Family Weekend Flashback
One of our most memorable Family Weekend moments came in 2010, when Pen Densham delivered a "parent to parent" keynote address. Pen is an award-winning screenwriter, producer, and director, with an extensive track-record in film and television. He is responsible for writing and producing some of Hollywood's blockbusters, such as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Backdraft, as well as more personal movies like Moll Flanders with Robin Wright and Morgan Freeman. Pen was grateful to be mentored by Norman Jewison, and in turn works frequently with young filmmakers. He has written a book on creative screenwriting as a career called Riding the Alligator.
Below, we happily present the transcript of Pen's keynote for all parents to enjoy!
My name is Pen Densham. My wife is Wendy Savage, a really cool name and a really wonderful lady.
Our daughter is Victoria Densham and she will graduate this December. We love her with every ounce of our souls. And want everything for her that you want for your children.
I clearly remember her as a tiny baby... when I’d tip-toe to her crib in the middle of the night so I could be sure she was breathing.
And that beautiful toddler—hugs and tickles and tantrums. What did we wish for our young ones back then? I think it was that they would be fulfilled as people, that they might live their dreams.
Part of my heart still looks for that little creature around our house. And part of my heart still wants to instruct my adult daughter. For safety—for wisdom?
I think we all have to catch ourselves—it is in our nature to guard and protect. But we are handing our children off to the future. And for Wendy and me, Sarah Lawrence represents one of the best ways to do that.
When I was asked to give this address I was humbled and a little shocked. Who am I to talk about this College? I left school at fifteen in England. Not exactly an advertisement for higher education.
I’m sure any of the parents who are old hands here could talk about their own equally valuable experiences. But I’ll see if I do have some things to share. First, though, I will tell you a little about my own parents.
My mother and father made 35mm Theatrical Shorts when I was a child. I jokingly say my first job in show business was as a 4-year old riding a seven foot live alligator in one of their movies. I am convinced my mother can’t have been there that day!
Seeing my folks reaching for their dream of making movies seeded in me a lifelong desire. I was Mickey Mouse to the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. I yearned to be in the film business.
My mother died when I was 8, and my father then married a very damaged woman. Our home life became pretty “colorful.”
I went to at least nine schools and foster homes and did not take well to being educated. With the best will in the world—to make me their idea of a success—I felt my teachers were trying to clip off the parts of me that made me different or to punish me, and I learned how to duck out.
But I had one teacher, a Mr. Moss, who ignored my hellish handwriting, my abysmal spelling, and my grammar. And who supported me for my creativity. For just being me.
My gut told me school could not get better. I quit at 15 to try and find my dreams. I took a very tough road. My father wanted me to take a job in an electric blanket factory! Luckily the owner saw through my feigned interest in thermal bedding and probably saved some customers from electrocution.
I did not realize at that time what a phenomenon Mr. Moss’s faith in me would become. I also did not realize my passion to be a filmmaker would make me a lifelong learner. And despite some big struggles, I have had an amazing career. Strongly supported by my wife who is a Master of Sciences graduate from the University of Toronto.
As parents from two ends of the education spectrum, how do we feel about our daughter attending Sarah Lawrence?
We both are in awe of the philosophy we see in action here. It’s a pretty amazing place.
Everyone at SLC gets their Mr. Moss. In part through a don who becomes their ally for their entire time at the College.
The College wants you to only take classes that impassion you. They want you to approach the future with eager curiosity, to be a lifelong learner.
One of Victoria’s young friend’s took theater arts and pre-med classes at the same time. Such exploration is normal.
Unlike me, you can’t duck and get lost at Sarah Lawrence, thanks to the intimacy of the Donning and Seminar systems. Heck, you even get to interview your profs before you take their classes. That’s a school that really believes in the students' opinions!
I remember the day I heard that Victoria had visited Sarah Lawrence on her college trip. Wendy and she were getting depressed, no place had panned out emotionally.
And then... Victoria’s voice on the phone after her tour here was full of excitement and the joy of discovery. It was transformational.
