Alumni Association

University of Colorado Boulder

Creating a Fairy Tale

By Len Barron (A&S’67)

Len BarronOn June 20, 1963, I began my freshman year at the University of Colorado Boulder. I was 30 years old. Since I graduated high school in 1951 I had read maybe a half-dozen books and hardly wrote anything except for an occasional letter or card. But I knew how to show up to class and that proved to be a valuable asset in doing what needed to be done.

It was a wonderful time to be at the university. Beyond classes, there was the energy and ideals inspired by the civil rights movement along with such programs as the Peace Corps and Vista. There was a spirit of possibilities in the air. I remember sitting in a packed Glenn Miller Ballroom listening to a group of students and faculty members who had returned from working in a voter registration drive in Selma, Ala.

I sold my car and during the next years I rarely got into an automobile. It was an unexpected luxury and was free — my legs took me most anywhere I wanted to go. And then there was the campus—stately older buildings, sprawling lawns and many trees, a few of which were planted when the university first opened its doors. It was utterly beautiful and it was my home.

My sophomore year I attended a talk by philosophy professor David Hawkins who with his wife Frances, a brilliant teacher, created the Mountain View Center for Environmental Education, a program at the university founded by the Ford Foundation. The center was grounded in the inherent interest of a child and was an important resource and influence for many elementary school teachers in the area. Before long it served as a model for programs in other parts of the country.len barron flower

The title of his talk was “Living in Trees.” It was an expression of his theory of education. He explained that education was not like a ladder one climbs to gain knowledge by climbing one rung after another. Rather, he said, it was like a tree and wherever there was a curiosity, there sprouts a twig. Near the end of the talk he said, “The proper study of mankind is children.” I loved the idea but didn’t quite know what it meant.

Two weeks later I went for a walk with Thea Bent. She was two years old. She was like a puppy — sniffing, touching, honing in on some tiny particular and moving about as in a dance. She had a large capacity for enjoyment. So on a walk around the block I gained a sense for what David Hawkins had inferred — we see the wonder and awe within us all in a child.

In the summer 1965 I enrolled in a work-study course and was assigned to the Boulder Juvenile Court. Along with my work in the program, I met with people in a number of community agencies, including the Head Start Program in the public schools, a disability program, the YMCA and a recovering tuberculosis sanitarium for Navajo children. I spoke with them about providing student volunteers for their programs and they welcomed the possibility. During the summer I laid out a plan to get it started.

The week before school began in the fall, eight students joined the project. The first week of school we spoke in many classes and the Colorado Daily, the school newspaper, ran a two-page spread describing the volunteer positions. In the second week 427 students volunteered. Within three years the Clearing House, as it was named, was one of the largest student volunteer programs in the country. The Clearing House continues 47 years later to offer students the opportunity to be engaged in the community.

LenWithEinsteinPosterAs I came into my senior year, I still had not completed the university’s two semester physical science requirement and found out it could be completed with two five-week summer courses.  I ruled out physics, chemistry and biology and signed up for geology.

It turned out to be a terrific course. The professor had an easy, playful manner and along with stories of geological evolution, he tossed in stories about human evolution. One morning he talked about a study he had done in Zion National Park. He said that while gazing on a rock formation a quote from Einstein came to mind. He shared the quote with us: “Many times a day I remind myself that my inner and outer lives are built upon the labors of my fellow men and women, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must work in order to give as much as I have received and continue to receive.”

For a moment there was a stunning silence in the room—and then he said to the class, “Why don’t you put a stone in your pocket, talk a walk and ponder that idea.” And so I did. It was the first of many walks I took with Einstein in my thoughts. That was in 1966.

Sometimes it takes years for an idea to unfold as it did with my interest in Einstein. In fall of 1988 I was in a board meeting in Boulder for Parenting Place, a program for parents and their young children. We talked about raising funds, and I explained that for years I’d been thinking about creating an Einstein theatre piece. My idea was for the first performance to serve as a benefit for Parenting Place. The board endorsed the idea. The next day I rented the theatre space in CU’s Old Main for two weekends in the following September 1989. And so appeared Walking Lightly…A Portrait of Einstein.

Since that time I’ve presented the work for audiences across the country and also have worked with students and faculty at all levels, sharing Einstein’s perspective on education. I don’t play Einstein.  I am the spinner of the tale.

