Net-no-kwa, a Chief of the Ojibwa, and Good Will

By Meryl Simon, February 4, 2005

[Written originally for a blog titled “Pride, Shame, and Divorce” by Meryl Simon]

“Good will is the oneness of criticism and encouragement.” – Eli Siegel

Net-no-kwa is a chief of the Ojibwa who adopts a boy―John Tanner―from Kentucky and treats him with a combination of toughness and tenderness, criticism and encouragement. I found qualities in Net-no-kwa’s treatment of John Tanner that are in the field of those which make for good will, which Aesthetic Realism teaches a person to have as a conscious purpose.

There are many instances in literature and in anthropological material which show that people are looking for that oneness of opposites which makes for kindness, for good will.

John Tanner, or The Falcon as his narrative has been titled [Penguin edition], was captured by Indians as a boy of nine years in Kentucky in the 1780s, because, in effect, he wanted to escape from his father and stepmother and be taken by the Indians. He loitered at some distance from his family’s homestead at the edge of the forest. The first Indians who took him were cruel to him, treated him as a slave, but he was soon “bought,” by a relative of those who first took him.

We meet Net-no-kwa early in the narrative. She was regarded “notwithstanding her sex…as principal chief of the Ottawwaws. This woman had lost her son, of about my age, by death; and having heard of me, she wished to purchase me to supply his place.” Net-no-kwa, in my opinion, is critical and kind. John Tanner narrates:

“She took me by the hand after she had completed the negotiation with my former possessors, and led me to her own lodge which stood near. Here I soon found I was to be treated more indulgently than I had been. She gave me plenty of food, put good clothes upon me, and told me to go and play with her own sons….She imposed on me, for the first year, some tasks. She made me cut wood, bring home game, bring water, and perform other services not commonly required of the boys of my age; but she treated me invariably with so much kindness that I was far more happy and content than I had been in the [former family]…”

I think essentially Net-no-kwa was for John Tanner and he felt she was. Being for the best thing in a person and against the worst thing in them is a crucial thing in good will.

After some years, he becomes romantically interested in Mis-kwa-bun-o-kwa (the red sky of the morning). He recalls that he spent a considerable part of one night with Red Sky, and crept back into the lodge, but this did not escape the notice of Net-no-kwa “[who] rapp[ed] on my naked feet at the first appearance of dawn on the following morning”:

‘”Up,” said the old woman, “and start after game. It will raise you more in the estimation of the woman you would marry to see you bring home a load of meat early in the morning than to see you dressed ever so gaily, standing about the village after the hunters are all gone out.”

And John Tanner continued:

“I could make her no answer, but putting on my moccasins, took my gun and went out. Returning before noon, with as heavy a load of fat moose meat as I could carry,…and I said to her: ‘Here, old woman, is what you called for in the morning.’ She was very much pleased, and commended me for my exertion. I now became satisfied that she was not displeased on account of my affair with Mis-kwa-bun-o-kwa, and it gave me no small pleasure to think that my conduct met with her approbation.

“There are many [people] who throw away and neglect their old people, but though Net-no-kwa was now decrepit and infirm, I felt the strongest regard for her, and continued to do so while she lived.”

Some time later, when he came home after a trip to the trading post, there was this exchange, which gives some idea of one style of an Ojibwa wedding ceremony of the time, and the kind criticism given by the woman who stood in the place of his mother:

“When I arrived at our lodge, I saw Red Sky sitting in my place. As I stopped at the door of the lodge, and hesitated to enter, she hung down her head, but Net-no-kwa greeted me in a tone somewhat harsher than was common for her to use to me, ‘Will you turn back from the door of the lodge, and put this young girl to shame, who is in all respects better than you are. This affair has been of your own seeking, and not of mine or hers. You have followed her about the village heretofore; now you would turn from her, and make her appear like one who has attempted to thrust herself in your way.’ I was conscious of the justness of Net-no-kwa’s reproaches, and in part prompted by inclination, I went in and sat down by the side of Red Sky, and thus we became man and wife.”

I have been studying how necessary it is for good will to be the basis of a decision to marry, and also the basis of a decision to divorce.

