At Westside, a banner day raised for a beloved teacher

Memories adorn the trees, and soon the sunlit commons at Westside Elementary School, in an enduring tribute to the memory of a teacher.

Students, staff, and parents joined in a colorful ceremony Friday to remember the late Kim Yamashita, who taught at Westside for many years until shortly before her death from cancer on Sept. 15, 2003. A parade of banners helped celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week, with special recognition for Yamashita.

“This is the perfect time to honor one of our former beloved teachers,” said Terri Vann, principal, and friend of Yamashita. “She touched the lives of everyone she came into contact with.”

Students in kindergarten through grade four made carp fish streamers and the fifth and sixth graders created larger banners, under the tutelage of artist-in-residence Shelly Toon Hight. The students displayed their streamers and banners during a Teacher Appreciation Week assembly. The streamers and banners reflected Yamashita’s treasured Japanese heritage, according to Vann. Many of the carp streamers will go on temporary display at the school, while the banners will be permanently exhibited next to a sky-lit commons where two hallways meet, according to Vann.

As 400 students gathered in the gym, Vann said, “The effects of Mrs. Yamashita on our children are apparent.” Most of the students present were in Yamashita’s classroom, an environment known for its mixture of music, art, and nurturing. Special guests at the assembly included Betty Shalhope, former Westside principal and longtime associate of Yamashita’s, and Kim’s husband, Ron, who retired from teaching at Westside in 2004.

“You all know what this means to me. All of you represent all of the children who had Kim as their teacher,” Ron said. “When I came into the gym and looked at the banners I felt they represented all the things Mrs. Yamashita expressed throughout her career. It really hits me right in the heart to see you children and how much you’ve changed and grown. I know Mrs. Yamashita would be so proud.” He said he was touched by the creation of the carp, as Kim had brought in her own silk and paper carp from Japan each spring and taught her students about the important role of the fish in Japanese culture.

“Kim really enjoyed doing that,” Ron said.

Carrying his streamer, second grader Matt Kuatt told Ron, “Mrs. Yamashita was really nice. She always smiled. She was generous.”

Mikayla Kiyokawa, who was also a student of Kim, said that if Kim were present, “she’d be crying, because she would be really happy to see all this.”

Second grade teacher Shannon Perry said the event was a fitting tribute to her friend and colleague.

“When I watched the children in the gym I thought how what they did is such a physical representation of what a difference Kim made. We don’t always get to see that. They grow up and go away. But I can see they are all part of her, and what’s in them is always going to be there.”

While the event gave special focus to Yamashita, it also honored teachers in general.

After the ceremony, some students hung “weather grams” — messages and drawings of love and remembrance tied with ribbons to trees and shrubs for all to read. Many bore tributes to Yamashita, but students also took them home to help students and their families remember “all teachers and others who had made a difference in their lives,” Vann said.

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