By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
To the city leaders, school officials, and state representatives that advocated for the name change, it meant the resurrection of a sacred trust.
South Lake High School was tentatively confirmed last week to have its name changed to the Alan T. Sugiyama High School at South Lake. Final approval awaits a vote by the board on Sept. 9.
The school is for students facing challenges, such as substance abuse and teen pregnancy, that might make it more difficult for them to complete their education.
It is being renamed after a Japanese American civil rights and education leader who devoted his life to giving people “second chances” as citizens, in school and in their careers, according to his daughters.
Former Seattle Deputy Mayor Bob Watt and state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos spearheaded efforts to have the name changed.
Watt, who visited Sugiyama every day while he was in the hospital with cancer, initiated the effort. Santos grew up in the aura of activism that Sugiyama helped nurture. Now chair of the House Education committee, she used her expertise in the workings of the Seattle school district to find a school that fit with his life-long mission.
“Al really had a heart for the students that were so poorly served by our traditional educational system,” she said in an interview.
But the lives of the two daughters, who helped advocate for the change, reveal hidden meanings behind the pairing of their father’s name with the school.
A Japanese American community without a tangible symbol
For Mari Sugiyama, 37, perhaps the closest thing she had to a physical structure representing the Japanese American community was a hotel her family visited in Hawaii every year.
During a teleconference interview, a large painting of the Manago Hotel hung behind her on the wall. Run by a Japanese American family on the island of Hawaii, it was where her grandparents and parents visited and now her family goes to eat.
The hotel was significant because it was a place her grandparents visited on a vacation after they were incarcerated. But it was also something the Japanese American community seemed to lack in Seattle—a physical location to gather and find community.
After the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, Seattle’s Nihonmachi was fragmented.
In her undergraduate thesis at the University of Washington (UW), where she majored partly in ethnic studies, Mari argued that an ongoing beauty pageant for Japanese American women was a way for the community to remain cohesive.
The pageant involved a year and a half program of training and culminated in a musical performance (Mari played the piano), a personal statement, impromptu responses to questions about current events, and a year of community service. Mari also studied Japanese in college.
She placed second, earning the title of “first princess,” which meant she would serve as cultural ambassador to Seattle’s sister cities, among other things.
When telling her father the news, he said, “It was never yours to win.” She took that to mean there is never any predetermined outcome in life, part of what she described as his lifelong belief that you have to choose your battles.
“Is this the sword you want to die on,” she said, describing her father’s philosophy.
But when asked if he might have been referring to the fact that the winner was the daughter of a highly influential family on the board of the UW, she said, “Now that’s something I never thought of.”
She served on the board of the pageant for years and recently was the narrator of a documentary about it.
A place of second chances
Sugiyama’s younger daughter, Alysa, 33, spent six years as a paraprofessional at a local elementary school before deciding to return to school for a master’s degree in a type of educational science that explains student behavior.
Working with kids with learning and behavioral challenges, she routinely handled being punched, spat on, and other reactive behavior. With the teacher, she tried to help the students learn more effective ways of communicating their needs. But her father’s life inspired her to focus on the accomplishments of her students in terms of what they meant to the individual student.
This meant being “proud of the small things you can get through,” she said.
“My student was able to walk across the classroom by himself,” she gave as an example.
“My student was able to feed himself today,” she said. “Be proud of the smallest things in life.”
A turning point came when one of her students stabbed her in the back with a ballpoint pen (the details of the incident have been changed to protect the student’s identity).
“I said, ‘I’ve got to learn to understand better why this is happening,’” she said.
She asked her teacher, who told her about a program at the UW called Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), which focuses on student behavior.
After three years working full-time and attending the program simultaneously, she has just graduated and is preparing for a licensing test.
Remembering their father
Their accomplishments and their life paths reflect themes and visions of their father’s, who died from cancer in 2017.
Sugiyama led a long series of civil rights movements at the UW and later in Seattle. As part of a coalition, he demanded the UW to begin teaching Asian American studies and hire Asian American faculty, which meant that decades later, his daughters could take courses in the area.
He later founded a center for marginalized youth in the southend of Seattle for career development and training, called the Center for Career Alternatives. He also was elected to the Seattle School Board and was instrumental in getting the first school named after a Japanese American educator, Aki Kurose.
“That’s another reason this would mean so much to him—to have a school named after him,” said Mari.
The newly-renamed school is also in the southern region, which their father represented when he was on the school board, said Alysa.
With her father, Alysa visited struggling schools and handed out cookies to all the staff and students.
“Always root for the underdog,” her father said.
“You can achieve a lot more than you think you can,” he would always say.
She described the newly-named school as “a school that gives second chances to kids.”
“But to us, besides all his constant community work, he was always devoted to his family,” Mari added.
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.