Beloved former El Cerrito High teacher Bonnie Taylor passes away
By Lou Fancher
Most teachers make marks on tests and term papers. Bonnie Taylor, a former history and government teacher at El Cerrito High School, made indelible marks on students’ lives. During 39 years at the school until retiring in 2009 — if someone like Taylor could ever be “retired” — her rigorous classroom expectations were equaled by superhuman, deeply empathetic, in-class and extracurricular support, her family, friends, students and colleagues say.
“She was like a meteor that passed through our firmament,” says Jenn Rader, a history and government teacher at El Cerrito High for 23 years and now the school’s director of student wellness through the James Morehouse Project. Taylor died from cancer on Feb. 5. A single mother, she is survived by her daughter, Jessyca Taylor, 39.
An outpouring of response to an ongoing GoFundMe campaign established Jan. 29 and dozens of calls, texts, Facebook messages and live testimonials from teachers, administrators, former students and friends made in her El Cerrito neighborhood, or during Taylor’s annual trips to Camp Tuolumne near Yosemite National Park, prove the lasting legacy of her imprint.
The GoFundMe campaign aims to cover expenses relating to hospice and other medical bills and to provide support for Jessyca Taylor to remain in the home they shared. “Bonnie’s most important and sacred job was being an outstanding single mother to Jessyca and giving her everything in her power to provide massive amounts of love and stability,” reads a recent update on the fundraiser page established by friends Shannon Cunningham and Aisha Carabello.
Levy Sheng, a close family friend who was also a student of Taylor, recalls in an email the advocacy learned in her classroom. Taylor handed out voter registration cards to students on their 18th birthdays; ran simulated debates on topical subjects and encouraged students to voice their opinions, even if controversial. She launched the school’s AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) college-readiness program for students, especially those in higher education who are usually less represented. It wasn’t only students learning from Taylor; students’ parents, faculty, staff and administrators bear witness to benefiting from her profound wisdom and fierce advocacy.
“One of her colleagues shared a story about Bonnie standing on a chair so that she could be seen and heard — she was not tall, but she was mighty — and yelling at the school administration about a policy that she believed would be unfair to underserved students,” Levy says. “Several parents shared with me that they believe Ms. Taylor is the reason their children graduated from high school.”
For Rader, Taylor is the reason she landed at El Cerrito High.
“I met her in 1988 in Berkeley at a seminar on the U.S. Constitution. We talked, and she said she wanted me to join her at El Cerrito High. I said, ‘I’ll go anywhere Bonnie Taylor is teaching.’ I was so electrified by her energy.”
Engagement was important in Taylor’s classroom, as was deep understanding of individual, civic duty. Participatory democracy, with every person’s voice important and not just expressed by voting, meant it was vital that students truly understand how issues impact communities.
“She modeled that by actively advocating in a system that was not always just or fair,” says Rader. “She advocated even for students who never had her as a teacher but sought her out when they were subject to injustice. The same words come out when people remember her: fierce, passionate, the one person who everyone could count on to always speak truth to power. Anything that landed hard on our young people or our faculty, all eyes would be on Bonnie. She’d spring to her feet and say what had to be said. Everyone respected, even feared, the wrath of Bonnie. But it was always in service of fairness that she spoke.”
James McClelland, on the faculty from 1957 to 1989, first encountered Taylor when she joined as a student teacher.
“We knew immediately that she would be an outstanding teacher with her electrically vibrant takeover of the classroom. Sparks flew, and they never stopped since that day in the 1970s. When she decided something was wrong, she was not afraid to challenge the wrongdoer by speaking out.”
In messages forwarded by Rader from students and colleagues, the descriptions echo and overlap McClelland’s: reliable, shared joy, fearless, ardent advocate, powerful, fierce and “always trying to make the public education system better for students.”
All this leaves her students with more than just memorized dates, names, wars, political contests and governmental structures or principles but the infinitely more valuable essential life skills Taylor modeled and taught: deep analysis and research; critical thinking; evaluation of source material in one’s search for truth; lifelong dedication to community and education; responsibility and love for family.
Rader, sharing one last memory, recalls her colleague’s “unstinting, sui generis love” that caused Taylor, in recent years to come into the school district and walk elementary school students from their classrooms to on-campus hearing and vision testing sites. Taylor’s incredible zest for life won’t end with her body’s final chapter, Rader promises. Her daughter, students, friends and colleagues now carry forward her torch.