Teacher Esther Wojcicki doesn’t know for sure, but she thinks one of her former students — or influential parents of her former students — may be the reason she and her immediate family are being recognized by the Commonwealth Club for their extraordinary contributions to society.
“We have no idea how they discovered us. We were taken by surprise and very honored,” says Wojcicki, who, with husband Stanley and daughters Susan, Janet and Ann, are being honored Wednesday in The City at the organization’s 110th anniversary dinner. It’s the first time in the group’s history that an entire family is earning such accolades.
Esther Wojcicki, a journalism instructor at Palo Alto High School for 30 years and board member of Creative Commons, a nonprofit that encourages the legal sharing of knowledge via the Internet, and Stanley Wojcicki, a Stanford physics professor who has done groundbreaking work on subatomic particles called neutrinos, will take home Lifetime Achievement Awards.
Susan, senior vice president of advertising at Google; Janet, a professor of pediatrics at UC San Francisco; and Anne, co-founder of 23andMe, a company that developed a personal DNA analysis kit, are earning Distinguished Citizen Awards, as is Jed York, CEO of the 49ers.
Esther Wojcicki isn’t particularly surprised by her daughters’ success.
“My philosophy is to give kids as much independence as possible,” she says.
She adds: “We taught them how to read early. It made them feel capable and ahead of other kids, and they were interested and felt empowered.”
There was also a matter of need: Susan was baby-sitting for younger sister Janet at age 4, says Esther Wojcicki: “I wanted help, so I said, ‘I will teach them how to help.’”
Applying the same collaborative, interactive principles in the classroom early in her career — “I threw away the textbook” — Esther Wojcicki didn’t please her superiors. But she solved the problem by asking her students to behave like they did in other classes when the principal visited, and they were willing co-conspirators. Years later, she received awards for her innovative teaching methods and journalism program, which has grown from 19 kids and one typewriter to more than 600 students and about 150 computers.
Her interest in journalism began when, as a teen, she showed up at a San Fernando Valley weekly and learned on the job, reporting on local government when the older guys in the office didn’t want to go to meetings.
Like her husband, she has an interest in science, but, due to her economic situation, did not study zoology in college as she thought she might.
But she can hold her own in a conversation with her husband and his colleagues: “I’m able to mouth the words. In fact, I don’t really understand what I’m talking about, but I’m good at sounding like I do,” she says.
The Commonwealth Club’s 25th annual Distinguished Citizen Award Dinner is at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday af the Palace Hotel, 2 Montgomery St., S.F., For information, call (415) 869-5909, visit www.commonwealthclub.org