His gentle voice and beaming smile will be missed in the hallways of Ferris High School this fall. Akira Yoshida, beloved math and Japanese teacher, died July 9.
“He was an instructor who immersed his students in what he taught them,” said former student Patrick Pacyga. “You weren’t able to hide in his class because he engaged his students in such a positive way.”
Yoshida had been diagnosed with cancer in November, but his illness couldn’t keep him out of the classroom he loved. He taught until mid-May.
As a longtime member of the Spokane-Nishinomiya Sister City Society, the 55-year-old Yoshida delighted in encouraging his students to be part of the student exchange program. Pacyga was one of them. He called his 2003 trip to Japan “one of the defining experiences of my high school career.”
Likewise, 2004 Ferris graduate Bradley Alice felt privileged to experience Japan with Yoshida. “He took a group of us over spring break,” Alice said, recalling the trip he took as a teen. “He took us to some of his favorite places. It was a unique experience I’ll never forget. I can’t imagine someone trying to fill his shoes.”
Yoshida’s passion for his culture was infectious. Alice said that while students need only two years of a foreign language to meet graduation requirements, “Most of us took three years just to be part of his class.”
One of those students, Ferris senior Lei Silva, took the news of Yoshida’s death especially hard. She was in Japan as part of the student exchange program when she heard. “I called him before I left,” she said. “And he told me just to go for it. Everything I experienced in Japan was dedicated to him.”
She’d been well prepared for the trip. “He didn’t just teach us Japanese,” she said. “He brought Japan to us.”
Yoshida’s fellow teacher and friend Erik Powell said, “His students were changed after they went through his classes, not only because they learned a new language but also because they learned a new way of looking at the world.”
Part of what made Yoshida an effective teacher was the way he incorporated interactive fun into his curriculum. “He had a Judo unit and he set up rice-stacking competitions with chop sticks,” said Powell. He paused, and his voiced broke with emotion. “I’m going to miss him terribly.”
But his students weren’t the only ones Yoshida taught. His wife of 27 years, Lisa Yoshida, said, “I learned so much from him, especially not to judge people. He never judged a book by its cover.”
The two met while attending Washington State University. “He had such a presence,” his wife recalled. “And a huge smile.” Their two daughters, Anna and Mia, were the center of his world.
Both at home and at work, Yoshida was known for his kindness and his acceptance of others. “He would always say, ‘You don’t have to agree with a different culture, you just have to understand it,’ ” recalled Lisa Yoshida.
She offered an example of her husband’s thoughtfulness. When her husband discovered a new student didn’t have anyone to eat lunch with, he took steps to make her feel welcome. The girl’s mother later told Lisa Yoshida, “Akira invited her daughter to have lunch with him in the classroom so she wouldn’t have to eat alone.”
Stories like that abound. Silva summed up the feelings of many of Yoshida’s students. “The reason I loved his class so much is because he made it more like a family than just a group of kids forced to cope with each other. That made him an extraordinary man and I’m so glad I got the opportunity to know and learn from him.”