People: Esther Wojcicki: Carrying the torch for free speech

Publication Date: Wednesday Apr 29, 1998

People: Esther Wojcicki: Carrying the torch for free speech

Paly High journalism teacher Esther Wojcicki was only 14 when she launched her journalism career. That summer, she needed a job to help earn money for college. Unlike most teens, who gravitate toward scooping ice cream, waiting tables or babysitting, she decided to go straight to her local newspaper in the San Fernando Valley. She walked into the Sunland-Tujunga Record-Ledger "to see if they needed anybody," she recalled. The editors said, "We'll give you a story assignment and we'll pay you 3 cents a word," she said.

"They'd send me off to city hall to report on really boring things. I was really shocked. They liked what I wrote. So, they gave me more stories."

By 16, she was editor-in-chief of her high school newspaper. She still worked for the Record-Ledger, covering high school sports. Football was the most difficult. "All the guys were really sexist," she recalled. Later, she wrote a column about high school for the Glendale News-Press.

The next year, she graduated as class valedictorian and went off to University of California at Berkeley, where she was a Regent's Scholar.

The oldest of three children, Wojcicki was the first in her family to attend college. Her father, an artist, and her mother, a cashier in a five-and-dime store, had immigrated to New York City from Russia in the 1930s. The family moved to Southern California after Wojcicki was born.

At Berkeley, Wojcicki "went from being the class valedictorian and a super proper person to--I don't know if I should tell you--a flower child."

She demonstrated for free speech in Sproul Plaza and fought against the House Un-American Activities Committee. She also became president of her cooperative, which was one of the first dorms to have co-ed eating facilities.

It was at her co-op that she met and fell in love with one of the boarders, Stanley Wojcicki, a doctoral student in physics. They married after she graduated in 1964, with degrees in political science and English as well as a teaching credential.

The couple moved to Europe, where Esther took classes at the University of Geneva and the Sorbonne in Paris. She also completed her thesis for a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley.

After two years in Europe, they returned to Berkeley, where Wojcicki began freelance work for Time magazine. Now she was no longer demonstrating in Sproul Plaza but covering the Free Speech Movement and interviewing such icons as Mario Savio.

The couple moved to Palo Alto in 1969, when her husband received an appointment in the Stanford physics department. While raising their three daughters, Esther became active in the PTA at Nixon School and in organizing a Stanford homeowners' association.

After teaching briefly at San Carlos High School, she came to Paly in 1985 as an English and journalism teacher.

Today, her goal is to instill in her students a passion for critical thinking. In a classroom cluttered with movie posters, dilapidated couches and piles of newspapers, Wojcicki brightens as she talks about her work.

"I love high school kids because they are independent and educated enough to make intelligent decisions, but they're still in an impressionable phase. I try to make them feel good about themselves."

Her goal is not necessarily for them to become journalists, although about one-third of her students have gone on to writing positions at the Baltimore Sun, the Palo Alto Daily News and various publications in Washington, D.C.

"I want them to be able to think clearly and critically. I say, 'What you're learning are basically thinking skills,'" she said.

"She's an extremely creative teacher who is always pushing the envelope for new things for kids to do and ways to produce high-quality work," said Paly Principal Marilyn Cook.

Wojcicki, known by her students as "Woj," is one of the main draws to journalism at Paly. The staff of the Campanile, the student newspaper, has increased from 20 to 68 since she arrived, and her three sections of Beginning Journalism have 110 students. This spring, she started a class in broadcast journalism.

For the second consecutive year, the Campanile has received a National Pacemaker Award from the National Scholastic Press Association.

She may not have ended up as a reporter herself, but Wojcicki sees her role as important. "I see the school newspaper, or newspapers in general, as watchdogs of society. I'm always been very concerned with freedom of the press for student rights."

To work off some of her extra energy, Wojcicki runs on the Stanford campus every morning for 45 minutes with three other women. "I can run and talk now," she laughs.

She and her husband also travel frequently. Within the last year, they have gone to Tahiti, Italy and South Africa.

Travel, she said, "gives me perspective on America. It gives me perspective on my life. You learn not to take everything so seriously."

--Elizabeth Lorenz 

Back up to the Table of Contents Page