When Honolulu City Council Member Augie Tulba was flunking eighth grade English at Dole Middle School, guidance teacher Mrs. Millie Murakami told him he could either put his talents to work on a stage or face the wrath of his father.
A three-decade-long stand-up comedy career later, Tulba continues to credit Mrs. Murakami for turning his life around.
“She was the first teacher who, when I looked at her, I knew she cared about me,” Tulba said, tears welling up in his eyes. “She said ‘You’re failing English – I think you’re a special person and I really care about what your future’s going to look like.’ And when she said that to me, it really resonated with me.”
Noting that he both loved to talk and to make people laugh, Mrs. Murakami suggested that he channel those talents into something useful. She stayed with him after school for three weeks to help him sharpen his performance.
“She taught me how to prepare, how to get focused,” said Tulba.
It still wasn’t easy. Tulba battled with dyslexia. Meanwhile, the other contestants on stage with him gave him “side eye” while his buddies jeering from the back of the auditorium told him to stop fooling around and get off the stage.
But that only motivated him to prove everyone wrong and Tulba’s performance of Rap Replinger’s classic “Room Service” routine won him the top trophy in the humorous interpretation category of the speech contest.
One of five boys growing up in Kamehameha IV public housing in a family where both parents worked, Tulba said his life could very easily have gone much differently.
“I love my parents to death but I saw them struggling,” Tulba said. “We had to really think outside the box, my brothers and I.” One brother ended up in prison and another was an early victim of the ice epidemic.
But for Tulba, Mrs. Murakami’s push to enter that speech contest changed his life forever.
“When you step out of that box and you challenge yourself to do something that’s so out of the ordinary, people support you and they want to see you do well. And that challenges other people to do the same — ‘if he can do ’em, I can do ’em.’ Mrs. Murakami played a big role in giving me confidence so that I didn’t let the obstacles challenge me.”