The grand gift for me in all the work I’ve done with Einstein has been getting to know Niels Bohr, the other giant of 20th century physics. My deep affection for Bohr began when I read about his relationship with his grandchildren. He read them the old fairy tales he had been read to as a child. The children had their favorite tales and often one of them would shout out, “Oh grandpa, read that again, please, please.” And Bohr would shake his head and read it again as if he were reading it for the first time. So in 2009 I presented Einstein and Niels Bohr…A Fairy Tale.

In this fairy tale we learn from Einstein and Bohr that knowledge and skills alone cannot lead humanity to a happy and dignified life. Something more is needed to produce a truly educated person.

The magic for Einstein and Bohr was in the something more—a mix of fairness, beauty and playfulness—the building blocks, the energy field for encouraging wonder, discipline and a generous heart. The proof is in the pudding. Find anyone whose life is grounded in these qualities and you will be in the company of someone who lives a fertile life and is dearly loved. It is a beautiful equation.EinsteinBohrSketchC

Imagine any setting at home, work or in the street in which these qualities set the tone for the time. Imagine sending your child off to school where fairness, beauty and playfulness fill the air in the classroom, hallways and in the neighborhood.

Imagine that.

I had been presenting the theatre piece for audiences ranging from 500 middle school students to scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. And then came a little twist. In February 2012, I began a five-week workshop with students at Catalyst High School in Lafayette, a few miles from Boulder. We met for 90 minutes twice a week, and in the course of the workshop the students wrote their responses to the Einstein/Bohr Fairy Tale and how it was relevant to their own daily lives. The students also began to rehearse their parts for their performance.

It was nicely received by their school peers and I was struck by the impact made by the ensemble nature of the presentation. The variety of voices sharing the Einstein and Bohr stories added an element of attention and power to the material. I was touched by the difference.

Len performing for a group of studentsA bit of time passed and in early June a thought came to my mind to present the theatre piece with a cast of grandmothers. Over the next weeks I rented the performance space at the Dairy Center for the Arts in Boulder and invited eight grandmothers to join the project. The rehearsals began in September and on Oct. 4 and 7, 2012, we presented, Einstein, Niels Bohr and Grandmothers…A Fairy Tale.

The mix of Einstein, Bohr and grandmothers is fertile territory for taking a look at what matters. Here is the last part of the fairy tale. It is on beauty and commonality:

“We can only speculate about what Einstein and Bohr would share with us if they were around today. Given their sense of wonder, they might well remind us that time was invented so we could change our minds. It is an evolutionary gift.”

Guiding their thought and work, two considerations were paramount. The first was beauty. Einstein said, “Beauty is the first test.” Whatever the inquiry, the solution was to be found in discovering the beautiful.

The beauty in the structure of the stars or in a single atom is also true of human experience, for that which sustains life is beautiful—kindness and empathy, curiosity and courage, a grand sense of play and a profound regard and love for the natural world. The sages of all time have been sharing that lesson. In our own time, writer and naturalist Terry Tempest Williams writes, “Beauty is not optional; it is essential to our survival as a human species.”

The second consideration is Einstein and Bohr were always on the lookout for unifying principles. In  humans the details are race and religion, gender and nationality—all interesting details— but nevertheless only details. The root, the grand commonality, is we are all mothers and fathers, whether we have children or not; it’s built in.

Nothing in the human experience is as powerful as the love that parents feel for their children. Whatever its frailties, that relationship remains our clearest expression of love and support. And if that relationship is the bedrock of human life, it is also true that parents in every corner of the earth have more in common with each other than they do with certain policies of their own governments. Therein lies the common ground from which we can move on.Len talking with students

In the early years of the 20th century, Einstein and Niels Bohr gave us a new story about the nature of the universe; and now they offer a fresh and bold story for the years ahead.

These two men were reared on fairy tales — so they learned at an early age to believe impossible things. For Einstein and Bohr, fairy tales are the embodiment of our highest ideals, our sense of the possible. Fairy tales are the seeds for a state of mind.

len barron head shotSo, if Einstein and Bohr were around today they would offer a fairy tale for people of all ages. An Einstein/Bohr fairy tale is one in which everyone is rooting for everyone.

Imagine that. Everyone rooting for everyone. “

Len Barron (A&S’67) is an educator, playwright, director, performer, writer, dancer and kitsch gardener. He attended CU when he was 30 years old after years spent hauling scrap iron, selling magazines and driving a taxi. Since receiving his master’s degree from the Antioch-Putney Graduate School in 1969, he has made contributions to several education projects including founding and directing a school for former high school dropouts. He has taught at CU, San Diego State University, Prescott College and Dull Knife Memorial College on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana. He also was an interviewer on KGNU, an independent community radio station in Boulder, for 10 years.   


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