Faces of Sonoma - Spring 2012
Ben Marcus-Willers’ high school life is in the home stretch. He’s at the top of the ninth, weeks away from real freedom. He’ll wake up June first and have nowhere to rush to, no papers to write, no meetings, no deadlines. Having successfully negotiated the gauntlet that is public education, with diploma in hand he’ll turn his nose to the wind. Freedom smells different, he knows this instinctively. He’s been straining toward its scent for a while now. There’s such limitlessness there, such wide open spaces. After the confines of high school, he’s itching to fly.
If money grew on trees he’d pack some essentials and start marching. He knows there’s something out there in the big world he’s meant to see. “I’d like to go to every single country because I think you can learn so much through travel. It interests me to see how other people live,” Marcus-Willers says. “It sounds weird, but I’ve often wished that I was not in such a good position myself,” he says of his upper middle class circumstances. “I’m interested to understand what it’s like to be a minority or in a position not as lucky as my own. I think it would give me a better outlook on everything.” Marcus-Willers gets quiet as he pictures this imagined other self, this other boy with the different skin and the different story.
College is a given when you’re Ben Marcus-Willers: student body president, entrepreneurial graphic designer, academic standout. He’ll do at least four years of it somewhere. The applications are long finished and now he’s waiting to hear. All told, ten top-tier universities will have a crack at this kid. But what he really, really wants is to go to China next year, take a year to transpose what he knows. The program he’s eyeing is sponsored by the U.S. State Department, and its premise is elegantly simple: Culturally literate young men and women will help move America forward in the world, and our best and brightest should be groomed for that future. He would live with a Chinese family like an exchange student would, study the language and absorb the culture for a whole year. Does Marcus-Willers know an iota of Mandarin? No, but he’s had some French and some Spanish. And, like every self-respecting red-blooded Internet-savvy American teen, he has other tools in his box. “I have a Chinese app,” he says, crooked smile widening.
Before he was voted student body president at Sonoma High School, Marcus-Willers was voted student body president at Sonoma Charter. He is a leader by temperament if not by type. Not the football-star-chest-thumping-alpha-male sort, he’s more like the wonkish sideliner. Think Obama, not Romney, and you’ll draw a fair portrait, and no, not just because of the ears. He’s articulate and careful and hardwired for empathy, he is comfortable with what he is and what he’s not. When his team was campaigning in the spring of 2011, Marcus-Willers handled all of their graphics. His company, Koru, which he founded in the eighth grade, has designed wine labels and company logos for real paying customers. “I should be saving for college, I really should be saving for college,” Marcus-Willers says with a sigh, “but some of that money I just went out and spent.” It’s tempting to try and comfort the kid, to tell him it’s OK that he blew through a bit. After all, how many 13-year old kids could pull such a thing off? To negotiate adult contracts in the Dar winian American marketplace before your chest hair comes in? Does Ben Marcus-Willers know he’s the exception?
He plays classical piano. He writes with a weekly workshop. And he’ll sleep past noon if you’ll let him. He’s been to Yosemite dozens of times because there’s something out there that speaks to his core, something corrective and restorative in wild places. He imagines himself humping a heavy pack through the outback, just him and his thoughts and the wide world. Or maybe it’ll be a big city where he finds himself next, a million strangers streaming past, rickshaws or taxis or cable cars in his sights. Both pictures bring a smile to Marcus-Willers’ face, because neither of them has anything to do with tiny desks or chalkboards. “I’m ready to not be in school,” he says. “I’m ready to move on with my life.”
She talks fast, a torrent of ideas rushing from her mouth when it opens. She moves fast, too, this lean little package of electric energy and nerve. Mostly, though, Nicole Ducarroz thinks fast, her mind a complex machinery of moving parts. Even when sitting perfectly still, School Board Trustee Nicole Ducarroz seems somehow in motion.
She’s a conundrum, a riddle of oppositional elements. A white woman who sports a thick tangle of dreads, a school board member who homeschools her eldest, a techie who foreswears television, a stay-at-home mother whose children inspired her life’s work. She is at one moment this, and the next moment that.
Which is not to say that Ducarroz is inconsistent, not precisely. Rather, she is hungry, voraciously in search of the next Big Idea, ravenous for that game-changing flash of genius. And if the next Big Idea de-thrones the last, so be it: Ducarroz is willing to admit her mistakes. She is steadily curious, tirelessly optimistic, uniformly open-minded, and, with a team of four others, she is re-inventing Sonoma’s public schools.
Elected to the Board of Trustees in a bare-knuckled contest eight years ago, Ducarroz has brokered some remarkable transformations. Like solar panels that are taking the whole district cleanly off the power grid. Like gardens that grow greenly on every school campus. Like school lunches that are steadily incorporating fresh fruits and vegetables, and a new school-within-a-school program on the senior high campus. Good isn’t enough for the children on her watch: Trustee Nicole Ducarroz expects Sonoma’s schools to be great.
“We are molding our district to be a kick-ass district,” she says with typical enthusiasm. Though a mother of three Ducarroz could pass for a schoolgirl herself, owing to her infectious joie de vivre. “Look at the choice families have!” Two K-8 schools, a Waldorf-inspired charter, dual-immersion, and more traditional programs that consistently innovate. “Look at El Verano!” she says, bouncing at the edge of her seat, “they’ve got a Parent University for second-language learners that takes families on tours of college campuses. These families come back from these trips set and determined that their kids are going to college.”