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Frederick Douglass—or, Society as a Means of Individuality

By Meryl Simon

From a presentation in an Aesthetic Realism class of Eli Siegel’s Definition of Society

“Society is selves seen as together, or one.”

“Society has in it selves or ‘I’s’ aware of other selves as ‘I’s.’ The question about society is whether the existence of other ‘I’s’ and their apprehension by a single ‘I’ makes for the growth the ‘I’ apprehending the other. If such existence and such apprehension are good for the individual ‘I,’ then society is a means of individualism.”

— from the Definition of Society,  Definitions and Comment: Being a Description of the World by Eli Siegel

One of the things that is so surprising about this definition and comment is that it is so much about individual people, since society is mostly thought of as consisting of other people en masse, not as individuals.

The key words we will be looking at tonight are apprehension and growth. We’ve learned there are two means of growing—one true, and one false. One can grow through learning, apprehending other things and people truly and so adding to ourselves by respecting things. The other kind of seeming growth, which is false, is based on contempt, which Mr. Siegel has defined as “the disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.”

The knowledge of contempt and respect as Aesthetic Realism explains them is essential for society—made up of millions of individual “I’s.” This knowledge will have society become what it should be—useful to all and to the individual at once.

In his essay “Individuality As Possibility,” Mr. Siegel states:

You like the world when the tendency is to grow through it….When you’re excited by something, when you are moved by something you think you have grown. You are more.

Frederick Douglass

Courageous writers—such as Charles Dickens, Emile Zola, Harriet Beecher Stowe—looked at life around them, wanted to apprehend it, see meaning in it, and then give form to it. An example we will use tonight comes from the writing of an important American, Frederick Douglass (1818 – 1895), who wrote with passion and purpose about slavery, including in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, written by Himself.

Frederick Douglass recalls his experience on an auction block when he was 12 years old:

We were all ranked together at the valuation. Men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked with horses, sheep, and swine. There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being, and all were subjected to the same narrow examination. Silvery-headed age and sprightly youth, maids and matrons, had to undergo the same indelicate inspection. At this moment, I saw more clearly than ever the brutalizing effects of slavery upon both slave and slaveholder.

Douglass has us feel the existence of every living being on an auction block: we feel both his searing criticism and his sense of what justice would mean.

Frederick Douglass is an “I” apprehending the existence of other “I’s.” Do we feel that he describes a horrendous event in such a way that it did make for growth in him? Through his writings and speeches he encouraged Americans to be more aware not only of African Americans as “I’s” but also of slaveholders as “I’s” being brutalized by the power they wielded. We feel this apprehension made him more of an individual.

The feeling that other people should exist only for our benefit, that they should be apprehended or understood only as much as will make us comfortable—is contempt. It limits our apprehension of what individuals both separately and together can really accomplish. It made for slavery and makes for racism and inefficiency and injustice in economics.

Frederick Douglass came to realize this somewhat when he escaped to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Judging from what he had experienced on the plantation, he couldn’t imagine how a society could get work done or even flourish without slavery. Douglass wrote:

I had very strangely supposed, while in slavery, that few of the comforts, and scarcely any of the luxuries of life were enjoyed at the North, compared with what were enjoyed by the slaveholders of the South. I probably came to this conclusion from the fact that Northern people owned no slaves….And upon coming to the North, I expected to meet with a rough, hard-handed, and uncultivated population, living in the most Spartan-like simplicity, knowing nothing of the ease, luxury, pomp, and grandeur of Southern slaveholders.

He described the difference he saw on his arrival in New Bedford, when he visited the wharves:

I saw many ships of the latest model, in the best order, and of the largest size. Upon the right and left, I was walled in by granite warehouses… stowed to their utmost capacity with the necessaries and comforts of life. Added to this almost everybody seemed to be at work….I saw no whipping of men; but all seemed to go smoothly.

Nathan & Polly Johnson House in New Bedford, MA

Later on Douglass would see more clearly the problems in the North. But he wrote about former slaves in New Bedford,“A great many…like myself, had escaped thither as a refuge from the hunters of men.” He noted that his friend, Nathan Johnson, 

lived in a neater house, dined at a better table, took, paid for, and read, more newspapers; better understood the moral, religious and political character of the nation, than nine-tenths of the slaveholders in Talbot County, Maryland. Yet, Mr. Johnson was a working man. His hands were hardened by toil, and not his alone, but those also of Mrs. Johnson.

