Sauce, Considered

by Vince Durnan

Watching Myles Maillie restore and refresh the iconic HS stairwell mural got me thinking about the oft-mentioned but elusive “secret sauce” question for USN. Here’s more:


With all the work we’ve done on the 1925 Demonstration School building and all the space we’ve added to accommodate life and learning here, a set of elongated, whimsical, boldly colored faces still holds a special, beloved place. Found on the last couple flights of stairs on the 19th Avenue side of the building—it was painted on the original, plastered walls. More than 30 years ago (no one seems to know exactly when), one of the city’s biggest artistic personalities joined art teacher Jose Rodriguez and students here to leave a mark—a bright, upbeat, defining, could have been on a t-shirt kind of mark.
 
Now the kids who helped Myles paint those walls are in their 40’s. Myles, by contrast, happily defies aging altogether. And another generation of students is splashing paint within lines drawn by their predecessors. And we sure are grateful. That stairwell is USN, as we heard from alumni last weekend when they walked the halls for reunion. Some things you just don’t change. 
 
You probably see where this is going. That spontaneously generated artistic feature of this campus came to mean a lot. Busy though we have been moving walls and adding windows, we’ve been intentional about not tearing down what was given to us by those who came before. To that point, count the number of places at USN where what was once an exterior wall (red brick, of course) is now an interior wall. We’ve wrapped the current space around our past, like the University School circle on our official seal wraps around the Peabody Dem circle.
 
Which brings us to the forks in the road we’ll encounter when considering the right educational and financial models for our next generation. Whatever we do, we must not break the school. It’s a Hippocratic Oath kind of thing. First, do no harm. The softer version of this mandate is that we not mess with the Secret Sauce.
 
So what, then, is the Sauce, and how will we know when we’ve found it? We don’t reduce easily to slogans or mottos. The safest bet, given the centrality of the student/student connections and the student/teacher dynamic at USN, is that it must be relational, rooted in the community we form, in the families we draw. How could that not be at the essence of the good that happens here? But it could be more—maybe the courses we teach, or the way we teach, or the place we teach. Or maybe the blend of ages for the young people we teach, from kindergarten to 12th grade, as the big bronze panel on the corner of 21st Avenue proclaims.
 
If it’s all of those facets combined, then our options when it comes to change are pretty constricted. And we’ll need to come face to face with the fact that we seem to prefer an increasingly expensive educational recipe. If everything in our model merits preservation, if the whole thing is like the stairway mural, then we will mostly be left to age in place. And maybe then we’ll discover that some types of change were actually part of the Sauce all along.
 
No wonder, then, that we’re asking big questions via the Survey for the Future. By all means please participate. Ours is the moment to humbly ponder the question of what new paths to follow, ever thoughtful about what calls out to be preserved. Thank goodness our campus aesthetic carries so many lessons, new and not so new, if only we make time to look.
 
Loving the opportunity,
Vince
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