

Such a perception certainly drove the growth of the West in American history, from the Oregon Trail and the California Gold Rush all the way to Hollywood and the Silicon Valley in our time. I was no different. When my father announced in 1977 that we were moving from the Shenandoah Valley to southern California, I was ecstatic. I had images of movie stars and Mickey Mouse, suntanned surfers and endless summer. No more shoveling snow in winter, no more scraping mud off galoshes in spring, no more sweating all night in drenching summer humidity. I would be footloose and fancy free in La La Land.

The trip west in August of that year provided enough awe-inspiring sights to reinforce such optimism. From the vast expanses of west Texas to the Painted Desert and Grand Canyon, the West seemed to live up to everything I expected it to be. I had never seen mountains in Appalachia over a few thousand feet in height, so when my eyes first took in the massive dome of Sandia Crest outside Albuquerque, I thought I had landed on another planet. The warm, vibrant colors of Santa Fe and Sedona, the thrill and terror of sudden flash floods, the brilliant artwork of Hopi and Navajo artists, and my first taste of authentic Mexican food all intoxicated my senses.

This rapture was soon checked by the vast, scorched landscape of the Mojave Desert, which we had to cross in August during daylight hours to reach our final destination on time. Several hours of nervously watching the temperature gauge on our rented Ryder truck and pit stops in 100-degree roadside rest areas were followed by a grueling ascent up the slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains. When we finally reached the top of the crest and beheld the sea of smog stretching out below as far as the eye could see, my heart sank. This was not the West of my dreams. I had arrived in an overcrowded, noisy, congested, polluted inferno.

To be fair, this was the Inland Empire during summer rush hour, which even in 1977 was intolerable. If I had arrived at sunset on a Sunday or amidst the green hills and wildflowers of early spring, I might have had a more favorable first impression of the place. Nonetheless, my maiden view of southern California was not a Ma Joad moment out of The Grapes of Wrath. After we finally made it to Long Beach and settled into our new rented home, my initial shock did not wear off. Orientation week at my new high school of 3,000 students was overwhelming (having come from a school in Virginia a quarter of that size). I got lost on campus and stumbled home in tears of bewilderment.

I did find my bearings eventually, making new friends in class and learning my way around. While not everyone was a movie star or a surfer, I did get to see Hollywood and spent the summer after graduation riding the waves in Huntington Beach. I got to meet Mickey Mouse when I visited Disneyland and later worked there as a custodian on one of my college winter breaks. Summer was not endless in California, but there was little humidity (at least in those days) and I did not have to shovel snow in winter (I visited the snow in Yosemite and Mount San Jacinto instead). I went off to college in the northern part of the state and realized that California was actually several states in one.

My interest in the “Old West” had not abated, however, and when I finished my second graduate degree in 1991 and moved to Kansas to begin my working career, I took with me the images of the recently released Dances With Wolves. During my fifteen months on the prairie, I felt a little like the character of Lieutenant Dunbar, stranded in an alien yet fascinating place and seeking a new “tribe.” I found it in the stories of my ancestors (see my blog entry on “Climbing the Family Tree”), and returned to California in the fall of 1992 ready to begin my life anew.

I lived for six years in Sacramento, working in office jobs and exploring the historical sights of the surrounding region. There were and are many shadows of the Old West there, from Old Sacramento and Sutter’s Fort in the state capital to the Empire Mine and Columbia State Historic Park in the Sierra foothills. I visited them all and enjoyed their educational and inspirational value. I spent some time with my late cousin Agnes in her historic 1852 farmhouse in the hills above Sutter Creek and listened to her stories of Gold Rush California as well as family history anecdotes.

During my time in Sacramento I became involved in the reenacting hobby, and attended some events in historic western locales, including Nevada City and Murphys. Some of these areas still evoke days gone by with their wooden sidewalks, historic storefronts, and forested country roads. When I moved to Bakersfield in 1998 to begin my teaching career, I determined to continue my search for signs of the Old West. My new living history impression of artist correspondent permitted me to render each event in whatever likeness and direction my imagination took me.

One of my favorite venues was Fort Tejon State Historic Park, a restored 1850s outpost in the mountains south of Bakersfield. I joined the Fort Tejon Historical Association and participated in monthly reenactments there over the entirety of my seven years in the area. The fort was only a half hour drive from where I was living and working and many drawings of my sketch portfolio were completed there (see the image below). The adobe and wooden buildings, ancient live oak trees, and well-kept grounds were inspirational to me as an artist and still attract thousands of visitors every year.

Charcoal sketch I completed as Harper’s Weekly artist correspondent James Allen Davis during a Civil War reenactment at Fort Tejon State Historic Park in Lebec, California. Copyright (c) 2004 Torin Finney.

