Developing Powerful Youth

Ric Ornellas shares, "My human revolution is the direct path to unlocking the potential of my students."

Ric Ornellas with his students, Nov. 26, Hoolehua, Hawaii. Photo by KANOA LEALAO-HIRO.

by Ric Ornellas
Hoolehua, Hawaii

Twelve years ago, I awakened to a newfound mission in education. At 58, I left my career in medical communications to embark on a journey at the New York City Teaching Fellows, a program that enabled me to receive full-time teacher training while working toward my master’s in education.

After teaching for two years in the South Bronx, I moved back home to Molokai Island in Hawaii to spend time with my aging mother. What was intended to be just one year has become 10.

Molokai is a beautiful, remote island with lush greens carpeting lava-rich earth. With a population of 7,444, we have little traffic and no stoplights. The island resembles a tranquil jewel.

Yet, 56 percent of our 2,000 island students live at or below the national poverty level, and our island has the state’s highest unemployment rate. In the ’90s, there was a meth epidemic on the island, and some current students, born to methamphetamine users, struggle from the negative effects.

Our greatest tragedy, though, is youth suicide. Since 2009, our suicide rate has been two to six times higher than the national average. When one student I knew committed suicide, it burned me to the core. I questioned myself over and over about my failure to see his mental anguish, and as I chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, I determined in front of the Gohonzon: “I don’t want any of my students to kill themselves. I will see the signs before it’s too late!”

Given these harsh conditions, SGI President Ikeda’s encouragement has become my lifeline to help my students. He writes: “To see ourselves in others and feel an inner oneness and sense of unity with them represents a fundamental revolution in the way we view and live our lives. Therefore, discriminating against another person is the same as discriminating against oneself. When we hurt another, we are hurting ourselves. And when we respect others, we respect and elevate our own lives as well” (The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, vol. 1, pp. 149–50).

I am continually challenged to live these words in my daily life. For example, last year, four ninth-graders marched into my class and announced to my face, “We hate this class!” Remembering Nichiren Daishonin’s words “The voice carries out the work of the Buddha” (The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings, p. 4), I tried to muster a tone of respect and smiled as sincerely as I could, and said: “Thank you for sharing. May I now give you today’s assignment?” “Oh geez,” the spokesman of the four said as he grabbed the assignment from me. I realized that night and in other situations how much I had to develop my abilities to unlock the potential of my students.

My students are teaching me to discard my opinionated lesser self and cultivate my patient, observant self.

As I prayed to the Gohonzon, I began to see the profundity of President Ikeda’s words: “To see ourselves in others and feel an inner oneness and sense of unity with them.” After 10 eventful months, those four students ended the yearlong course with aboveaverage grades, and three of them chose to continue with me this year.

My students are teaching me to discard my opinionated lesser self and cultivate my patient, observant self. In our fast-paced, emotionally-charged high school day, I am constantly challenged to see my students as the future leaders and drivers of society. It’s never about me but always about their development.

Only chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo gives me the motivation to see mystudents that way and the strength to look toward the future to find pathways for their success.

In 2013, together with three colleagues, I established the Molokai College Career Tour Club to overcome the geographical, cultural and social isolation that prevents many of our students from success.

Since then, our students and families have raised money to travel from Molokai to the mainland seven times, visiting such schools as Columbia University, New York University, Barnard College, Fashion Institute of Technology, Yale, Brown, Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, to name a few.

Among the 44 students who were a part of our club, 34 have gone on to prestigious colleges and universities, the majority of whom are on partial or full scholarships.

The whole island of Molokai makes up one SGI-USA district, and for the 50,000 Lions of Justice Festival, Molokai District proudly sent six youth to the event in Honolulu. Together, they pledged to change the world by changing themselves and inspiring the people around them to do the same!

The district, where true Buddhist dialogue occurs and where we develop our faith, is such a precious place where we can foster young people. I will continue to wholeheartedly support this endeavor as the men’s district leader! At our November discussion meeting, where we commemorated the 88th anniversary of the Soka Gakkai’s founding, I also celebrated my 44th year of Buddhist practice and brought a friend.

I am eternally grateful to Nichiren Daishonin, the first three presidents of the Soka Gakkai and the SGI for the challenging and satisfying life I am able to live as an educator on Molokai. I also deeply appreciate the students who teach and inspire me every day. Although 70, I feel so young. Sensei has taught me that the “treasures of the heart” are the riches that we build within our lives. These treasures are creative ways that each of us can live boldly with constant joy, vitality and continual fulfillment.