To Victoria, a product of a progressive education, the other schools felt cold and uninvolving. Sarah Lawrence felt like a home.
I also discovered the late Joseph Campbell had taught here. He is a patron saint to us screenwriters after his work helped George Lucas formulate Star Wars.
Wendy and I enjoyed the nostalgically painful experience of dropping off our daughter on that first day—so recent for some of you.
We loaded a lifetime of supplies and wild bric-a-brac into a below-ground cubicle with two other dorm dwellers, and somehow it all fit in.
I eyed the showers and facilities and realized how spoiled I was.
We clustered with other watery-eyed adults, sharing a comforting kinship in our unique separations. The older students and dorm RA’s seemed so sophisticated. We just wanted our kids to fit in.
Someone at the staff introductions said they never tell parents to leave—except once when a family seemed to stick around for several days with their youngster. So they gently pushed—but only then.
I asked Victoria what she remembered of that time. She says…
My first week there was a big power outage that lasted more than 24 hours. So with nothing to distract us, we went to events the College planned and met each other and bonded.
Uniquely, she can name eight students named Sarah that she considers close to her. They had to work out systems to shorthand which person was talking about whom.
These friendships have become lifelong emotional allegiances, with many students visiting us in LA and Victoria charging all over the country—literally.
She drove with one graduating student across America this summer as he came from Maine to explore life in California.
To be fair, our daughter didn’t get every class she wanted. Didn’t get the best dorms. Not everyone in a seminar pulls their weight all the time.
But she pointed out seminar style learning, which makes for chances to build friendships, and in the real world people don't pull their weight all the time, either—so it's good to learn some strategies now!
From my perspective as a filmmaker who can immerse himself in the topics that fascinate me, I see the power of students selecting their course choices.
It harnesses their personal fascination to the learning process.
We have heard the occasional grumblings, as you will, while Victoria learned to discipline herself—to struggle and stretch. We also heard about her discoveries.
Her writing skills were encouraged and enriched by taking Alice Truax’s writing course. Alice was an editor of The New Yorker. Victoria immersed herself in medieval history and art history with David Bernstein in three different courses.
She took photography with nationally exhibited photographer Michael Spano. She explored physics with Kanwal Singh, a major force in the field.
And she loved Children’s Literature with “the fantastic” Sarah Wilford, as Victoria describes her.
The breadth of personal study possibilities is breathtaking.
Not every class is perfect every time, but Victoria only dropped one class, ever.
The intimacy has helped her discover herself, given her tools to face adversity, and confirmed her passions, as I am sure it is doing for your children.
And for us?
Thank goodness for cell phones! Those calls where Victoria mentioned in passing how something great had happened, turned Wendy and me on every time. Calls made when Victoria was time-filling, walking from class to class, that often ended when another student met her on the path.
We also watched Victoria experience a couple of bumps in the road.
Sarah Lawrence puts an emphasis on taking time to study abroad and has great support systems to do so.
Victoria elected to challenge herself by not going to an affiliated college like Oxford.
She had engaged in study abroad trips to England in high school. Here, she wanted to try a different academic environment on her own. She was accepted for a year by Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.
We were all very surprised, as was Victoria, as she found herself very unsettled there. We were unsure how to help.
We would get phone calls. And thanks to the time change, frequently in the middle of the night. I discovered that my wife was far more effective at listening and empathizing than I was.
Being a male, I wanted to find facts and fix things.
Victoria just needed to be heard, Wendy was wonderful at 3 a.m.—it made me proud of her. And proud of Victoria for reaching out to expose her feelings, rather than clamming up.
We shared Victoria’s dilemma with staff and faculty at Sarah Lawrence during this time.
We started with Elise Schramm—and I may be letting the secret out—but Elise has been our heartfelt sanctuary several times.
While respectfully keeping Victoria in charge of her own decisions, we have always found the staff big-hearted and encouraging.
With a wealth of comparative student experiences to draw from, their observations helped define and normalize what was new for us.
Elise would feel bad if parents didn’t come to her for help.