After my partner Jill (who came up with the title for this blog entry) and I began reenacting together at the end of 2004, we chose several southern California venues with a connection to the Old West, including Wooden Nickel Ranch in Menifee, Old Town Temecula, the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, the Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum in Vista, and Calico Ghost Town near Barstow. These sites have restored 19th century buildings and machinery and hold annual events that highlight local history. Costumed reenactors and performers entertain large and enthusiastic crowds. Imagination has been combined with commerce, just as it was when the West was young.

Jill making rope at Calico Ghost Town with our friends Lyn and Joe. Photo Copyright (c) 2010 Torin Finney.

Near the busy Las Vegas Strip is Red Rock Canyon, a dramatic and breathtaking wilderness area that boasts many natural and educational attractions. For three years (2006-2008), Jill and I attended a reenactment at scenic Spring Mountain Ranch at the foot of the mountains there and presented to a local Civil War round table group. As you can see from the sketch below, I found the setting of the event extremely inspiring. The crisp mountain air, wild burros, restored ranch buildings, and pristine desert vistas lent themselves to imaginary western journeys filled with danger and daring. It was hard to believe that such a wild place could be found so close to the bustling boulevards and crowded casinos of “Sin City.”

Panoramic sketch I completed in 2007 during the annual Civil War reenactment at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park near Las Vegas, Nevada. Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

In June of 2009 Jill and I visited the central plaza of historic downtown Sonoma, once an important outpost of Spanish and Mexican Alta California. General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo (1807-1890) once owned tens of thousands of acres and held great political and economic power in the region. We visited the presidio he built there as well as his home at Lachryma Montis, all that remains of his once vast estate. The Bay Area cities of Vallejo and Benicia are named after him and his wife. Vallejo’s story is a sad metaphor for what happened to the thousands of Spanish-speaking people whose lands were annexed by the United States in the wake of the Mexican-American War and the California Gold Rush.

Old Town San Diego, which has been California’s most popular state historic park for the past fifty years, attracts thousands of people every month to its restored adobe and wooden frame buildings, special holiday events, and scores of specialty restaurants and shops. Old Town has been a favorite destination of ours for many years. Like Sonoma, this state park at the other end of the network of historic California missions presents a different version of the Old West, focusing on the commerce and culture of the early Californios and their impact on the growth of the area. It combines education with business and tries to preserve a time in California’s history that has largely passed into legend.

Jill and I have been coming to Old Town together since 2005. Here we are in front of the historic Cosmopolitan Hotel in 2008, ten years before we retired to San Diego from Orange County. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Of course, most of these sites have been restored and refitted with modern conveniences to meet the needs of contemporary tourists. The rather nasty side of the “real” Old West of cholera, dysentery, illiteracy, corruption, swindling, violence, theft, starvation, drought, prostitution, and racial intolerance is not something most visitors are looking for. Calico, for example, went from a booming silver town in the 1880s to an abandoned wasteland twenty years later, its population decimated by disease, disappointment, and despair. This is not the West that appears in movies and dime novels.

But people see what they want to see, and the West of the silver screen is still popular. From recent remakes of The Magnificent Seven and True Grit to this year’s feature film reviving the story and original cast of HBO’s Deadwood series, tall tales of lawmen, outlaws, settlers and soiled doves continue to command large audiences, both at home and abroad. For all its failures and faults, the American West still represents wide open spaces and exciting possibilities. For my part, I have no plans to leave it anytime soon. As an adopted Westerner, riding off into the sunset has become a way of life that works for me.

Business card Jill designed for my correspondent impression from a photograph taken at Calico Ghost Town in 2007. The website she created for me can be accessed by clicking here. Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at

The Heart of the English-Speaking World

A trooper of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment standing guard in London in December 2003. I arrived there on Christmas Day and returned to California on New Year’s Day 2004. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

The 18th century British essayist and literary critic Dr. Samuel Johnson once said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” I only came to fully appreciate these words after spending a week in the city myself. My experience there was so transformative that I cannot remember the pre-conceived notions about the place I harbored before I went. London is truly a world city, and in it I was introduced to the world in unexpected and enlightening ways.

My maternal grandfather was born in London in 1911. His mother was from Three Bridges, Sussex south of the capital and his father came from Rye, New York. They met while she was on holiday with American relatives on the Jersey Shore in 1910. My grandfather was raised in Staten Island, but his mother eventually retired to England, and as he grew older he traveled regularly to London (see photo below). Later in life he moved to the American Southwest, but he took his British cultural roots with him.

My maternal grandfather (left) in London on business with an engineering colleague around 1961, the same year I was born in New Jersey. Westminster Abbey stands in the background.

