(Photo provided by Jennifer Mullen)
The 2020-2021 school year marks orchestra director Jennifer Mullen’s 14th and final year at DGN. An educator at both Downers Grove North and South, Mullen has been teaching for District 99 since April of 2007. Mullen has made lasting changes to the District’s orchestra program and is leaving an important legacy for all of her past and future students.
The professional influence of Mullen’s legacy has transformed the Fine Arts Department to be one that can boast a first-rate orchestra program year after year. Inviting professional artists, traveling to Europe, and holding sold-out concerts has become something to constantly look forward to from Mullen’s orchestras.
“Ms. Mullen has maintained the high standards of the program she inherited, but also led the program in new directions that have benefited our entire community,” Fine Arts Department Chairperson Brayer Teague said. “One example is that she has made touring and educational travel a regular and expected part of the orchestra experience. Before she arrived in D99, the orchestra had taken several tours. But she has solidified a [biannual] tour schedule, including a European tour every fourth year.”
Thanks to Mullen’s wide and collaborative vision for the orchestra, students have had the opportunity to play alongside many notable musicians such as American Chamber Trio, Ayodele Drum and Dance, Project Trio, Michael Schelle, and Sasaki Miho. Mullen makes an effort to ensure that every orchestra student will work with at least one major guest artist during their four years in the program.
All performances, whether there is a featured musician or not, hold high regard in Mullen’s mind. Every concert is treated with importance and care, no matter if it takes place in Germany or DGN’s Clarence Johnson Auditorium.
“I hope that my students feel that my expectation for every performance is that it’s good… whatever you put on stage, you want it to be your best… [When] I drop the needle in the middle of any concert, I am so proud of them. I am so proud of all of them,” Mullen said. “There’s not one time where I was consciously like, ‘This was our good performance.’ They were all really good, and I knew that all of them were the best that they could be, with that particular ensemble at that particular time.”
THE JOURNEY: MORE THAN JUST A MUSIC TEACHER
Mullen’s positive influence has not only impacted the Fine Arts Department, but also especially touched a community of students that she hadn’t originally planned to. As Mullen departs from DGN, she leaves an inclusive and important legacy as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
When Mullen first started teaching at DGN, she had no sense of urgency for coming out to her students. But in later years, Mullen began to reassess her principles and how being vocal about what she believes in affects her students.
“When I was a teacher in 2008, my students would probably say something totally different [about me] because I had so many walls up and I was so protective. It was kind of that flight mentality, where you’re kind of just putting up a whole bunch of walls because you perceive that there’s danger everywhere; you’re still new in a career, and you don’t feel comfortable at all. That’s kind of how it was, I didn’t share anything, I didn’t address anything out of fear for any sort of retribution. And I totally have let [those walls] down over the years…” Mullen said.
2018 may have been the year where Mullen broke down her biggest wall yet. At the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year, she had to take a sudden leave of absence for a rare lung disease that resulted in a number of emergency surgeries. Despite this, Mullen still had the responsibility of taking 60 kids on their orchestra Europe tour that following summer. After months of recovery and hospitalization, she felt uneasy with such a large task. It forced Mullen to do the thing she would have never expected to do: bring her wife on the trip.
“I had to bring my wife on the [2018 Europe] trip. I wanted to bring my wife, ever since I’ve ever started [traveling with the orchestra]. And I just didn’t feel comfortable doing it. I didn’t want to be public in that way, and invite criticism. And then I was like, ‘I’m not going without my wife. I’m just not. I haven’t been able to stay out of the hospital for over three months, I’m scared to death about taking 60 kids to Europe without my wife there,’” Mullen said.
Mullen credits that year for forcing her on a path to be more comfortable with her identity in the public.
“It took me a long time to feel comfortable being me in front of my class. A long time. As in, 2018… that really made a shift in me. I’ve always been very private with who I am, what’s going on, and that forced me to be vulnerable in a way that… I wouldn’t have done it by choice,” Mullen said. “But it was really good for me. It was like the shove that I needed. I can look at that and say, ‘You know what, I’m a better person because I got sick. I’m a better teacher.’”
Mullen’s initiative to let her walls down has let students into a safe space she has created in her classroom. Phoenix Nystrom is a freshman in DGN’s concert orchestra who quickly recognized Mullen as a role model and supportive figure for their identity.
“Ms. Mullen has made a huge impact on me, even though I have only had her for a semester and change. Ms. Mullen has been a huge support system for me as a queer person outside the gender binary. I can relate to her a lot, and I also thank her for helping me along on my transition, passing on some information to the counselor’s office,” Nystrom said.