To use her words, “She fights long and hard to expand parent outreach.” And it’s not about donations—although they work terrifically hard to earn those from all of us where possible.
It’s about the meaningfulness of the parent involvement. They care.
Sarah Lawrence is deservedly on some charts as the number one best liberal arts college in the country, I think it is. But it also sometimes gets listed as the most expensive.
You all saw the parking lots filled with the Rolls Royces and Bentleys that the faculty own? And the helicopter pad for shopping trips?
I may be a bit dense but it took a while for me to understand why it might be higher in cost than some other places, although only marginally. I realized the intimate student to faculty ratio was part of the cost.
I met one of Victoria’s friends yesterday morning. She had transferred from a university in Michigan. She said they had 500 in a class. I said, “In your year?” “No”, she replied, she took lectures with 500 other students. And with 300 other students in another case. She also stated she felt the professors did not want to meet with the students. To her their attitude seemed to be, “You’re becoming an adult, you go figure it out.” She also believed that the exams were short-changed to deal with the overwhelming numbers. To me that is not an education.
But I also learned from an event like this one, that the College’s founder, William Van Duzer Lawrence, had insisted that the school that honored his late wife should be for wealthy young women only, and he determinedly demanded that theCollege never have an endowment.
Thus it could never open its doors to anything but Vanderbilt debutantes I suppose? And when the College did start an endowment? Being all female back then, it discovered that most big donations were controlled by men… and they sent money to their own colleges and not their wives’ or their daughters’.
Those days are gone—but Sarah Lawrence still fights to catch up. And values your help.
Consider every donation a strike against old Van Duzer’s masculine area of closed mindedness. But as Victoria says, he did a great job modeling the school from John Dewey’s ideas for progressive education.
From Dublin, Victoria engaged with her supporters here and elected to complete only one term and not the year she had originally planned.
She did not get credit.
She watched all her friends graduate last summer and celebrated with them as they moved on in their lives.
Victoria added a semester to her education but that was not painful. She loves it. She is embraced by the faculty.
Besides, she has found pride in overcoming challenges and sees it as a life skill.
She has been told that when she graduates this December—there is a warm and intimate celebration for that, too.
Wendy and I have come to our feelings about Sarah Lawrence comparatively.
Victoria’s older brother, Nevin, went to another East Coast College. A really good one. As parents, though, we feel much more embraced here.
We learned that the Sarah Lawrence is for us too, if we want. To help us grow and change as Victoria grew.
We have always experienced a compassionate involvement by everyone that works here—from Karen Lawrence the President all the way across the system.
We feel guilt-free to ask questions.
We are invited to meet the faculty. We have shared our home for College events.
The school is constantly planning its vital path into the future. And—along with any funds that you can help with—it wants your conceptual input. They would like your own and your student’s experience reflected in their growth.
That’s why, following Norman Jewison’s example of mentoring me to Hollywood, I find time to explore film with young people whenever I can.
I have written a book called Riding the Alligator: Strategies for a Career in Screenplay Writing and Not Getting Eaten.
I have tried to make it both about finding your creative voice and surviving the business. The cover is a photo of me at 4 years old astride that seven foot alligator.
I shared an early copy with Fred Strype who invited me to meet with his film class yesterday. It was exciting and impassioning. Fred is truly dynamic—which is appropriate because our business is changing rapidly.
That’s in part why Fred is exploring how today’s students can make their creative mark digitally for a minute fraction of the cost of the old film world.
We are near the end of the monolithic studio system; there are new digital distribution methods where even students can sell their works.
It was interesting to find we both shared the same rule. We tell younger filmmakers to ignore what we say that goes against their creative instincts. They may be inventing things we haven’t seen yet.
I saw Frank Capra speak—the man who made It’s a Wonderful Life—and he said he felt we were a young art form and we were yet to see our Leonardos and Michelangelos.
With the new digital cameras and an artist’s determination, anything that can be imagined can be visualized.
One other thing I emphasize about the film business and any art form is that you will probably experience a bountiful harvest of rejection. And for that reason the first chapter in my book is on PASSION.