He died in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1991, the same year I moved from the Bay Area to Newton, Kansas and began devoting a lot of time to genealogical research (see my blog entry on “Climbing the Family Tree”). I focused largely on my Irish and German roots at first and gave little thought to my English ancestry until my mother showed me a photograph of my great-grandmother and a series of fine engravings done by her father, a Victorian era London artist named Owen Hanks. This piqued my interest, and I began looking for an opportunity to learn more.

It arrived in the fall of 2003. I was in my sixth year of teaching in Bakersfield, California and my third teaching 7th grade world history. The state curriculum covered the medieval and renaissance periods as well as the age of exploration and rise of European empires. This had not been the focus of my studies in college and graduate school (my major was American Studies), so I was doing a lot of reading and watching documentary films (my favorite was Simon Schama’s outstanding series A History of Britain) to stay ahead of what I was assigning my students in their textbook. So when the opportunity to spend a week in London over my winter break presented itself, I welcomed the chance to see first hand some of the places I was studying.

I flew out of Los Angeles and arrived at Heathrow Airport on Christmas Day 2003. The movie Love Actually was in theatres and posters advertising its release were emblazoned on many of the bright red double-decker buses. Garlands, tinsel, bells, and red ribbon were everywhere. The weather was cool but clear, peppered by the proverbial London Christmas rain shower. I took an entertaining ride in a classic black London cab and arrived at my hotel in Bloomsbury near Tottenham Court Road. That evening I treated myself to a pint and some chips at a local pub and celebrated my arrival in the historic British capital.

My hotel was within walking distance of the British Museum, and I spent several days exploring its stimulating exhibits. I was particularly taken with the Celtic ironwork and jewelry, the collection of African and Asian artifacts, and the overall floor design that resembled the spokes of a gigantic wheel. The Museum was celebrating 250 years and its halls were filled with evidence of the expansion of British power and influence across the world over the course of that period. I took a circuitous route back to my hotel through a light rain, visiting a local bookstore and making note of several historic homes marked by the iconic Blue Plaques. As I took in the sights and sounds of centuries, I had no doubt that I was standing at the heart of the English-speaking world.

The British Museum was founded in 1753 and became a depository for cultural and artistic treasures from across Britain’s world empire. The Museum was celebrating 250 years in the heart of London when I visited there in 2003. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

I wasted no time in taking in as many sights as I could. I made liberal use of the London Underground, known locally as “The Tube,” and visited Westminster, the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, and the theatre district of the West End. I took photos of the statues of Lincoln, Cromwell, and Churchill in Parliament Square and conversed with a crowd of protestors decrying the war in Iraq. I toured the stage and gift shop of the restored Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames, where Shakespeare had produced so many of his classic works.

Walking past the site of the original Globe, which was under renovation at the time, I visited Southwark Cathedral and the outdoor vendors of the Borough Market. The Anchor Bankside and Brewery and other historic pubs and restaurants were fascinating historic stops. I also went to the Golden Hinde, the 1577 restored sailing ship that carried Sir Francis Drake around the world at the end of 16th century. I wanted to take in every attraction and read every monument.

The highlight of the week was my tour of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which I reached by crossing the Thames on the Millennium Bridge with its sweeping views of river traffic and historic dockside buildings. The exterior of St. Paul’s was being renovated at the time and its western face was covered with a large canvas painted in the outlines of the building. I took a series of pictures of the courtyard statues, including that of Queen Anne (1665-1714), who was the reigning monarch of Britain when the new St. Paul’s was completed in 1710. Looking up to the massive 365-foot cathedral dome, I immediately saw the inspiration for the United States Capitol and so many other neo-classical structures in the States.

St. Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of London. The previous 13th century building, built on the ruins of an 11th century church, was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 during the reign of King Charles II. Sir Christopher Wren’s neo-classical reconstruction was completed in 1675 and remained the tallest building in London until 1967. Damaged by German bombardment during World War II, a massive renovation project was begun in 1996 and completed in 2011. Photo Copyright (c) 2003 Torin Finney.

The interior of St. Paul’s was indeed breathtaking. The beautiful dome, stained glass, monuments, and chapels were overwhelming in their grandeur and intricate detail. St. Paul’s remains an active church serving the entire city, and I joined the rest of the many visitors in maintaining silence in this hallowed space. As a history teacher, there was so much to see and photograph. The tombs of Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington, tattered 18th and 19th century regimental flags, monuments to the cavalry regiments of the Crimean War and the British generals killed at the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, and a myriad of other memorials occupied my interest for more than an hour.

Then I went downstairs to the Crypt. Here was (along with Westminster Abbey, which I was only able to photograph from the outside due to the immense crowds waiting to get in from a driving rain) Britain’s equivalent to Arlington National Cemetery. Florence Nightingale, General Gordon, Lawrence of Arabia, Lord Kitchener, and so many other historic figures were entombed or memorialized in the dark chambers and corridors. I felt as if chapters of a history textbook were opening before me and taking on three-dimensional form.

