Lawrence Downes is a journalist and former member of The New York Times editorial board. Before joining a Smithsonian/Zócalo “What It Means to Be American” panel discussion in Honolulu, supported by the Daniel K. Inouye Institute, entitled “Does Hawaii Have America’s Greatest Sense of Identity?” he spoke in the green room about beloved first grade teachers, nostalgic fish prints, and the value of taking life as it comes.
Q: What’s hanging on your living room walls at your home in New York?
A: There are sketches by Jean Charlot, which I found either on eBay or in an antique store in Poughkeepsie, of all places. He’s a French-American artist who was a friend of the family in Hawaii. He grew up in France and studied there in the 1920s, and went to Mexico and befriended Diego Rivera. There are portraits of Charlot and his wife taken by Edward Weston. And he had this lovely style; he was a muralista, with all the Mexicans. And then he came to Hawaii and he was doing public murals here as well. There’s a beautiful one at the public workers’ union, in a very working class part of town, of all these guys—they look like Rivera’s figures, but they’re holding trash cans because they’re sanitation workers. And so we have some of those. And we have fish prints because it reminds me of Hawaii.
Q: What year, past or future, would you time travel to?
A: I would love to go to Hawaii in the 1860s. One of my favorite travel pieces I wrote for the Times was about Mark Twain’s visit, when these islands were kind of this unruly, dusty kingdom with all kinds of potential, and native Hawaiians were here, and the place must have been beautiful and interesting before high rises and before jet planes.
Q: What’s the best advice you ever got?
A: Let me think, because I got a lot of it! You know, my wife tells me repeatedly just to relax and smile and don’t worry about it so much. Just … you’ll be fine. And that sense of confidence that you can fake for a while until it comes, is kind of a good way to go through life when doing things like panel discussions and working for high-pressure newspapers and things like that. A lot of people, I’ve learned through life, are kind of faking it in a good way. They don’t see a reason why they can’t do something they want to do, and they just do it and figure it out as they go. It works out.
Q: Is your wife a Buddhist?
A: No, but she is a woman of great serenity and wisdom.
Q: Was there a teacher or professor who really influenced you or even changed your life?
A: Yes, Mrs. Yano, first grade. I just saw her again and was blown away that she was still alive, and she showed up at my mother’s 90th birthday party last Saturday. She was a lovely, lovely teacher in my parochial school, St. Anthony’s. She took me under her wing and encouraged me to read, and halfway through first grade she told my mom, “He has done all the reading here, he needs to move up.” So I moved from first grade to second, and I left the warm environment and the nurturing womb of Mrs. Yano’s class into Sister Eloisa’s class, and that was traumatic for me because she was a lot tougher than Mrs. Yano. But the love of learning and the kindness that she showed made me really love school. And she was a friend of the family for many years, and godmother to my younger sister. If I ever became a teacher or had a family member who became a teacher, I would want them to be like her.
Q: Do you remember the first record album you bought?
A: This is kind of embarrassing: I’m tempted to say some classic Beatles record because I was a huge Beatles fan, but it might have been John Denver.