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TLS Program

 

From the TLS Director

Letter from the Director
Paul Marienthal, TLS Director

I am 10—at the beginning of my life as a maker of things, a human being responsible for his world—watching my father repair a door handle. The spring-loaded bolt that comes out of the door won’t go through the hole in the strike plate on the frame, so the door won’t stay shut. He twists the handle over and over, mutters to himself, gets a tool, loosens the screws on the strike plate, breaks some wooden matches in half and shoves them behind the plate, tightens the screws, then closes the door. The bolt will not go into the hole. He stalks off, snarling under his breath. I get down on my knees, put my eye nearly into the small gap between the door and the strike plate, stay still, turn the handle gently and slowly release it. Of course the bolt won’t go in the hole: the strike plate is not too far away, it’s too low! My father acted out of assumption, out of impatience, without data, without questioning, without even really looking.

Cultivate curiosity


“Getting close to your materials” is what I have come to call the process of slowing down, being as physically close to a thing as you can possibly get, and looking, really looking, at the microrelations, the juxtapositions, the tiny movements, the edges, the rockings, the springs, the tensioners, and the levers in a thing. This life skill is an ironic gift from my father. It is a combination of his expansive energy and the creation of a secure life for his children that provides me with the privilege, opportunity, and motivation to contemplate the subtle workings of door handles.

The clues are always there

When you blow up the picture of a mechanical system, expand it so that you can see every nut, washer, bolt, and spring—that is called a schematic. When I encounter a situation—physical, organizational, logistical, interpersonal, even emotional—I try to think of it schematically. That is the way I 5 4

find the fulcrum, the leading edge, the center of gravity in a thing, a proposal, or even a conflict. Like a good mystery, the trick is to hunt for the clues, the connections, the not-so-obvious relationships between parts of a system. With door handles and motors and bridges and plumbing, the connections are sequential and proximate. Family affiliations in a small Palestinian village are not so obvious.

Everything starts with good questions

Effective investigations start with good questions. This is true of repairing doors or building cross-cultural bonds. Everything in TLS starts with questions. When a student comes to our office we ask: What do you want to do? Who do you want to do it with? How do you know they want it? What does it look like? Why does it matter to you? Who will join you?

As project leaders mature, our questions deepen. TLS students write substantial monthly updates, which often go beyond mechanics into the places of the heart. For example, the theme of a recent TLS retreat dealt with the relationship of fear and personal rules. A month later our students responded to the prompt: “Please write about what you notice since the fear and courage workshop. Do you notice and experience fear or resistance in yourself differently? We’re also curious about rules—yours or other people’s. Do you notice them differently in any way?” TLS student Meg Gilbert ’14 wrote:

This semester, Anne Gridley, cofounder of Nature Theater of Oklahoma, taught a class titled Devised Theater Lab. Halfway through the semester she asked us for a list of the things that we hate about theater. We answered, “spectacle for spectacle’s sake,” “men dressed up as women,” “lots of unnecessary shouting,” “pretending to be an animal.” Later we did “screen tests” (à la Andy Warhol, exactly four minutes and 12 seconds long) and revealed what we love about theater. The answers were “because it makes people feel less alone” and “it transcends barriers.”

The things we hate about theater are tangible and accessible. The things we love about theater are conceptual and untouchable. I can point out a man dressed as a woman and Spiderman swinging from the rafters on Broadway; I cannot point my finger at commonality or transcendence. My personal fears are like the hates in theater, very concrete: bugs, illness, nuclear bombs, technology. My loves mirror the abstract way I think of my personal rules: live with integrity, love much/judge little. Who can put their finger on integrity, or love, or judgment?

I don’t know where this instinct to be intangible in love and material in hate comes from. Maybe it’s because contemporary culture seems to focus on things we disdain before noticing things we admire. Then I looked back at my free write from the TLS retreat and thought, “What if I let the positive things become concrete instead of creating rules for my life that I can never actually fulfill?” Instead of the abstract “love much, judge little” how about tomorrow morning I “make sure I ask whoever gives me breakfast how their family is”? As for my fears, perhaps focusing on the material ones is a way to avoid the large ones like “ending up alone, failing my parents, or never finding love.” I wonder and hope, if I shift my life rules to support the day-to-day business of living, perhaps those larger, intangible fears won’t be necessary.

Be willing to make messes

Sometimes Bard students think having the answers is sufficient; they seek to know it all in a land of know-it-alls. The unfortunate corollary to knowing it all is critique; tearing things apart carries the patina of knowing. I detect the edge of this in Meg Gilbert’s reflection on fear and rules. I do not believe critique has ever been enough for making the world. Creating and making are often sloppy business; there are going to be mistakes and variations. Critique tends to be clean. TLS is about creating, often from scratch. Successful projects can be sloppy and full of questions. Sometimes they have begun and we don’t even know it!

For example, after Hurricane Katrina I took a trip to New Orleans with Stephen Tremaine ’07, a Bard student who grew up there. We drove around the muddy streets in Lakeview where the levy failed and looked at houses washed over onto their sides, rode into the lower Ninth Ward, and it was simply gone, a field of mud and weeds in its place. Everywhere was brown—the trees, the roads, the buildings, even the sky, it seemed. We didn’t have a plan. We only knew that Stephen felt an urgent need to participate in the recovery of his home. At the intersection of Claiborne and Napoleon we saw a banner:

Broadmoor Community Meeting
Loyola Campus Center Auditorium
Sunday, 5–6 pm

The meeting was led by an energetic woman named LaToya Cantrell. She showed a slide of the famous Green Dot map that designated the neighborhoods slated to become barren drainage fields. It was clear, listening to the impassioned speakers that afternoon, that the Broadmoor community had no intention of vanishing to the bottom of a pond. When the meeting ended precisely at 6 p.m., Stephen and I agreed we’d found our people. Next day we joined the education committee and learned about Broadmoor’s first priority: recovering the elementary school. At that point; so early in the process, Stephen and I were a third of the voting membership, and we were completely welcomed. During Bard’s winter break, more than 250 of our students traveled to New Orleans. They rented Dumpsters, pried open the doors, and wearing Tyvek suits donated by a construction company in the Hudson Valley, began gutting the elementary school. This is how TLS projects start.

The leadership development program for students at Bard is not based on big ideas. Rather it is the training of the investigative, questioning eye and the nurturing of radical curiosity. We think leadership is the willingness to be surprised, coupled with the nerve to take a risk, joined with the will to act.

Final notes

Meg Gilbert, having graduated, recently worked with performance artist Amanda Palmer on The Bed Show, which premiered at Bard.

Stephen Tremaine is now a Bard employee and runs a wonderful early college program in New Orleans. He is also on the board at Wilson, the rebuilt state-of-the-art charter school in the heart of Broadmoor. Emily Wolff ’10, who ran arts-based workshops in Broadmoor during the summers, was recently named director of the Broadmoor Improvement Agency. Emily frequently schedules activities at the new library across the street from Wilson, in the Green Dot Café.

LaToya Cantrell is a city councilwoman in New Orleans.

And on that day 55 years ago, after my dad stomped away, I found a chisel, butchered the wooden frame, but fixed the doorknob.

—Paul Marienthal, Director, Trustee Leader Scholar Program