I was particularly excited to come upon the memorials to Britain’s Victorian era “Bohemian Brigade” – famed correspondent William Howard Russell (who covered the Crimean War, the American Civil War, the Indian Mutiny, the Franco-Prussian War, and many other campaigns), combat artist Melton Prior (see image below), and a bronze plaque remembering the British journalists killed in the Anglo-Sudan War between 1883 and 1898. I stood there for several moments in silent reverence and reflection.

Memorial in St. Paul’s Cathedral Crypt to artist correspondent Melton Prior (1845-1910), who covered many campaigns of the Victorian era for the Illustrated London News. Photo Copyright (c) 2003 Torin Finney.

London is a walking city, and there was much to see by strolling through its historic neighborhoods. I enjoyed the peaceful lawns and paths of Hyde Park and watching the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. I visited the Victoria and Albert Memorials and the statue of Charles I and the Nelson Column in Trafalgar Square. I toured the grounds of Kensington Palace, including the statue of the young Queen Victoria (1837-1901), and watched a holiday juggling performance in Covent Garden. The historic shops, pubs, restaurants, and homes were all interesting to see and photograph.

London is also an international city, and the people, businesses, and restaurants I saw and visited all bore witness to the worldwide reach of the once-mighty British Empire. The people of London reflected the same diversity as the cultural and historical exhibits I toured at the British Museum. Immigrants from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), Singapore, Malaysia (formerly Malaya and Sarawak), Burma (now Myanmar), Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, the Middle East, and the islands of the Caribbean and the South Pacific had all left their mark on the character of this vibrant metropolis.

There was so much to see. Sadly, I ran out of time before I could tour the National Portrait Gallery, Kew Gardens or the Imperial War Museum, but I did visit several of the London War Memorials, including the Cenotaph at Whitehall and the Royal Artillery Memorial, with its evocative wall of names reminiscent of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D. C. I took pictures of monuments dedicated to suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852). I took in a show and a New Year’s Eve party in the West End and had a long conversation on Victorian drawings with one of the curators at the British Museum. All in all, it was a wonderful week.

I returned with much new material to share with my middle school students, and later with my high school sophomores when I taught modern world history for ten years in Orange County. But my week in London yielded much more than curriculum resources. I connected with my English roots and gained a new appreciation of British influence on the development of today’s world and my own identity as an American. Dr. Johnson had been right in 1777. For anyone interested in history, literature, art, science, fashion, music, world cultures and cuisine, and international commerce, there is no tiring of this cosmopolitan and historic city along the Thames.

The bust of Zeus and part of the vast collection donated to the nation by King George III (1738-1820) in the King’s Library at the British Museum. The library had been fully restored to its original Georgian glory just before my visit in December of 2003. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at

Ghosts of Manzanar

The Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of ten internment camps built to confine Japanese Americans during World War II. Of the 110,000 people interned nationwide, more than 10,000 were imprisoned here at this desolate place in eastern California’s Owens Valley from 1942 to 1945. Photos Copyright (c) 2003 Torin Finney.

I did not learn about the World War II internment of Japanese Americans in school. I don’t remember much diversity in the curriculum when attending history classes in the South in the 1960s and 1970s. There was no Black History Month, no International Women’s Day, no LGBT Pride Month, no Hispanic Heritage, and certainly no Asian American and Pacific Islander Month. Confederate generals were still exonerated in my state history classes. Despite my fair complexion and blond hair, some of my classmates still referred to me as “damn Yankee” since I had a Northeastern accent and my father taught at the local black college. I can’t imagine what they would have called me if I had a last name like Gonzalez or Yamashita.

Much changed when I moved from Virginia to southern California to finish high school in 1977. Now I had classmates of every conceivable cultural and religious background. Among my closest friends in class were several Japanese Americans. As I got to know them, I realized that they were as American as everyone else, as were their parents. One was a fellow 4.0 scholar who joined the Key Club with me. Another was a popular cheerleader and ASB officer who went on a date with me once to Disneyland and sat near me in AP U.S. History class. But even that class taught me nothing about what happened to the Japanese Americans in World War II.

I scored a 5 on the AP U.S. History Exam and could have opted out of freshman history at UC Santa Cruz, but as a potential history major, I decided to enroll in the year-long survey course anyway. The first quarter covered the colonial period and the Constitution, the second the Civil War and westward expansion, and the third the 20th century from the Progressive Era to Vietnam. It was here that I first heard the word Manzanar. Yet even in this university level core course, the internment camps did not get more than a few minutes coverage in the professor’s lecture on America in World War II.

