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Service above self: Marilyn Nemzer reflects on her life in education

From judgemental hallways in middle school to the equality gap in education, highschoolers in today’s generation have faced more challenges than ever. Unfortunately, while these conditions seem to improve when coming into high school, the personal issues that permeate youth’s innocence in formative years have proven unbearable to some. Luckily, the Marin community has humanitarian Marilyn Nemzer, who has devoted her 58-year (and counting) career to bettering academic environments for student success. And, through her work, she has established integral links between students and their future by closing equality gaps in education.

In her early life, Nemzer lived in San Francisco and was an inspired, well-focused student who had a reputation of leading with her heart. Even though she displayed considerable academic potential, her father had a more conventional path planned for her future. 

“[My dad’s] attitude towards women was that women were like children, and that [women] weren’t respected quite as much as men; so, when I was growing up, I decided that I wanted to be a doctor, like him. But, he told me I couldn’t be a doctor – that I had to be a nurse, a secretary or a teacher, because I was just going to get married and have kids,” Nemzer said. 

Nemzer started her career in the mid-1960s, landing her first teaching job at St. John’s Ursuline High School for Girls, where she was their first-ever Jewish teacher. Students quickly fell in love with her upbeat personality and vibrant approach to teaching. Nemzer recalls a stronger feeling of connection to her students than was usual at that time.

“What I loved [about teaching] was helping [students]. I was still single, and I could spend as much time [with them] as I wanted. [As] they [would come] to me with their problems, I decided that I wanted to be a school counselor,” Nemzer said. 

Fuelled by her passion to make a change in students’ lives, Nemzer went back to school to get her counseling and administrative credentials by night while continuing to teach by day. Soon, she became a middle school counselor at Bayside Middle School in San Mateo, a role she succeeded in for nearly a decade before settling down.  

 “It wasn’t practical for me to have a full-time job and raise a family,” Nemzer said. “[Even so,] I miss being in a [counseling] office alone with kids and helping them with their problems, knowing that because they talk to me, they don’t hurt so much.”

After shifting away from her career to focus on her children, Nemzer missed the connection she had with local students. So, as her kids grew up, she began a tutoring agency out of her home. This start-up business grew rapidly because she dedicated much of her time to identifying challenging areas for children and assigning tutors who matched with their growth zones. Soon, local schools got wind of her connections and she started linking them with substitute teachers. 

“I was happy, I wasn’t earning a lot of money, but I felt like I was really helping a lot of people,” Nemzer remarks. 

When business started to plateau, Nemzer got the ball rolling on new projects. Marin schools had started relying on her connections with local substitute teachers, and Nemzer’s program became less focused on tutoring children and more so on assisting local teachers. Because she wanted to connect with children directly, she pivoted her attention away from the tutoring agency.

Soon, Nemzer got a call informing her of old books that were destined for the dump. Without hesitation, she knew she had to save them. Unbeknownst to her, this would start an organization devoted to using discarded books to bring higher education to low-income populations. Evidently, what started as a helpful hobby evolved into a bridge between education and students.

Marilyn Nemzer welcomes a local class of elementary students to The Book Exchange. (Photo courtesy of Marilyn Nemzer)

Through creating The Book Exchange over 35 years ago, a non-profit organization led by volunteers designed to provide books to those in need, Nemzer has extended learning opportunities beyond the classroom.

In fact, after 30 successful years of school field trips to their location in San Rafael, the pandemic proved to be beneficial for volunteers at The Book Exchange. Diane Brandell is one of the organization’s best volunteers who keeps The Book Exchange running. Brandell and fellow volunteers saw a huge positive amid the pandemic — they supplemented face-to-face connection with management duties, all while continuing to bridge the gap between education and disadvantaged schools. Even though their initiatives have evolved over time, they have never steered away from repurposing school materials.

“I do think [The Book Exchange] has evolved over time, but it’s within [Nemzer’s] vision,” Brandell said.

Nemzer thanks volunteers at The Book Exchange with a meal. (Photo courtesy of Marilyn Nemzer)

Coming out of the pandemic, they were able to resume field trips on Wednesdays and Saturdays for underprivileged schools in Marin. Their main goal was to assist schools made up of at least 70 percent low-income families. Volunteers decided it would be best to let these kids roam the bookshelves of adventures instead of “doing the picking” for them.

“The kids get to make choices,” Brandell said. “They don’t get to do that often.”

There are several schools that have brought all of their grade levels on these field trips. With Nemzer’s constant love, attentiveness and devotion to local education, The Book Exchange will be sure to fit every school in and help children explore the world through knowledge. 


Click here for more information on The Book Exchange

Click here to donate to The Book Exchange

Click here to purchase Energy for Keeps: Electricity From Renewable Energy–An Illustrated Guide for Everyone Who Uses Electricity by Marilyn Nemzer

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About the Contributor

Jamie Glennon is a sophomore at Redwood High School and is a cub reporter for The Redwood Bark. She enjoys dancing, planning outfits, and devouring lemon pound cake.