Izzy Gardon embraces his double life.
The Sacramento City Unified School District student board member is part polished politician, suiting up for school board meetings where he has become a vocal contributor on controversial discussions.
Gardon, 17, is also part quirky kid, bouncing around McClatchy High School off Freeport Boulevard wearing a snug V-neck shirt and thrift store pants he cut off into shorts.
With a stiff back, he can wax poetic on the city school board dais about the state's mixed priorities when it comes to underfunding education. Yet, he easily lets his guard down in smaller settings, exposing an introspective side and sensitivity atypical of a teenage boy.
The senior is a two-time student body president at the 2,200-student McClatchy High, yet remembers feeling lost during his first two years walking the school's corridors. He describes his upbringing as middle class, but recalls childhood years when his family relied on welfare and community programs.
"I feel like I'm always living between two worlds," Gardon said. "Growing up in a divorced household, transition has always been easy for me."
Each week, Gardon shuttles between his father's home in Curtis Park and the Carmichael home of his mother and her wife. His parents split when he was 2.
Gardon said his views are shaped by his parents' struggles early in his life as his father put himself through nursing school and his mother, a nurse who now works as a nursing manager, adjusted to life after the divorce.
"Growing up in not the best circumstances, we relied on welfare, relied on Sacramento's pools, relied on Sacramento's community centers, relied on many of the services that city and state offered us," Gardon said. "That's why I'm so vocal about this arena deal as community programs are being cut, as pools are being cut."
By arena deal, Gardon is of course talking about the city's plans for a $391 million downtown railyard sports and entertainment center that would house the Sacramento Kings. He's opposed to building it, at least right now.
During a passionate, five-minute speech at Sacramento City Unified's March 1 board meeting, Gardon questioned the priorities of area politicians for moving forward with the arena as education and social programs are being cut. In a speech containing the rhythm and timing of an experienced orator, Gardon expressed anger and frustration toward state politicians and admiration toward teachers and other school staff members.
"He's the real deal," said board trustee Patrick Kennedy. "I'm glad he doesn't live in my trustee area and wants to run against me. He's not only bright, but has incredible instincts and a big heart."
Gardon's next transition will likely be college, but he said he doesn't yet know which one. He's waiting to hear from American University in Washington, D.C., his first choice.
With a 3.8 unweighted grade point average in the selective Humanities and International Studies Program at McClatchy High, Gardon said he has already been accepted into Seattle University and Stony Brook University in New York.
While a political science major would seem to be a good fit, Gardon said he isn't sure he'll pursue politics.
"I flip-flop every other day," he said. "Some days I want to go into business and some days I want to save the world and get paid $2 a day to work for some nonprofit. And some days I want to go into politics."
In recent months, Gardon said, he found himself questioning any thoughts of a political career while watching bitter divisions on the Sacramento City Unified board playing out publicly during school-closure votes.
"It's not always verbal; it's that subtle inflection of tone," he said. "It's that subtle political bickering that you can get away with. To witness that, for a while it was giving me a huge distaste toward politics. I was like 'Man, Izzy, what are you doing up here (on the dais)? This is not for you. This is the dirtiness on the lowest level.' "
During the March 15 school board meeting, board President Diana Rodriguez pledged to find ways to bring trustees together. Gardon said the professionalism at the past two meetings has been uplifting.
"I feel very lucky to be a student board member," Gardon said. "I am a part of the action, but I'm also an observer."
Those who have seen Gardon on the board would hardly call him an observer.
"What I find most impressive with him is he is willing to be controversial," said trustee Ellyne Bell, who is the board adviser to the student advisory counsel. "It's been one of the happiest things for me on the board this year to watch his growth."
Student board members are elected by the student advisory counsel, which is made up of students from each of the district's high schools. The student board member has an advisory vote, but can choose not to use it.
Through the years, some student board members have opted not to use their advisory vote on controversial topics, such as school closures, budget cuts or when trustees internally elect a president and two vice presidents.
Gardon has voted in all of those, including casting a vote against Rodriguez for board president.
"I was put up there for a reason," Gardon said. "I have a duty to the 47,000 students enrolled in the Sacramento city school system. I have to be true to my constituents and true to who I am. That's the biggest problem with politics these days, not being true to who you are. It's this idea of 'I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine.' "
When he senses he's gotten tangential or perhaps preachy, Gardon slips in a caveat with a shrug: "I'm a 17-year-old; what do I know?"