But then our instructor recommended that we all attend a presentation on campus by local writer Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, author of the memoir Farewell to Manzanar (1973) and spouse of James Houston, an award-winning novelist who taught writing part-time in the UCSC English Department. Her book had been published for less than ten years at that time, but was already an international bestseller and a staple textbook in high school and college classes across the country. She was an engaging speaker who moved us with her tale of courageous resiliency in the midst of terrible struggle and privation.

I was appalled to learn for the first time about the devastating effects of Executive Order 9066 on her family and thousands of other Japanese Americans. Many lost their businesses, homes, and jobs, and were forced to resettle elsewhere after the war. I found the callousness of local government officials at the time incredulous. That the United States government could sanction what amounted to concentration camps for its own citizens while decrying fascist dictators for doing the same thing to their minorities seemed beyond belief.

When I learned that much of the reasoning behind the camps was rooted in deep racial prejudice and economic rivalry in the communities of the western United States, I was outraged. The historic treatment of Asian immigrants in California seemed little better than the anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism of the northeast, the genocidal campaigns against Native Americans, discrimination against Mexican Americans in the southwest, or the hateful Jim Crow laws of the segregated South. The fact that as little as one sixteenth (only one great-great-grandparent) Japanese ancestry could land someone in the camps was particularly absurd.

The real turning point for me, however, was when I learned about the bravery and sacrifice of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated unit of nisei (second-generation, i.e., American citizens born of Japanese immigrant parents) soldiers under the command of white officers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt hesitated to allow young men of Japanese descent to volunteer for military service, but finally relented in 1943. This special army unit, recruited both from the nisei of Hawai’i (who were not interned, due to their disproportionate numbers in the island population) and the young “relocation center” internees, was sent to train in Wisconsin and then segregated Mississippi before being shipped to fight the Nazis in Italy and France.

What they did there was remarkable. For their numbers, they sustained the highest proportion of casualties and received the greatest number of awards of any single military unit in United States history. Their dramatic and costly rescue of the surrounded Texan “Lost Battalion” in the Vosges Mountains in eastern France in October of 1944 is in itself worthy of a major feature film. President Harry Truman awarded the 442 several Presidential unit citations, and many historians agree that their valor and sacrifice helped to inspire him to issue Executive Order 9981 in 1948, which desegregated the armed forces and the federal government and paved the way for the modern Civil Rights Movement.

I was so inspired by the ironic and compelling details of this story that I decided to make it the focus of my senior project in American Studies. I contacted a nisei veteran named Chet Tanaka who had just published a history of the 442 entitled Go For Broke. He referred me to several of his old comrades in arms, who were at that time in their 60s and living across the country, and secured me an invitation to a 40th reunion of the unit at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History. Several months of exhaustive research led to a first draft which I wrote in the style of a multidimensional historical novel along the lines of John Dos Passos’s classic 1930s U.S.A. trilogy.

My final revised version was more a narrative history and garnered me thesis honors on my diploma. It also attracted the interest of Dr. Irving Bartlett, head of the American Civilization graduate program at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, himself a veteran of World War II and a noted author. UMass/Boston was one of five graduate programs in American Studies to which I applied in the fall of 1982, and Dr. Bartlett told me that my work on the nisei soldiers was one of the reasons he decided to offer me a full tuition waiver and paid research assistantship.

Before I left for Boston, I decided to visit Manzanar during my spring break in 1983. I was returning to California from a backpacking trip with three college friends to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. One of those friends was from the small Owens Valley town of Bishop and wanted to see his parents on his way back to school. He and the others agreed to stop at the Manzanar site, since it was on the way. We drove through Las Vegas and spent some time in Death Valley before heading over to U.S. 395 by way of highway 190 through the stark Panamint Mountains.

Nestled on the western side of the highway between Lone Pine and Independence, Manzanar was easy to miss. In fact, we reached Independence before I realized we had driven past it and needed to turn back. When we finally arrived at the site, my eyes beheld an arid, desolate, windswept landscape of sagebrush and a scattering of April wildflowers. The massive granite wall of the Sierra Nevada, immortalized in the haunting Ansel Adams photographs from 1943, formed a forbidding backdrop. All that remained of the internment camp was a small monument and a few stone buildings and foundations. An historical marker held a plaque with a brief history of what happened there. It was a sad, lonely place. I walked the grounds for a few minutes, took some photographs, and left.

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s 1973 memoir recounts her experiences as a young internee in Manzanar during World War II. In the years since I visited the site, a visitor center and museum has hosted tens of thousands of students and tourists and commemorative events have attracted camp survivors and their descendants. Photos Copyright (c) 2003 Torin Finney.

I did not return for twenty years. By that time I was a history teacher in Bakersfield, California, within easy access of the Owens Valley via highway 178 from the south. Manzanar in 2003 looked much the way it had appeared in 1983 (see above photos), but plans were by then underway to renovate the site after President George H. W. Bush awarded National Historic Site designation in 1992. In the years since these photographs were taken, building efforts have created an informative visitor center, a reconstructed barracks, a period guard tower, and much more. Annual reunions and educational events are regularly held there. More than a million people have visited the site, which has become a place of pilgrimage for anyone interested in learning about the Japanese American internment camps of World War II.