Ducarroz wants the Valley’s schools to one day lead the nation. She honestly believes the Sonoma Unified School District can be a standard bearer. Though some say she sees the world through rose-colored glasses, Ducarroz feels sure the district is on its way now. Of course, there’s more to be done, and Ducarroz knows that, which is why she’s planning a third term. “If it were to happen all at once,” she says of sea changes, “crash-crash-crash.” But with hard work and transparency and a willingness to learn from mistakes, she sincerely believes Sonoma’s public schools can be pedagogical models of success.
“Families that like where they are and get to choose the school that they go to are going to be more involved,” she says bluntly, and the data proves her right: Parent involvement inside of school culture translates directly—and measurably—to student success. Of her push to make student learning differentiated and hands-on, Ducarroz asks, “What do you remember learning when you were in elementary school? Things that you did.” And for the doubters, the entrenched minority of district employees who still insist on kicking it old-school, the sector historically unenthusiastic about reinvention, with their drill-and-kill seatwork and their punitive approach? “If they’re willing, they come along,” Ducarroz says with a smile in her voice. “If they’re not willing, they move along.”
Some people believe eternal youth is a mindset, not magic found in a mouthful of mythic water. Young-hearted people are insatiably curious, they approach change with enthusiasm, not dread. The absence of entrenched routine somehow helps keep the brain elastic; as if uncertainty is a kind of lubricating oil for the human mainframe. To be the consummate teacher, one must remain a perennial student; curiosity is the ultimate weapon against a staid and curmudgeonly old age. So no, she’s not vanilla, this woman with the wild hair, and for some, her approach rankles. But for the seekers among us, for those whom discomfiting progress is to be embraced as upward evolution, for those willing to wake up each day with a plan to do better, to reach further, to learn more, Nicole Ducarroz, citizen, mother, trustee, is a beacon.
They call her Miss Bobbie, the kids she helps across busy streets, and they love her with unabashed enthusiasm. For eleven years Bobbie McRice has helped those kids get safely to school, standing on Fifth Street West come rain, shine, sleet and once—during a freak cold snap—even snow. You just dress for it, is all. Spend a few minutes outside in the early morning to get a feel for the day. Then you pull on your foul weathers or your hoodie or whatnot, grab your crossing sign, and you go. Because the children are waiting, waiting for Miss Bobbie to make sure it’s safe, to make sure all those grownups in big cars and mad hurries give ’em a brake.
Amazingly, some don’t. Miss Bobbie has seen a lot of ugly things in her eleven years on Fifth Street. And if you want the truth, it’s getting worse. People are getting ruder and angrier and more agitated each year. Like they’re the only ones trying to get where they’re going. Like their problems are the only ones that matter, somehow.
Miss Bobbie has problems, but they don’t show on her face. All you’ll find there is real joy. She’s raised three good kids and managed to stay married forever; she’s got four grandkids she likes to spoil when she can. But her job as a crossing guard is seriously part-time, and she’d take more work if she could get it, that’s for sure. Her husband’s in construction, and you know what that means: Money’s tight, times are tough, they make do.
When she first took the crossing guard job, it was about staying close to her children. She wanted to be part of their school day without overstepping. She could see them safely to campus, she could check out their friends, and it made her feel good to watch them test their wings. Now the youngest is graduating and can cross the street on his own; her babies have all grown up and will fly away soon. But Miss Bobbie stays on her corner because your kids need her to, their bright little faces tipped toward hers as they wait.
She can tell you the names of a whole generation of children, she remembers all the Trevors and Jacks and Marias. When she can, Miss Bobbie subs in at the school cafeterias, grabbing the occasional shift at Altimira or Adele when they’ll have her. Even the high school kids remember her still, remember her holding back traffic so they could cross safely. Too big now to greet her with the hugs that they used to, they’ll give her a nod and a small crack of a smile; they remember this woman with the unforgettable face, the czar of Fifth and West Napa.
“If I had my way there would be no righthand turn on a red light,” Miss Bobbie says. “I used to wear crazy hats to get people to slow down and pay attention.” She sighs, and it seems clear that the hats did not work, that the big world spins too fast now to slow down. Even here in Sonoma, with its cows and country charm, even here, people are—more and more—in a hurry. “There’s three times more cars on these streets in the last eleven years,” she explains, “all on the same five roads.” Miss Bobbie, for one, is tired of the congestion, it makes her sad to see people acting unneighborly. “I don’t stand in the street for my health,” she says plainly “I stand in the street for your health.”
Weekday mornings you’ll find her and her little stop sign, controlling the flow of Sonoma’a commute. Forty-five minutes in the AM, just thirty minutes after school. In her vest, with her sign and her whistle. In between she’ll head home to sew or do a little something in the garden. And though she’d like more work, with her guard schedule it’s tough, but Miss Bobbie just can’t see hanging it up. “I love the kids too much,” she says with a shrug. “I try to find the positives in the negatives, because the negatives are easier to believe. My life is only what I make it.” So Miss Bobbie will stay where she is and do what she does: a small thing that, in its small way, makes a big difference.
From the Spring 2012 issue of SONOMA magazine