There were many people, including some abolitionists, who couldn’t believe that Douglass could have been an ex-slave and write the way he did. A Southern slaveholding defender, A.C.C. Thompson, who had known Douglass as a slave, called him “an unlearned and rather ordinary negro.” Douglass wrote:

The slave that had bowed his head when last seen by Thompson on a dirt road in Maryland was then in the hands of a Negro-breaker, who had worked him so hard, beaten him so often, fed him so little, and had so broken his spirit that he could not have written his Narrative…. If anyone had told me, seven years ago, I should ever be able to write such a [book], I should have doubted as strongly as [Thompson] now [does].

Aesthetic Realism, for the first time in history, makes it possible, as conscious education, for every person to see that “the existence of other ‘I’s’ can and will “make for the growth of the ‘I’ apprehending the others.” This is the honest, kind basis for society to flourish!

In keeping with the life of Frederick Douglass, and many others who have fought and are fighting now for society to be as good as it can be, we conclude with sentences from Eli Siegel’s great essay, “The Equality of Man”:

“Mind needs nourishment, care and training….And the fact is plain enough that millions and millions of people…have not got this mind’s nourishment, care and training. Their lives were forced to be led so, to get food enough for their stomachs, was all that they could do….Men have not had an equal chance to be as actively powerful as they might be. And if they had been given an equal chance to use all the powers they had at birth, they would be equal.” —from The Modern Quarterly Beginnings of Aesthetic Realism, 1922-23

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Cassava: An Indigenous Success Story

By Meryl Simon

Written for the Anthropology Is about You and Everyone class taught by Dr. Arnold Perey at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City. 

Very early in his life, Eli Siegel wanted to find the “things common to all things,” and he found them: the aesthetic oneness of opposites. The principles of Aesthetic Realism are about all people, every person, all art. They are the universals, what all people have in common. That is why this class can have the title, “Anthropology Is about You and Everyone.” Other ways of seeing the field usually restrict their description of a culture to the particular world view of that culture, and accent what is unique or different from other cultures. 

This central principle of Aesthetic Realism shows what all humanity has in common:

“The world, art, and self explain each other,” Eli Siegel stated. “Each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”

Here’s a beautiful example of opposites, seen as one—in the third chapter of his book Self and World, “The Aesthetic Method in Self-Conflict,” Eli Siegel writes:

“We all of us start with a here, ever so snug and ever so immediate. And this here is surrounded strangely, endlessly, by a there. We are always meeting this there: in other words, we are always meeting what is not ourselves, and we have to do something about it.”

Mr. Siegel’s writing is warm, charming, ever so factual, and original. The opposites he is describing, on the one hand the snug and immediate—the here, and on the other, the there—in other words, self and world—have to do with the history of mankind. This is so, for example, in the field of nutrition. 

Wherever people have lived, in whatever type of biome—desert, wetlands, the frozen north, the rain forest—they saw possibilities of usefulness in various growing things, and felt they were “always meeting what is not themselves” and that they “had to do something about it.” This feeling of the here and there has made for the development of such great things as the tomato, the potato, corn, wheat, beans, squash, cranberries, pecans, blueberries, papayas, pineapple, strawberries—and countless herbs and medicinal plants.

Tonight I’ll be looking at the history of the cassava plant, which for a long time could not be eaten because it contains a deadly poison—prussic acid.

I quote from Mark Plotkin’s Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice:

“Though little known in industrialized countries, Cassava is one of the world’s most important crops…the manifold uses that the Amazonian Indians have managed to develop for this plant boggle the mind. [It] has been used to make various poisons, a spice, beer, baby food, porridge, and cassava bread.”

Plotkin describes the plant’s amazing characteristics: “Ideally suited to the humid tropics, Cassava is insect resistant and tolerates sun, shade, and both wet and dry spells.”

