Two months before her sudden death last summer, Eisenhower High School teacher Ashley Tolley (second from left) poses with students Daniela Nesta, Sierra Hutton and Nathon Mirelez during the last day of classes on June 16, 2017. (Contributed photo)

When I started my first year of full-time public school last year at Eisenhower High School after being a home-schooled student, my mom wanted me to join the cheer or dance team.

As spring came, my English teacher, Ashley Tolley, persuaded me to join color guard, a program for which she was serving as coach. I was hesitant at first, only joining to perform in the soloist role of the Fire Queen for the marching band’s show of “Fire and Ice.” In the performance of that song, I had to dance on a very tall box platform and run through the marching band, chasing after the character who was portraying the part of the Ice Queen. It was a role that involved a LOT of cardio.  

Tolley and I got really close during school through class and through color guard. She was like my best friend.

When I routinely walked into a band camp practice this past Aug. 17, I was not expecting to hear the words “Ashley Tolley passed away last night unexpectedly.”

I was absolutely devastated. My body went numb, and it felt as though my stomach dropped. It hit me, but I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe that my best friend died — someone whom I always confided in when I had issues, someone who would confide in me when she had issues.

The Eisenhower High School teacher was just 33 years old when she died of a sudden health ailment. She had taught at Eisenhower for three years, and before that had taught for one year at Stanton Academy. She was also an Eisenhower graduate herself, having earned her diploma in 2002 when she was a student known as Ashley Turner.

Nathon Mirelez, a senior at Ike, said: “Tolley made it possible for me to enjoy my junior year. If it wasn’t for her, and her class, junior year could be easily forgotten, but she made it memorable. She always made me feel welcomed at school with her dorky, yet authoritative attitude.

During the 2016-17 school year, getting to school 30 minutes early and meeting Tolley in her class became a daily routine I had with her. I could be her friend — not just her student — and talk about life and our issues. I would tell her about my accomplishments and she would ask me for advice about the guy she was dating. We would ask each other for advice, until the bell would ring for first period English.

In fact, Tolley was a friend to many of the students in both marching band and color guard.

Diana Agredano, a senior at Ike and a former member of color guard, put it this way: “Color guard to me is like another family where you can be yourself, where you find people to connect to and people who share the same passion as you.

Thinking about Tolley’s involvement in helping create that sense of connection, Agredano said: “The person who encouraged me to join is no longer here. She was an amazing person. So joyful, so understanding and she was more than just a coach and a teacher. She was someone who you could talk to. You would find a friend in her. She was great and amazing.”

Recalling when he learned the news in August about Tolley, Mirelez recalled: “When I found she had passed away, I really couldn’t believe it, because it seemed impossible. Her death made me realize something, though. Even though it’s OK to cry when you say goodbye, at some point you have to realize that you can carry on (that person’s) legacy. I feel like, the one thing I can really do is carry on that loving attitude she had — to care, and take responsibility for the people around me.”

Tolley made my first year of public school absolutely amazing. She would help me be scampy and hide my friends’ backpacks before class started. I was excited about looking forward to having her as my teacher again for senior English and for her to see me graduate.

I was looking forward to glitter bombing her classroom as my senior prank, since she loved glitter so much.

I wanted to show her that she made the right decision in picking me as the Fire Queen soloist for color guard.

Without her being my teacher and best friend, I don’t think I would have done that well in school. She was someone who would listen to your rants about life and other teachers. She always had a snarky comeback to perfectly fit any situation. My life was truly changed by Ashley Tolley and she will live in my heart forever.

As Mirelez put it:  “She always seemed dependable, like she cared for every person in a way that I couldn’t ever understand. Ms. Tolley is the living embodiment of Ike.”

• Sierra Hutton is a senior at Eisenhower High School and a member of the Yakima Herald-Republic’s Unleashed program for teen journalists.