In early 2007 I helped to design an interdisciplinary project on the camps for a special Digital Arts and Humanities program. While my colleague in the English department had the students read Farewell to Manzanar, I covered the story of the internment in my World War II unit, and my technology department colleague helped the kids create an animated story of a fictitious young internee using software and digital imagery. One student created a digital “Peacemaker Mural” on a campus wall (see image below). For seven years, we finished the unit with a field trip to the Japanese American National Museum.

Photoshop mural created by one of my Digital Arts and Humanities students on Japanese American scholar and activist Gordon Hirabayashi (1918-2012), who challenged the legality of Executive Order 9066 in court and spent a year in federal prison rather than submit to wartime internment.

The museum itself is an outstanding collection of exhibits located in the Little Tokyo neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles. We took the train as a group from our location in Orange County to historic Union Station and walked the several blocks to the museum, where we were guided through the exhibitions by a surviving internee who shared personal stories of the war. The reconstructed barracks and adjacent pile of vintage suitcases were particularly memorable, as were the fine collection of medals and uniforms from veterans of the 442 and the large diorama model of the Manzanar camp. Afterwards, we walked outside to the “Go For Broke” memorial to the 100/442 and all-nisei Military Intelligence Service (who interrogated Japanese prisoners and translated captured enemy documents in the Pacific), and met living veterans of those famous units (see photo below).

During my twenty years in the classroom as a history teacher, I did my best to correct the error of my own teachers in earlier decades. I tried to create a U.S. history curriculum that included the story of all the cultural, religious, and ethnic groups that helped build this great nation. The story of the Japanese Americans and their experiences in World War II formed an extensive section of my unit on America in the Second World War. Most of the nisei veterans and many of the internees are gone now, but their legacy lives on in the efforts of their descendants, as well as committed educators and scholars, to preserve their stories for future generations.

Survivors of the internment like Star Trek actor and activist George Takei, who recently published the graphic novel They Called Us Enemy, are helping to make the story of the Japanese Americans in World War II more accessible to contemporary audiences. As students of history, our duty is to add our own voices to this effort, whether or not we have Japanese ancestry. The targeting of Americans of Middle Eastern and South Asian backgrounds since 9-11 and the mistreatment of immigrants from Latin America are grim reminders that racial prejudice is an ever present danger, particularly in times of international tension. We can never take our democracy for granted. “Liberty and justice for all” is only possible through the determined efforts of dedicated citizens who are committed to defending those ideals.

Standing with a Nisei veteran of World War II at the Go For Broke Monument near the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles during our Digital Arts and Humanities class field trip in 2007. The monument was dedicated in 1999 and bears the names of more than 16,000 Japanese Americans who served in World War II. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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Crossroads of the Pacific

Named the Sandwich Islands by British explorer Captain James Cook in 1778, Hawai’i was an independent kingdom from 1795 to 1893, when the last reigning queen was deposed in a coup by haole (Caucasian) sugar planters. Five years later the islands were annexed by the United States. Nearly six decades of territorial status were followed by statehood in 1959, when Hawai’i became the 50th star in the American flag. Many Native Hawaiians still call for political and cultural sovereignty.

One of the classic writer Mark Twain’s lesser known works is the autobiographical Roughing It (1872), an account of his time in the mining camps of California and Nevada during the years of the Civil War. The book also includes reflections on the four weeks he spent in the Kingdom of Hawai’i in 1866 on special assignment with the Sacramento Union. With typical sardonic humor, he describes a bucolic, isolated world filled with lush verdant landscapes and languid natives bathing in warm, clear waters, caressed by tropical trade winds. The Honolulu he visited was a sleepy little Polynesian capital where ships from all over the Pacific came for trade, beach parties, and relaxation.

Such is the image of the islands he brought back to the mainland to form part of the stand-up routine that made him a star on the Victorian lecture circuit. This view of Hawai’i endured well into the 20th century and still lingers in the marketing campaigns of the tourist industry there, the largest in the state. Up to ten million visitors come in and out of the islands every year and pour more than $16 billion into the local economy. Most of them spend their week or two cloistered in luxury hotel rooms or Airbnb’s and funneled out to well-known tourist attractions in rental cars or guided buses. Much effort is expended to create a positive, memorable experience that will encourage tourists to return for another visit.