And he writes about how cassava was made edible:

“Almost all tribes have developed a process—which usually consists of some combination of soaking, boiling, squeezing, and cooking—to remove the toxin.That the Indians have taken a deadly plant domesticated it, and developed a technology that has turned this poisonous species into something that feeds hundreds of millions of people each day throughout the tropical world, demonstrates a botanical ingenuity possessed by few if any professional botanists.”

This is an illustration of one type of squeezer used to extract poison from the cassava root.

The roots are sliced, then tightly squeezed in this squeezer—a long finely meshed cylinder of braided palm bark, 7 or more feet long. The end of the squeezer is attached by a loop to a convenient rafter in the longhouse. A stout stick is fixed at the other end, and on this a woman sits, bearing down with all her weight, so that the contents of the cylinder are compressed and most of the juice pressed out. The pulp after being left to dry is pounded by hand into a flour; this is heated in a platter, and frequently stirred to remove more volatile poisonous matter. After this lengthy process, the flour is kneaded with water, and lightly baked in a clay dish to form a …cake of unleavened bread. 

The success of this and other ways of removing toxins made it possible for people of South America and later in Africa to benefit from it as food.

In my first consultation I was surprised to learn of a disjunction in me between the here and the there. I was asked, “What do you think are central opposites in anthropology?” After some thought, I answered observation and participation—knowing both were important in the field, but it had never occurred to me until then that they’re opposites. And to my further amazement, the consultants asked: “Even as you participate, are you aloof?” Yes, I was. It is a major question of my life, and I’m grateful that as a result of studying Aesthetic Realism with Eli Siegel and Ellen Reiss, I feel closer to the many people in my life and to the indigenous peoples, both of whom I’m learning how to see.

It means more to me that I can say that I am learning the true basis of anthropology, the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel, which is also the future of anthropology, as taught in this class by anthropologist Dr. Arnold Perey. 

Meryl Simon, who has an MA in anthropology from NYU, is an Aesthetic Realism consultant.

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“Anonymous Anthropology” by Eli Siegel

I love this poem by Eli Siegel because in it he takes the very beginnings of humanity which anthropologists want to understand, and shows that these “anonymous” people who lived many thousands of years ago are real, are like ourselves. – Meryl Simon

Anonymous Anthropology

Anthropology deals with people anonymously,
None of whom we know individually.
We don’t know a specific person as to pottery, textiles, utensils, bronze or stone.
Anthropology, which is in league with prehistory,
Is so anonymous, we don’t know how sad we feel about it,
Until we think about it.

Note to the poem by Eli Siegel
There were men for many, many years before there is one person with a name, whose hand we might shake and whose opinion we might doubt.  Anthropology, or the science which deals with men trying through centuries to be men as most frequently thought of, simply lacks personalities. In the Bible, there are dim personalities like Nimrod, Enoch, Jubal, but it is worse in anthropology. All the personalities are dim, ever so dim; indeed there are none. Paleolithic man, Neolithic man must have had individuals who chose to lie down on the grass, lean on a rock, or wander by a body of water; but this is not how men of the Old Stone Age or the New Stone Age have come to us: they come to us all at once, with no names, no individual dispositions, no birth marks, no secret hopes, no particular manner of expression, no psychical apartness, blaze or suggestion. This, so far, is the way of anthropology.  Anthropology lacks the unique more than a desert does, or a flat, immense table.  If, scientifically, we could change this, it likely would be gratifying.  So far, anthropology has submerged the bizarrie, charm, impact of individual psychology.  Anthropology is so collective in its psychology, you can forget it is psychology at all.  At this moment, hope seems to be busy again.

Published in Hail, American Development (Definition Press, 1958)


The Fundamental Place of Aesthetics in Social and Cultural Anthropology, by Arnold Perey, Ph.D.

Aesthetic Realism Online Library

The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, international periodical

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Truth & Imagination in Chaim Koppelman’s Napoleon and Me

By Meryl Simon

When I first saw this print titled Napoleon and Me in a Terrain Gallery show, I was so surprised by the juxtaposition of the artist and Napoleon! Yet, it seemed right. Studying this etching, I have been seeing that it puts together the opposites of Truth & Imagination, number 15 of Eli Siegel’s broadside of 1955, Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?:

15. TRUTH AND IMAGINATION. Is every painting a mingling of mind justly receptive of what is before it, and of mind freely and honorably showing what it is through what mind meets?—is every painting, therefore, a oneness of what is seen as item and what is seen as possibility, of fact and appearance, the ordinary and the strange?—and are objective and subjective made one in a painting?”

