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Academics, Alumni, Arts, Community, Events, Faculty

A Speech in Honor of NWS Founder Ellen Taussig

By Kevin Alexander

By Kevin Alexander, Dean of Students

The following speech was delivered on Thursday, September 2 during a Naming Ceremony in honor of Ellen Taussig and Mark Terry.

I remember the first time I had a meaningful conversation with Ellen. She was coming out of the Meredith Mathews YMCA after a swim. I guess it would have to be around 1991 just after the second NWS schism. Half the board, and most of the administration had left the school over what may be described as “irreconcilable educational value differences.” Ellen was tapped to lead the school in crisis.

Ellen, you seemed as if you had the House on your shoulders. Once again, the school was on a precipice. Today, it may be hard to fathom that at that time the school was struggling to make payroll and looking for creative ways to pay rent. I would later find out, since the school didn’t own buildings, that one of the only sources of credit was Ellen and Paul’s house. So, it’s likely when I talked with her that she was feeling the weight of two houses and a colossal mortgage.

Two things came out in our conversation. One was how deeply she cared about the educational mission of the Northwest School and why she wouldn’t walk away. The other observation was that even though she was tired, and down, she was not defeated. Ellen has fight. I mean this in the best way, the way we try to teach our students to act on their beliefs. If you feel something is good, and right, it’s worthy of struggle, worthy of a fight.

I know, without the determination of Ellen and other committed faculty, this gym would be the second floor of a six-story condominium building. It is not hyperbole to say the school would no longer exist. To borrow Ray’s Chapter 41 metaphor about the year 1991, Chapter 11 was nearly a Chapter 11 filing. As someone who has continually learned here, grown up, and grown old in this school, I am extraordinarily grateful for those who cared enough to fight for this House.

So why was this place worthy of the struggle or a good fight? Why would you mortgage your home for a nearly insolvent House? These are good questions. Ellen believed in a model of education that taught you to ask the right questions. If you talked to Ellen during her long tenure as head of NWS school, she would inevitably get to her theory of Default Culture. You see, the world around us is continually looking to shape us. It’s constant, omnipresent, but not necessarily omnipotent. If you are not aware of the nature and intention of these forces, you become a default product of someone else’s aims. Ellen believed an education should swim against these currents. At its best, a Northwest education is an upstream model. It is consistently pushing against these currents to move to higher ground.

While this model tries to counter the default culture, Ellen would never let you put it in the box of countercultural. People couldn’t wrap their heads around the “Both,” “And” nature of the school. I mean, even the school’s lengthy original name The Northwest School of the Arts, Humanities and Environment has “And” built right in. Still, people saw a strong arts emphasis and talent and said it was the “Fame” school or an Arts school. They saw the different approach and a cross disciplinary model and labeled it “alternative.” Ellen was not fond of these boxes. A strong arts education and academic excellence are not mutually exclusive, they are mutually dependent.

I realize the school has been fighting these false binaries for as long as I have been here.

Let’s take the arts. Ellen is a classically trained musician and an academic. When Ellen was admissions director and later, head, she would make a compelling case for our model of two required arts across multiple disciplines based on her lived experience and the experience of our students. At the time, there wasn’t the data or so-called hard science behind it. When Ellen retired, the science really started to support our model. I would read articles in the New York Times about new brain research, arts, and the power of multidisciplinary approaches. I imagined Ellen–a serial clipper of New York Times articles in her day–reading the article in the chair next her piano and exclaiming–as she often did: “Ah ha, I knew it!” and reading the supporting facts out loud with emphasis. The NWS model was ahead of the science. We’ve been singing and dancing upstream way before STREAM, STEM and STEAM were buzz acronyms.

So, don’t let the default culture sweep you away. Don’t let your unique nature get put in a box. What I have valued about the education at Northwest is that it cares more about who you are as a human in community than what you are, where you go to college, or what accomplishments you list.

Every graduation, Ellen had a quip based on this principle and the lived mission of the school. It was always met with a collective groan. Ok, a few laughs maybe, but the undertone was groan. I can’t recall it exactly because I was groaning in anticipation once the buildup started.

It would work in our mission of “graduating students with historical and scientific and global perspective enabling you to think and act with integrity,” and it led to “each of you has engaged in a sequential, cross disciplinary study in the Arts, Sciences and Hum-Mensch-ities.”

Mensch. Ok, as a Catholic, I could tell you what transubstantiation is, but I had to look up the mensch back then. “A person of honor and integrity.” Wow. Integrity is baked right into our mission, and therefore, mensch is there. I came to understand it was more than this simple definition. 

Part of this came from understanding how the phrase “not a mensch” was used. For example, “He is a full professor, but not exactly a mensch.” This is actually a pretty damning phrase. Somewhere along the line, education failed that professor in a critical way.

Why? Because you can rely on a mensch, count on them to act with consideration and kindness, with humility and honor. A mensch is attentive to the needs of the community and is not driven by accolades or recognition. Northwest has always been values-driven, and mission focused. I know at the start of Chapter 41 that is still central to our identity.

One of my favorite things to do is walk around the building at night when it is empty–especially now that the rodent problem from the early years is under control. The duct taped carpet and pipes are gone but the building creaks like an old ship, still moving against the currents. I’ll do a kind of a gratitude walk after a long day. Pass by Glen’s old office, pass the salmon mural upstairs near the Chem Lab and now the Terry Lab. I might poke my head in there and think “this Terry Lab, still a little run down, but it’s got great bones.”           

I’ll get my bag and weave my way back down letting the building speak to me. I have memories from so many places in this House. On the way out, I’ll pause by the Common’s door and the Taussig Room–an essential multipurpose, multi-disciplinary room used by primarily for arts and humanities.  It’s just a few feet from where Ellen and Ani played the piano so beautifully for Community Meetings and Arts Fest. I’ll pause, smile, and I’ll hear the music. I’ll feel a strong sense of gratitude and love, push through those doors, and start my walk home.

Ellen, thank you.