CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Julia Smith, center, posed with daughter Candy Suiso, right, and niece Carmen Cuizon Stagner at Waianae High School's Searider Productions building.
Teacher inspires family to follow in her footsteps
Watching Julia Smith shed a few tears of joy as she boasts about her long teaching career on the Waianae Coast makes it hard to believe her life dream had nothing to do with educating children.
"I wanted to be an airline stewardess at Hawaiian Airlines. At that time they used to dress real sexy," Smith, 79 and now retired, said with a chuckle. "That's what I wanted to be. Who wants to be a teacher? God. And then I wanted to work at Liberty House, because they dressed so nice."
The first teacher in the family, Smith taught at Makaha Elementary School for 32 years, inspiring her niece and daughter -- both of whom also never imagined working in a classroom -- to follow her footsteps.
Her daughter Candy Suiso runs Waianae High School's Searider Productions, a successful multimedia program she founded at her alma matter in 1993. Suiso's cousin, Carmen Cuizon Stagner, teaches special needs students at Puohala Elementary School in Kaneohe.
While at the University of Northern Iowa, Suiso stayed away from pursuing a teaching career, knowing her mother worked long hours and made little money educating public school students. She got a liberal arts degree, came home and began bartending and waitressing.
Until she tried another side job: substitute teacher.
"I always though that I didn't want to be a teacher because I saw how hard she worked," Suiso said of her mother. "But I realized that teaching was definitely my calling. My mom had a big influence on me ... I think unconsciously."
Stagner, whose life goal also was to become a flight attendant, got into teaching "by accident" after marrying her English college professor at the Church College of Hawaii, now known as Bringham-Young University.
"It wasn't in my mind either," said Stagner, 64.
Stagner has taught at seven different schools, including the SSV Tole Mour, a 154-foot ship that served as a character building class for at-risk students as they traveled through the island chain.
"My philosophy is to look at the whole child. Look at the strengths, and you work with their strengths to build their weaknesses," said Stagner, who has no plans to retire other than to know that, like her aunt, she'll probably work part time for some years after she quits.
The 52-year-old Suiso is as busy as ever running the 300-plus-student media program, which originated from her use of a VHS camera to teach a Spanish class when she joined Waianae High School in 1986.
"That way they had fun learning the language, and learning became relevant," she said.
In 1992, Suiso proposed the media project to the school's principal. It became a reality a year later, after she wrote a grant to launch Searider Productions in two small, hot classrooms with a handful of students, two teachers and three cameras.
In 2001, the program moved to its current location, a four-classroom building with a fancy editing booth, numerous computers and a large flat-screen television hanging from one of a number of walls covered in trophies and photos of award ceremonies.
Among them is a Best of Show award the school took last month in the 2007 Hawaii Medical Service Association Teen Video Awards Contest. The winning anti-underage drinking public service announcement, "Math Class," was created by Suiso's students Laurissa Asuega, Reef Shook, Ed-Recco Eli and Martinea Trippett.
They produced the best PSA out of 244 entries from 50 public and private schools.
"We've kind of outgrown ourselves," Suiso said.
As for Smith, her hopes of traveling for free and wearing miniskirts ended when she got an education degree from Webster College in St. Louis, Mo., mostly as a result of hanging out with aspiring teachers.
After returning to Hawaii to care for her mother, she fell in love with Makaha Elementary School and its challenging, poor students.
Each year, Smith turned her classroom into a haunted house during Halloween and a musical theater during Christmas.
"I wanted everyone to participate, especially the slow ones, the shy ones. In fact, I tried to persuade the shiest one to do soul singing," said Smith, who still gets calls from former students or lends them a buck or two.
"You have to teach them what life is all about and love them."