What was Mr. Koppelman looking at as he prepared to make this etching? It is himself, in apron, thoughtfully selecting a plate on which to work, seated near a large window, with buildings gathered almost like personalities, right up against the pane, and a figure we recognize as that of Napoleon.

This work is, I think, “a mingling of mind justly receptive of what is before it, and of mind freely and honorably showing what it is through what mind meets.”

The Printmaker & His Imagination

Chaim Koppelman, Napoleon and Me

There is drama in this juxtaposition of the printmaker and the things in his imagination.

The window is rendered wonderfully light and so are the buildings, and Napoleon, his form looming large, imposing, but rather quiet, is in darkness.

The relation is made subtly and well through, for instance, the light on the artist’s hand, which is about to do the etching, and the light of the window. Also, though most of the artist’s face is clearly delineated, his eyes seem to be veiled by a rather dark and dappled netting of strokes.

We see the artist’s eyes rather faintly, looking to the side, but somewhat hidden. Is he looking both inward and outward? Is he seeing Napoleon and the buildings in his “mind’s eye” as he has us see himself as present before us? I think Mr. Koppelman portrays himself from the inside and also as an object.

We feel that Napoleon and the buildings outside the window may be contemplating each other. He seems to be looking out. Is he guarding, observing? And the buildings seem to be looking in.

Why He Liked Napoleon

One of the benefits of studying Aesthetic Realism is learning why a person likes something so much. When he was 9 years old, Chaim Koppelman has told, he drew a profile of Napoleon in his geography book, the beginning of a lifelong interest in the Emperor. Mr. Koppelman learned from Eli Siegel that Napoleon stood for opposites in the world that he wanted to put together in himself: pride and modesty, high and low, the imperial and the democratic.

“In this lithograph,” Mr. Koppelman explained in a talk, “Napoleon is standing on the windowsill, helping me to relate inside the studio to the outside world.”

Ourselves and the World Outside

Mr. Siegel further asks about Truth and Imagination: “…is every painting, therefore, a oneness of what is seen as item and what is seen as possibility, of fact and appearance, the ordinary and the strange?—and are objective and subjective made one in a painting?”

A major way the artist accomplishes the oneness of item and possibility, fact and appearance is in the technique of cross-hatching, masterfully carried out in this composition, making for the contours and shadows that define every part of “Napoleon and Me.”

The artist must have asked himself about each “fact” he presented—whether a line should be thicker or thinner, and whether the lines should be horizontal, vertical or diagonal. How should each thing appear? How must its possibilities be shown?

Napoleon is given density as is the hair of the artist. The feet of Napoleon begin on the same plane as the artist’s head. The relation of the dark lines of hair and the Napoleon figure strengthens the impression that the objective and subjective are one.

We are asked to suspend belief and we happily do so, in the fact that Napoleon would wish to place himself right there. Of course he would and does. It seems right and ordinary and then on second thought, it is strange, but wonderfully strange.

We believe this is Napoleon, just as we have believed Mr. Koppelman’s depictions of Napoleon entering Hoboken; Napoleons riding alligators; Napoleon at night on the beach of Coney Island; though each time, he is depicted differently.

I think “Napoleon and Me” is an answer to the question Mr. Siegel asks in Self and World: “How can imagination be unhindered and beneficial?”  That is what I am hoping my imagination can be.

See more works by Chaim Koppelman

Chaim Koppelman Memorial Exhibition (archive)

 Napoleon Entering New York: Chaim Koppelman & the Emperor
Exhibition at the Museo Napoleonico, Roma, Oct. 13, 2011 – May 6, 2012


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Book Review: GWE, Young Man of New Guinea— A novel against racism by Arnold Perey, PhD

REVIEW by Meryl Simon and Devorah Tarrow

“Gwe was born in Stone Age New Guinea. Alan was born in New York City. This is their story and the story of Gwe’s people.”

