When Hill Middle School closes its doors for good on Thursday, one of the teachers packing up her desk, shutting her brief case and exiting the building will be a long-time Novato resident who became eligible for social security benefits back in 1994.
At a time when most people retire and begin tending their roses, petting their cats, and watching cooking shows, Tali Sundberg, 79, is running an SAT preparation service, tutoring 14 private clients and finishing up a long-term substitute teaching assignment of challenging eighth graders at Hill.
“I happen to like them, although I do think it’s a particular person who can work with middle school students," she says. "They’re 2 (years old) one minute, 18 (years old) the next. They’re very interesting, and they’re fun. ... People ask me why don’t you retire and I say I will when it’s not fun anymore.”
Hill Principal Chona Killeen calls Sundberg “our super sub,” saying, “We love her here. She’s had a wealth of experience as an educator. ... Chronologically, she may be in her 70s but she’s young at heart; her heart’s in the right place and she’s very capable.”
Debbie Hanks, another eighth-grade teacher at Hill, says Sundberg has made a huge difference in the lives of her students, and that she begins and ends each day in the classroom with a smile.
“I've been teaching for NUSD for 15 years,” Hanks says, “and I cannot imagine carrying on with her level of energy at nearly 80 years old! She is an inspiration to all.”
Sundberg, who has a doctorate, says her philosophy of life came from a family that always looked at the bright side of everything and quotes a favorite saying: “Each day is full of golden opportunities disguised as obstacles.” She adds thoughtfully, “I’ve just always wanted to uncover those golden opportunities.”
Sundberg’s family included her father, Robert F. Merritt, who brought his family to Novato from Japan after becoming the chief information officer at Hamilton Air Force Base. (There’s a Novato street named after him – Merritt Drive — across from San Jose Middle School.)
Sundberg lived in Japan with her family on two occasions, the first time right after the end of World War II and then some years later she moved to Okinawa and lived there for six years.
“I absolutely loved it,” she says. “The people were marvelous and the experiences there were some of my greatest memories.”
Natalie Sundberg, known as Tali since her college days, attended Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., with notable classmates Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers fame and Anthony Perkins, best known as Norman Bates in Psycho. In fact, Sundberg acted in 13 plays with Perkins and sang in a small college choir with Rogers and his future wife.
Earning a degree in theatre arts as well as a teaching credential from Rollins, Sundberg went on to earn a degree in advertising from Stanford in the late 1950s. She worked as an advertising account executive for a time but found herself wondering if she could “sell education to kids.”
Twenty-nine years teaching English and special education at Novato High School followed. During that time she met her husband, Walter, through their mutual love of folk dancing, which they did five nights a week, competing in festivals during weekends. Walter and Tali raised two sons, Robert and Bruce. Rob is a popular local musician, emcee/announcer at special events such as last weekend's Novato Festival and a much-beloved sixth-grade teacher at Sinaloa Middle School; Bruce was killed in a car accident during his sophomore year at Novato High in 1979. Walter Sundberg died in 1985.
Before retiring from Novato High, Tali Sundberg received her doctorate in education from USF in the 1980s and went on to become head of St. Vincent’s residential Timothy Murphy School for two years, then Westside school, a day treatment center for emotionally disturbed youth. She served as principal at the Chinese American International School in San Francisco for five years.
She was handed a Hill class after a teacher left unexpectedly last fall and after a series of less-experienced substitutes failed. I ask her the secret to her success.
“I think the main thing is I’m fair and I care. They’re crying for boundaries — the misbehavior is usually a plea for someone to ‘stop me!’ People are afraid of them, and too many parents want to be their child’s friend. If you try to do that, you lose your wonderful position of being the parent.
"It’s frustrating when a parent comes to you for help and you give them a suggestion and they say, ‘Oh no, I couldn’t do that because my son wouldn’t like me.’ We see a lot of parents who only want to be liked by their children.”
Rob Sundberg has been meeting with his mom every Friday morning at 6 a.m. for the past 20 years to talk and read the paper together. He says the secret to his mother's energy is fairly simple: “She’s an Aquarius who likes a good cup of coffee.”
And then, as an afterthought, he remarks, “She is brilliant but she doesn’t talk down to anybody.”
Tali Sundberg would have you believe her vocations are all a ruse to avoid housework.
“I will do anything to keep from having to clean house. I have what I call ‘eye level’ friends because if they look up they’ll see cob webs, if they look down they’ll see dust, but at eye level, well, Walter and I collected some nice art over the years ...”
And last but not least, it should be mentioned that her vocations include “being a groupie backstage when my son performs at the Art & Wine Festival.” Rob and his bandmates from Swing Set played Sunday afternoon on the main stage.
Tali Sundberg shouldn't be surprised that she has her own set of groupies.