Regarding her identity and experiences, Mullen advocates for openness and inclusivity in teachers through her actions and beliefs.
“My students are people, and what I believe is that… if students don’t learn that their teachers are human beings that go through very similar experiences to them, they’re not going to be comfortable going through those experiences and letting people in through times that are very challenging for them if they don’t know that other people can understand and empathize with that,” Mullen said. “As much as there is a barrier between teacher and student, and there needs to be a professional line, I also want people to know, ‘I am so fiercely an advocate for every single student in my room.’”
Many of DGN’s musicians exhibit substantial growth from their time in the orchestra. Mullen’s musical impact on her students is evident in violin-player and senior Justin Berghorst, who she has continuously encouraged as a musician and leader. Berghorst joined Concert Orchestra as a freshman, and quickly moved up to Symphonic Orchestra the following year. He has been in Honors Symphonic Orchestra starting this year.
“Throughout high school, Ms. Mullen has provided me with experiences that challenge me as a musician and help me to grow my confidence, leadership abilities, and playing technique,” Berghorst said. “My freshman year, Ms. Mullen selected me to be Concert Orchestra’s Concertmaster at one of our orchestra concerts. Although I wasn’t yet confident in my leadership abilities, she believed in me and helped form me into the leader that I am today.”
Senior Julia Szostak is a cello player who has been in Honors Symphonic Orchestra for the last three years. Through her own love for music, Mullen has enriched Szostak’s passion to keep improving and playing.
“Ms. Mullen is someone who can point out the smallest of technicalities that make the biggest of differences in my playing. She gives suggestions in a way where I don’t feel bad about my performance, but instead want to utilize them and continually improve. She is so dedicated to music and the arts that it’s infectious-it makes me want to practice all the time and be the best possible musician,” Szostak said.
Junior Jade Toledano has been playing the violin for the Concert Orchestra since freshman year. For the past 3 years, Mullen has become a consistently supportive and influential figure in Toledano’s school and personal life.
“Since my freshman year, she has been that one teacher that I could talk to and end my school day with, in a class that she has taught me so much in. She has made me see who I aspire to be when I grow up,” Toledano said. “She made people feel like they had someone in their corner, someone who understood them, someone to whom someone could identify themselves to… She will always hold a place in my memory, of a teacher who made school feel worth it.”
For Mullen, DGN’s orchestra entails and signifies more than just learning the notes and rhythms. Being a member of the orchestra means learning from Mullen in a way that is special and important to each student.
“The thing that I’m most proud of, as a teacher, is being able to make connections with every single one of my students in the way that they need me to connect with them… For certain students, the most important thing that they learn in my class has nothing to do with music, but maybe it builds their confidence, maybe it helps them be more comfortable in their own skin… If I’ve done that for my students, I think that that’s what I’m most proud of and that’s why I’m a teacher.” Mullen said.
THE NEXT CHAPTER
Mullen’s journey as an educator is far from over. Mullen will be heading to Maine West High School, where she will serve as the school’s Fine Arts Department Chair. In a new environment surrounded by unfamiliar faces, Mullen vows to stay true to the person she has become thanks to her experiences at DGN.
“I was brutally honest about who I am and what I believe.. And I was unashamedly me in that interview process with everybody in the school, whether it was the principal or whether it was a student… everybody knows what they’re getting,” Mullen said.
Demographically, Maine West High School presents a more diverse community than DGN. The minority enrollment at Maine West is 58.1% of the student body, compared to DGN’s 25.7%. In her interviews with the school, Mullen noticed a significant emphasis on equity at Maine West.
“They don’t just talk equity, they’re acting on it. Like in a big way. And I love that,” Mullen said.
In the new atmosphere and no longer being an orchestra director, Mullen anticipates the changes she can create not only for Maine West’s music program but for arts education as a whole.
“I look forward to working more with teachers, and providing a framework of foundation where they feel comfortable letting their wildest dreams be put up on the table, and we’ll figure out a way to make them happen,” Mullen said. “I think that we’re at a place where we kind of have to reimagine certain things about arts education and continue to find ways for kids to find relevance in it.”
LEAVING A LEGACY
Mullen has transformed the Fine Arts department and left a legacy of inclusivity for all DGN students and staff to follow.
“As much as we are going to miss seeing Ms. Mullen, we are excited for her to have this opportunity to lead a Fine Arts program at a Chicago-area high school. I know she’s going to do a great job there, and the Maine West community is going to be enriched through her presence,” Teague said.