Bin Yang stood at the interactive whiteboard in her classroom at Snohomish High, marker in hand. It was after school, but one desk was occupied.
I was the one getting the briefest lesson in Mandarin Chinese.
With quick strokes, Yang wrote a Chinese character, one with curved, connecting lines. She shared its meaning — “person” — and explained radicals, graphical components of Chinese characters.
Then she wrote in letters. Pinyin, she said, is how a character is spelled in what looks to be the English alphabet. For pronunciation, there are also four tones tied to different meanings.
That’s a lot to learn.
“Chinese is probably one of the hardest languages to learn,” Yang said.
At 60, she’s retiring this month after 25 years teaching Chinese in the Snohomish School District.
Yang didn’t share many details about life in China, but said, “I grew up poor. When I was young we never had enough food to eat.” Her students “know I never waste any food,” she said. “There is no bad food.”
She came to the United States in 1988 to study at Manchester University in Indiana, which is affiliated with Church of the Brethren. A church in Lacey sponsored her at Manchester. At a college dinner, she met a retired dentist, Dr. Dana Kintner. He and his wife, Mary, who lived at the Panorama retirement community in Lacey, later became her sponsors.
She earned teaching credentials at St. Martin’s University in Lacey. The Kintners became as close as family. In 1996, she came to Snohomish to teach.
Today, she and her husband live in Snohomish. Their two grown children, a son and a daughter, are both Snohomish High graduates.
Yang is proud to be part of the Chinese program’s legacy at Snohomish High, but it began a decade before her arrival. She said “two pioneer teachers,” Lisa Stettler and Cathy Tanasse, were instrumental in starting the district’s Chinese program, beginning in 1986.
In 2000, Yang said she and Stettler joined with nearly 100 Snohomish students and parents on a trip to China.
Tanasse described Yang as “an extraordinary teacher” who has had “a huge impact on so many lives.”
“She is a very, very special person,” said Tanasse, who retired from Glacier Peak High School in 2019. Most of her 35-year career was spent teaching art in the Snohomish district. Tanasse was also an exchange teacher in China and taught at Sichuan University.
Yang cited an old saying, the idea that those who plant trees do so knowing the shade will be enjoyed by others in the future.
“I wanted to work hard to carry on the legacy. I want this program to stay in Snohomish,” she said. And it will.
Kristin Foley, the Snohomish district’s communications director, said Yang’s position has already been filled. Both Snohomish High and Glacier Peak High School offer Chinese, Spanish, German and French language classes, Foley said.
Mandarin Chinese is also taught in other area districts. Kathy Reeves, the Everett district’s communications director, said Chinese 1-4 and AP Chinese Language and Culture are offered at Everett, Cascade and Henry M. Jackson high schools. “We have two teachers,” she said.
In the Edmonds School District, Mandarin Chinese is taught at Edmonds-Woodway High School, district communications manager Harmony Weinberg said. The Mukilteo district currently doesn’t offer a Chinese language program, said Diane Bradford, its communications director.
Yang said students sometimes call her “a drill sergeant,” because she pushes them to excel.
“I’ve had students who went on to get master’s degrees in Chinese,” she said. “But it’s not only for the college-bound. My philosophy is every kid can learn.”
Several former students recently sent messages to Yang, expressing thanks and best wishes.
Sarah Swetz Huang, a 2007 Snohomish High graduate now living in Chicago, took three years of Chinese from Yang before majoring in Chinese studies at Pacific Lutheran University. Study-abroad trips took her to Sichuan Province, Beijing, Hunan Province, Guangzhou and Tibet. She met her future husband while at Beijing Language and Culture Institute.
Now, she wrote, she works at a nonprofit in Chicago’s Chinatown called Pui Tak Center, where she helps immigrants from China learn English, become U.S. citizens and “start a new life in America.”
“I truly cannot imagine what my life would be like now if I never had you as my teacher,” she wrote to Yang.
From closer to home, Britta Grass sent an email that said, “Bin Yang remembered my name 10 years after I’d spent one quarter in her class.” She wrote of moving to Snohomish her sophomore year, in 1996, and taking a Chinese history class because she needed the credit.
“I stumbled, missing my old high school and friends, and Bin Yang picked me up,” wrote Grass, who lives in Snohomish. Today, they interact as neighbors.
In retirement, Yang wants to volunteer helping recent immigrants.
“I’m really proud, in a small town, we have had Chinese for 35 years,” Yang said. “It’s like a relay. I want to pass the baton to someone else.”
Julie Muhlstein: firstname.lastname@example.org