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Moving Pictures

As the youngest child and only girl in a family of naturally athletic boys, I was never allowed to forget that I threw “like a girl.” I grew up in an era when girls weren’t encouraged to be leaders; we were coached, unconsciously or otherwise, to follow and demure. I responded to this mid-century gender repression by taking my dolls and my drawings underground, where we safely frolicked in the land of my imagination.

When I arrived at Sarah Lawrence, I was ill-prepared for a rigorous intellectual life. Academically unchallenged to that point, I had powerful creative intuitions but no idea how to absorb an education. Over time, however, and guided by my beloved don, Hyman Kleinman, I developed a keen ability to dissect stories both ancient and modern and to uncover their deepest meaning. I studied printmaking with the kind and brilliant Ansei Uchima, and I flitted between the experimental theater program run by the quirky, provocative John Braswell and the more classic program run by Charles and Gloria Carshon.

These years of working with story, character, and image elevated my creative skills, yet I was unsure how to make use of them. Then I read an article in The New York Times about Agnes Varda and Lena Wertmuller. I had never seen nor heard of a woman directing films, even though I had been on professional movie sets all my life, having worked regularly as a child actress. Suddenly, I understood that making films would be the logical, organic nexus of my passions. Yet although I was sure of my ability, I didn’t know whether I had the right kind of character for such daunting work.

Not long after I began to mull my future, I was walking from the New Dorms toward Westlands when a group of beat-up trash cans caught my attention. One of the great daily joys of attending Sarah Lawrence is beauty. It is a graceful, elegant campus, and this ugly, stinky garbage area conflicted horribly with the charming architecture and well-manicured wisteria. Although I had walked past this designated garbage area for years, it was suddenly clear that this oversight had to be rectified.

I looked around for a few moments and a plan took shape in my mind. I saw the need for trash disposal in that area of campus, but I also saw how to satisfy that need in an unobtrusive fashion.

I don’t know what compelled me to do it, but I marched upstairs to Angel Moger’s office—she was interim dean of studies at the time—and requested a meeting. The secretary informed me that meetings with the dean required advance scheduling, but when I told her it was just a little thing and would only take a moment, she took pity on me.

Ms. Moger wore a cardigan and an easy smile as she ushered me into her office. She had a perfect view of the garbage site from her window, and we stood side by side as I pointed and explained my observations. She jumped right in with questions, and after a few moments of discussion, she picked up the phone and called Frank down in Buildings and Grounds. That very day, the College implemented my plan and moved the trash cans.

That moment made a huge impression on me. I had been taken seriously, treated with respect, and made to feel that my ideas were strong. And it’s uncanny that Ms. Moger knew just what I needed at just that moment. I believe this is one of the little miracles of a Sarah Lawrence education: It’s not always what’s happening inside the classroom that shapes the experience. How many college deans would have opened their door to an unknown kid? And how many of them would consider sanitation removal a worthy topic of discussion? How many of them could intuit and care about a child’s psychological need?

A film director must be able to think clearly on her feet and effectively communicate a plan. That day in Westlands, I discovered I could do both. I walked out of the dean’s office and into the world of filmmaking, newly equipped with the confidence to be a leader.

Action!

This ugly, stinky garbage area conflicted horribly with the charming architecture and well-manicured wisteria.

Rachel Feldman ’76 is a film/television director and screenwriter who lives in Hollywood with her husband, Carl Tillmanns MFA ’76, daughter Nora ’10, and 13-year-old son Leon. After graduating from SLC, she received an MFA in film from New York University. Most recently, she directed multiple episodes of Beyond the Break, currently airing on The N, and wrote Love Notes, produced for Lifetime Television. She laments that this year, women directed only five percent of Hollywood film and television productions.