Hayashi interview provides teachable moment

Mary Hayashi met The Castro Valley High School Olympian.

Mary Hayashi met The Castro Valley High School Olympian.

Kids love field trips and this one proved more memorable than most. Strange as it was, an interview with Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi produced interesting lessons for all involved.

Four Castro Valley High School journalism students and I visited Sacramento on Feb. 1 for a California Newspaper Publishers Association event. Our group heard from the Legislature’s top Democrats and Republicans before splitting up to meet with our own districts’ lawmakers.

For us, that meant Hayashi, an Assembly Democrat from Castro Valley who is now also a convicted shoplifter. Carrying some $2,450 worth of unpurchased merchandise, Hayashi was arrested at San Francisco’s Neiman Marcus on Oct. 25, 2011.

Hayashi greeted us warmly when we arrived but looked more nervous than the kids once she saw their notebooks.

“Sorry, what are we doing now?” she asked uneasily.

I was surprised she agreed to meet our school’s young journalists because, as far as I know, she has declined media interviews since her arrest and subsequent conviction. A spokesman said she was distracted when leaving the store and simply forgot to pay. Her attorney later said a brain tumor contributed to her behavior. If true, that should mitigate some of the public’s heavy criticism but the explanation raises serious questions about her ability to serve in the Legislature.

Together the kids and I wrote questions that we hoped would lead her to share more. “Where did you get that outfit?” was one suggestion that made us burst with laughter. We decided not to ask that one.

Yet the prospect of an interview seemed to take her by surprise, making me wonder if she realized her staff had arranged a meeting with not just students, but student journalists.

Rather than take the kids’ questions, she pointed the conversation elsewhere. “Why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourselves?” she asked. The students obliged. As if we were old friends, she later asked me, “So what have you been up to?”

Hayashi did eventually speak about her laudable legislation to protect student athletes from concussions and another pending bill to improve the first aid training of school coaches. But before we could address the shoplifting and health questions, an aide insisted she end our 20-minute meeting. On our way out the door, she scolded us for taking pictures and recording the interview without permission.

Though odd and incomplete, the interview was quite a teachable moment for the kids, who learned to write polite but challenging questions and got practice conversing with a source more elusive than their fellow students or teachers.

Perhaps the meeting should be a learning experience for Hayashi, too. Most people have no wish to publicly air their embarrassments but public figures give up most of their privacy along these lines when they assume high office. Hayashi’s service in the Legislature has been honorable and distinguished, but the public will have a hard time even remembering that until she puts the unanswered questions about her case to rest.

Sometimes my job involves policing much smaller scandals like secret texting and homework copying. When confronted, many kids refuse to come clean but those who do earn trust and feel better.

Hayashi might find the public remarkably forgiving if she spoke publicly and honestly about her case and health. Doing so would set an example for the countless others who, though rarely caught, commit crimes at least as serious. It might even make Hayashi feel better about herself. I hope she clears the air for her constituents’ sake and for her own. Until that happens, she’s going to face tougher audiences than high school honor students.

Patch, 2012