The scripts that I have written from my heart have been produced far more frequently than the ones I contrived to please the studios.
I want to assure young creators that the magic of believing passionately in my goals has pushed me further through more stress and made me fight longer for my treasures in a pretty rugged business. From my observations, faculty like Fred Strype inspire their students in the same way.
Whether in the arts or sciences, the faculty want to help you find who you are… what kind of human instrument is in your nature.
The faculty has faith in you and yearns to help you tune yourself to the world you will go out into. And to keep those special strengths of yours adapting and growing throughout your life.
I asked one of Victoria’s male friends who graduated this summer for any words he wanted to share today.
His name is Jack Arsenault and he said…
It's hard to encapsulate or understand because it's so fraught with fresh emotions.
But I think that the essence of my experience is that the school changed itself to become whatever I needed at the time.
I started at Sarah Lawrence wrestling with myself, the values that I had been imbued with growing up, and what I wanted out of my life.
When I got there, I needed structure, so it gave me a premed path to follow. When I needed to play and create, it gave me an HD camera and an editing suite. (Fred’s film class - Jack had told me he had been inspiring to study with.)
When I needed to feel prestigious, it helped me get an internship at Columbia University doing infectious disease research.
When I needed to prove to myself that I can be an academic, it gave me courses to overload myself with and professors to push me.
When I needed to be part of a team, there was a seat for me on the crew team.
When I needed to re-immerse myself in a passion I thought I had ignored for too long to revive, it gave me 35 hours a week of phenomenal theater classes to enroll in and an abundance of plays to audition for and act in.
I would never tell anyone that it is a perfect place or that I had a perfect college experience.
But the school itself is so beyond open it has endless intellectual resources, that it truly does mold itself to become what you need at every moment.
Truthfully, like Jack, I don’t see this as one College—it is a different College for every person who comes here. It is a place for those who might be ugly ducklings in a rigid educational system but who can become swans here.
In the movie The Graduate, its one key word of advice—other than avoiding Anne Bancroft—was PLASTICS.
Instead of plastics, today’s words are nano, hybrid, solar, genetic engineering, MRI brain research, the Internet, cloud computing, hyper jets, even the iPad!
80% of all medical knowledge has been discovered in the last 20 years. We are living the science fiction that was in my TV shows.
The old business and education models are crumbling under fascinating and massive technological revolutions. No school can teach what has not happened yet.
Just in my industry the change is massive. Only the adaptors will survive.
I love that Einstein said, “Imagination is more powerful than knowledge.”
Through Victoria and her friends, I see that Sarah Lawrence inspires them to be imaginative navigators of that future. They become lateral thinkers who are able to draw from many different disciplines and experiences. Problem solvers who retain morality, charity, a sense of respect for the past and nature, while having faith to imagine or embrace new forms of discovery in their fields.
I might have thrived here. But I know Victoria does thrive here.
When I asked Victoria how can parents help their students in the first year, she said:
Students at Sarah Lawrence are so widely and wildly different that it would be hard to suggest there is any one thing.
Except, I think parents of Sarah Lawrence students probably helped select this school because they want to foster their children’s independence—and this is where it really, really starts.
Quite a few years back, after three studios told me it was kind of dumb—I wrote a story despite them, from passion.
It was Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and it became one of Warner’s biggest grossing movies ever.
I realized I had evolved to trust myself as an artist, and there was a thread tracking back to that teacher that understood me, and how influential he’d been to my self worth.
I tracked Mr. Moss down in retirement.
And thanked him deeply.
Oh—and did I mention our daughter does an enormous amount of her studying with the children at the Early Childhood Center?
She is being introduced to approaches that are on the frontiers of child learning.
She wants more than anything in this world to be a teacher! And Wendy and I are tremendously proud of her for that.
She is not the same person who started as Sarah Lawrence four years ago. She is stronger, deeper, and more independent. Even though that also means independent of us.
We are living to see that tiny person we wondered and dreamed about now being fulfilled.
Parent to parent, I understand and we feel sure that you will find the same experience here for your children.