Lahti’s ‘finally ready’ to begin a new trek

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Her story didn’t start at MTHS and it won’t end here, either. But retiring P.E. teacher Susan Lahti’s legacy as a Hawk is secure as she has truly been a pioneer as an educator and as a powerful voice for equity in athletics and education.

Lahti began coaching women’s basketball at Shoreline Community College. She became an assistant coach and worked with then-head coach Maggie King (another pioneering MTHS educator) until 1986 when a job as head coach for women’s basketball opened at MTHS. She’s been at MTHS ever since.

A teaching job opened that same year and, because Lahti had a passion for physical training and staying fit, she decided to try to pass that on to future generations.

Lahti, a graduate of Mercer Island High School, said she always loved athletics. In college, Lahti was a “triple threat” with track, basketball and cross country under her belt at Western Washington University. Her collegiate experience was different from her high school years, where she only had the options to play tennis and swimming, both not something she was interested in.

Lahti did play on the golf “team,” in which they only played against themselves and called their coach an advisor. She was also given a recycled dog trophy for winning the tournament they held among themselves.

After she graduated high school, Lahti had plans to become an attorney, but as time went on, she realized that her true passion belonged with sports and changed her focus her first year of college. The teaching passion came secondary, so teaching physical education was the perfect combination of the two.

“I love my job. Just look at me!” Lahti exclaimed, wearing a purple shirt with “P.E. teacher” stamped across and a heart above it with the words “I love my job” written inside.

Through her job, Lahti has made connections and expanded MTHS’s physical education classes. Sometime during a physical education conference, Heart Zones USA spokesperson Sally Edwards shared her Smart Sensor, a wearable monitor that can track a person’s’ heart rate.

Afterward, Lahti spoke with Edwards and asked for a temporary class set that she could use to show to administrators to convince them why she thinks MTHS needed technology implemented in physical education.

Principal Greg Schwab said that when he was shown the Smart Sensors, he knew almost immediately that students here had to have access to the technology.

Schwab said Lahti is a leader not only at MTHS, but throughout the state.

“She’s definitely passionate,” he said, laughing.

Schwab recalled a time in which he gave Lahti the “and one more thing” award during staff awards at the end of the year. He said the award was in honor of Lahti always having “just one more thing” to add during meetings.

During her years at MTHS, Lahti’s favorite memories have involved her changing a few hearts and minds.

She said she loves it when a student at the beginning of the semester says they hate physical education classes, but then at the end of the course admit that they had fun and that Lahti’s turned out to be their favorite class.

“I like to change people’s’ minds, no matter how fit [they are],” she said.

And not just regarding physical education. Lahti recalled a PASS class she once had with a group of “rowdy boys” that, when Lahti asked them to quiet down, said “this is so gay.” When Lahti told them that they shouldn’t use that kind of language because they may offend someone, they argued that no one in the room was gay. That’s when Lahti said “well actually, I am.”

The “rowdy boys” were shocked and apologized profusely, according to Lahti.

She laughed when she told of how the boys went to psychology teacher Kimberly Nelson and told her that Lahti was gay, to which Nelson responded with “duh,” according to Lahti.

Lahti said that being “out” became “cathartic” and she felt a new wave of relief from being able to say she was gay at MTHS.

She doesn’t find it hugely bothersome, she said, when she finds graffiti in the locker room reading “Ms. Lahti is a dyke,” but she sometimes writes back “yes, she is, but she would prefer another term.” Lahti laughed as she made a writing gesture in the air.

Lahti was also a co-founder of MTHS’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) Club. When she first brought the idea to MTHS, not everyone was as accepting as would have been appreciated.

Lahti recalled students reactions during the first Day of Silence held in 1996 at MTHS, when she saw a few students ripping the pink triangles from other students’ shirts and throwing them away. Lahti even saw a group of students lighting them on fire. She was told they were protesting what they perceived to be “Gay Day.”

But it didn’t stay this way. With time, MTHS students become more accepting and open.

Lahti said MTHS is actually more open and inclusive than other high schools, something she appreciates greatly.

She looked back on past staff members who would perform kind acts for Lahti and others. Lahti recalled a math teacher who would help Lahti with her “pay stubs,” an outdated form of paychecks and once even continued computing the math under a table in the staff lounge during an earthquake drill.

Choked up and at a loss for words, Lahti also looked back on her students, the ones who would call “hey Ms. Lahti!” in the hallway, the ones who would hug at her graduation, the ones who remembered her.

While Lahti enjoys teaching and has a strong passion for GSA, she has also coached varsity track during her time at MTHS. And while she hasn’t coached other sports, she still feels a connection to them. For example, when the MTHS men’s soccer team played against Mercer Island for playoffs, she wanted “her boys” to win, not her own alma mater.

“This place [MTHS] feels like home,” she said, looking away. “I feel more Hawk than I do Islander.”

And after [30 years] as a Hawk, Lahti is finally ready to retire.

Lahti was told that, to make retirement easier, she should have something to do when school starts back up in September. So, starting in August, Lahti, her partner and some of their friends will begin a cycling trek across Washington state.

“I think I’m finally ready to leave this place,” Lahti said, looking around the room.

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