Growing up in North Carolina and Virginia, I had little interest in Hawai’i and did not give the place much thought as a boy and teenager. Other than the photographs of the Pearl Harbor attack I had seen in my history textbooks, my only other image of the islands was that of the hula girl playing the ukulele and wearing flower leis and a grass skirt, probably from seeing the Tikimaster Leilani dashboard doll bouncing near the steering wheels of big rigs pulling into truck stops along Interstate 81. Hawai’i seemed to be on the other side of the world from me, a faraway and exotic place I assumed I would never see.

My prospects of visiting improved dramatically when I moved to southern California in 1977 to finish high school. Ten years later, in my mid-20s, I had the opportunity to spend a week on the Garden Isle of Kaua’i. My earlier indifference was soon dispelled by the vibrant colors of the tropical mountains and native hibiscus, the intoxicating fragrances of ginger and plumeria, the delicious flavors of kalua pig and lomi salmon, the sweetness of guava, starfruit, and flame papaya, and the breathtaking vistas of the Na Pali Coast and Waimea Canyon. The Leilani dashboard girls came to life in the spectacular luau shows I attended. I was entranced, and determined to return as soon as possible.

I had my chance two years later while completing a graduate degree in theology at the GTU in Berkeley, California. One of my requirements was to complete a month of “cross-cultural experience,” hosted by a local pastor in a community different from where I had grown up (see my blog entry on “Cross-Cultural Perspectives”). Longing for an opportunity to return to Hawai’i, I welcomed the opportunity to participate in an intersession program on the Wai’anae coast of O’ahu. I flew out of San Francisco for Honolulu just after New Year’s Day in 1989 and made my way up O’ahu’s leeward coast.

As soon as I arrived in Wai’anae, I realized I was in a completely different Hawai’i than what I had seen and experienced on my Kaua’i vacation. The tourist Hawai’i of luaus and luxury hotels was absent in this economically depressed and traditionally Hawaiian cultural area. In spite of its aridity, Wai’anae boasted some tropical flora and fauna, but I found myself exposed to the reality of economic inequities that dated back generations. Unemployment and poverty were visible everywhere. Housing conditions were poor. People had to grow their own food and build their own shelter. In some areas, drug use was rampant. It was hard to believe that this place co-existed in such close proximity to the glittering “paradise” of Waikiki.

One of the first people I met was a local Native Hawaiian teacher and taro farmer who was busy developing what he called “alternative tourism.” This involved immersion in the local Hawaiian culture, reading and “talking story” on Hawaiian history, and participation in native agriculture. The goal was to encourage visitors to boost the grassroots economy and the continuity of historic Hawaiian communities rather than fuel the growth of the more mainstream, sanitized, multinational tourist industry in Honolulu and elsewhere. He taught me how to plant taro, or kalo, which had been a staple crop of the Hawaiian people for generations and represented their cultural history and identity.

I learned about the Hawaiian concept of ‘ohana, much more inclusive than the standard western understanding of “family,” and the true meaning of the word aloha, which in its form of aloha ‘aina encompassed a deep and abiding love of the land. He said with a wink that his people called Caucasians like me haole, which loosely translated from Hawaiian as “without soul.” The more I learned about historic relations between white Europeans and Americans and Hawaiians, the better I understood the origins of this term. It reminded me of the Spanish word gringo, used for “foreigner” in Mexico but carrying with it a derogatory tone derived from a sad history of prejudice and discrimination.

This story was presented to me in compelling detail when I read Shoal of Time by Gavan Daws (1968), perhaps the best single-volume history of the Hawaiian Islands. I was amazed and enthralled by the accounts of the Tahitian migration to Hawai’i, the unification of the islands under King Kamehameha, the incursion of the Congregationalist missionaries in the 19th century, and the gradual takeover of the island economy by their descendants, culminating in the acquisition of Pearl Harbor and the 1893 coup and overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani (1838-1917).

The Hawaiian flag was originally adapted from the red ensign of the British East India Company by King Kamehameha I (c. 1736-1819). Eight stripes were included to represent the major Hawaiian Islands. The red, white, and blue colors were intended to encourage trade with France, Britain, and the United States while remaining aloof from the political turmoil of those three great 19th century powers.

I found that I was even more fascinated by my experience of the “real” Hawai’i than I had been by the tourist version, and after returning to the Bay Area at the end of January 1989, I made plans to complete my one-year full-time internship program there if I could. I was delighted to be approved for the assignment, and returned to Honolulu on August 19. I moved into an apartment in the Makiki neighborhood inland (or mauka in local parlance) of Waikiki and only a few blocks from my internship parish.

My new hosts were most gracious, showering me with fragrant flower leis as soon as I stepped off the plane in Honolulu and scheduling several stimulating activities to acclimate me to the community. I met Governor John Waihe’e, the first Native Hawaiian governor in U.S. history, at a special reception for all the seminary interns held at the historic governor’s mansion. The members of my internship committee hosted me for lunch and dinner in their homes and gave me a wealth of information on both local history and social customs I would need to know. I visited the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, one of the best depositories of Hawaiian history and artifacts in the state.