Gwe is a stirring novel set in New Guinea and peopled by the Mengti, with whom the author, Dr. Arnold Perey, lived. When he returned to the U.S., he began to study Aesthetic Realism, founded by American philosopher Eli Siegel. Dr. Perey writes:

“All beauty is a making one of opposites,” wrote Eli Siegel, “and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” To see the deep likeness of all people, the opposites are scientifically necessary. The people of New Guinea you’ll meet in this story—are they concerned with respecting oneself and feeling guilty? … being angry and being pleased; being excited and being calm; being fair to people and being selfish—in circumstances unique to their island? …

In every chapter we see the answer is yes. The novel centers on Alan Hull, young anthropologist and Gwe, a young man of traditional Papuan culture, who becomes Alan’s interpreter and guide.

Dr. Perey takes us into the home of Gwe’s family.

Father of Gwe, seeing Alan walk into his dwelling in his stocking feet asks: “Are your feet like ours?” When Alan removes his socks, Gwe’s father asks to touch his foot, which he does, and says, “Your feet are like baby’s feet.” Alan explains that his feet are always in shoes, and don’t meet the rough earth barefoot.

Then Alan pantomimes the tickling of his own foot and asks “If I tickle you, Father of Gwe, will you laugh? The elder says, “Ah, yes.” Perey writes, “Everyone in the little house was satisfied by the mood of mutual confidence mingled with a certain daring.”

Then, they want to celebrate with a Singsing. Father of Gwe guides him:

Coming to Alan, he put one old hand on the young man’s back, and the other on his pale upper arm, and he began rising and falling in time to an internal music. Back and forth across the length of the house they danced….Together the old father and the young, New York-born student danced the dance of New Guinea, centuries old, in a small dwelling on a rainy slope in the Victor Emanuel Mountains, 5 degrees south of the Equator in the Eastern half of the World.

The Mengti live by sweet potatoes, taro, and pigs. But because Gwe’s selfish, brutal uncle, Yug-wek-kek, has taken possession by force of the best land, and the crops haven’t grown as well as they should, most of the people are starved for protein. Alan explains to Gwe that when a baby’s head is larger than his chest, it is a sign he is malnourished. Dr. Perey describes Gwe’s distress at the condition of the babies as Alan measures them, and we feel both Alan and Gwe’s anguish.

Meanwhile, there is something else that is new, arising from Dr. Perey’s study of Aesthetic Realism: he goes into the feelings of Yug-wek-kek—showing how against himself he is for his ill will and the effects on himself of his own injustice. We read of how his guilt takes the form of a nightmare and an episode of insanity. We see new depths in a person and we are encouraged to ask ourselves: What are the effects on me when I am unjust?

Through the character of Alan, Arnold Perey courageously lays bare racism in himself and tells how he learned to see its cause as explained by Aesthetic Realism: “The addition to self through the lessening of something else.” This is contempt for people and things, and is the most damaging drive in humanity—in us.

What is the opposition to that unjust state of mind? Aesthetic Realism shows it is in art. In the chapter titled “Sunset and a Poem,” Dr. Perey describes how educated he was by the response of Gwe to a magnificent sunset—and he quotes a poem Gwe’s people sang at twilight. Here are lines of the New Guinea Insect Song:

Koo-reng-geng-gay Aroong-geng-gay Koo-reng-geng-gay Mooroo-ro-no… The insect is singing, It is nearly dark The insect is singing Come dance…

Dr. Perey writes:

Alan was stirred by this poem about sunset the way he was …by the carvings on the Divanna men’s arrows. He saw they had art. …And now—poetry. His experiences were altering his conception of …people whose dark complexion he had felt, despite all his anthropological training, was associated with lesser minds and lesser sensitivity.

In Gwe, Dr. Perey has us see and feel our kinship to people far away in place and in time. And he shows convincingly the cause of racism and how it can end.

You can order Gwe: Young Man of New Guinea here

Meryl Simon and Devorah Tarrow are consultants on the faculty of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, where they study in professional classes taught by Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss. Ms. Simon has an MA in Anthropology and Ms. Tarrow has an MA in Sociology.

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