In addition to pastoral duties such as preaching and teaching, planning worship services, singing in the choir, attending staff meetings, helping with house blessings and weddings and memorial services, visiting the sick and infirm, harvesting bananas at a local tropical hunger mission, and serving food to the homeless at an inter-denominational soup kitchen, my first few months were also spent visiting many notable historic sites. I went to the restored Kawaiaha’o Church and adjacent museum, built from local coral on the site of the original 1820s New England Protestant mission. I learned some of the Hawaiian language and enjoyed broadcasts and live performances of Hawaiian music.

I visited Iolani Palace, traditional residence of the Hawaiian royalty, and Hanaiakamalama, the summer home of Queen Emma between 1857 and 1885. I remember welcoming in the 1990s with long strings of Chinese firecrackers and participating in the celebration of Kamehameha Day on June 11. Touring the U.S.S. Arizona memorial in Pearl Harbor was a memorable experience, with its engaging museum and visitor center and the evocative memorial straddling the wreck of the doomed ship. I could see its somber smokestacks and battlements in the clear waters, directly beneath fresh flower leis and droplets of oil still seeping to the surface.

Momentous events were happening around the world at that time, and Hawai’i’s location in the central Pacific made it a natural crossroads for any number of international figures. I remember meeting with Chinese pro-democracy students who had fled the carnage in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and taken refuge with the Chinese congregation that shared our building facility. I met the Coptic Pope and his entourage, who was visiting from Egypt for an ecumenical service at the local cathedral. I conversed with Filipino Cardinal Jaime Sin and several of his colleagues, who had opposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos and supported the People Power Revolution that elevated Corazon Aquino to the presidency in Manila. I visited Marcos’s recent grave on O’ahu and drove past his widow Imelda’s gated compound in Makiki Heights.

The civil war in El Salvador was still raging, and I met a former soldier who had deserted rather than participate in the slaughter of civilians committed by the U.S.-financed Salvadoran armed forces. He was living on a communal farm in Wai’anae under the protection of a former Catholic priest who had fled the Philippines because of anti-Marcos activities. The premiere of the Paulist film Romero was followed by news of the brutal murder of six Jesuit scholars and their housekeepers in San Salvador by U.S.-trained special forces that November, and I participated in special classes and services on American foreign policy in Central America.

That fall also saw the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the fall of the Berlin Wall. I watched all these pivotal events on live television and took advantage of the forum for discussion and learning afforded me by my congregation. Many parishioners and members of my internship committee were connected to the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, either as students or faculty, and there were lively activities and dialogues all through those months. My biography of Ben Salmon had just come out (see my blog entry on “Discovering New Stories”) and there was much interest in me as a guest speaker in various venues. It was truly an exciting time, and Honolulu was an exciting place in which to make the most of it.

Throughout the year, I had the opportunity to participate in many other historic commemorations and celebrations. 1989 was the bicentennial of the arrival of the first Chinese workers in Hawai’i, and I was treated to a spectacular fireworks show in Honolulu Harbor sponsored by the People’s Republic of China. That year was also the centennial of the death of Father Damien (1840-1889), the Belgian priest who had served the leper colony of Moloka’i and eventually succumbed to the disease there himself. I read his biography by Gavan Daws and attended the celebration at his statue in front of the state legislature building.

In January 1990 I visited the Big Island of Hawai’i, and learned about the powerful influence of the Kilauea volcano at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and the Hawaiian goddess Pele associated with it. I visited Kamehameha’s birthplace at Kapa’au near the Mo’okini Heiau (traditional Hawaiian temple). On the southern tip of the Big Island, I spent some time at the Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park and then drove up the Kona coast to see where Captain Cook met his end at Kealakekua Bay. On Maui in May, I went to the historic town of Lahaina, capital of the Hawaiian kingdom between 1820 and 1845 and destination of early whaling ships and the first American missionaries.

My year in Hawai’i ended far sooner than I wanted it to, and I returned to the mainland on August 19, 1990, exactly one year after arriving in Honolulu to begin my internship. I went back for two weeks in June of 1991 to visit old friends and colleagues. That was 28 years ago, and I have not returned to the islands since (yet). My experiences there left an indelible impression on my senses, my memory, and my understanding of American and Polynesian history. I still harbor plans to travel or even retire there one day. Its pull is still that strong.

If you have not yet visited Hawai’i and plan to go there one day, remember to do your homework. When you arrive, explore hidden parts of the islands. Get to know the local people and learn their history, their culture, and their customs. You will enjoy a far richer experience than what the standard vacation package has to offer.

Part of my painted rock collection to commemorate the thirteen months I served as an intern pastor or “kahu” on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu. Artwork Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at