Walt's School Daze

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Walt's School Daze

Is a public school education important?

As a former middle-school teacher, I would argue that it is very important—especially those early years of schooling where a student is introduced to different perspectives, different disciplines and struggles to learn how to think.

As a huge Disney fan, I would have to admit that early schooling had little if any effect on Walt Disney, who knew almost immediately that his life path was cartooning and all the other stuff was only valuable if it contributed to that goal.

June marks the 90th anniversary of Walt Disney's only graduation from any school. Walt and his younger sister, Ruth, both graduated from Benton Grammar School in Kansas City, Missouri, on June 8, 1917.

Walt graduated from seventh grade, and he surprised his parents by delivering a patriotic speech to the graduates. In later years, his sister remembered the speech was "something about national or international affairs."

During the graduation ceremonies, Walt drew cartoons in his fellow students' yearbooks. Even then, he was well known as the boy who was going to grow up to be a cartoonist. The principal quipped to Walt's fellow students, "He will draw you if you like." Along with the diploma, the principal gave young Walt a $7 award for a comic character he had drawn.

In May 1963, Walt received a Distinguished Alumnus Award from the Kansas City Art Institute from which he had never graduated. He had taken only a few Saturday morning children's art classes there. He had also received an honorary high school diploma from the Marceline School Board three years earlier in 1960, since he had only attended one year of high school.

"Gosh. This goes along with my honorary high school diploma. I had honorary degrees from Yale, Harvard and [University of] Southern California before word got out that I didn't have a high school diploma. Now I have six high school diplomas," Walt said with a laugh in 1963 at the ceremony.

Walt received honorary degrees from both Yale and Harvard Universities on successive days in June 1938. Neither degree was a doctorate. They were masters of arts.

After the Harvard ceremony, Walt told reporters, "I'll always wish I'd had the chance to go through college in the regular way and earn a plain bachelor of arts like the thousands of kids nobody ever heard of who are being graduated today."

While Walt is rightly respected as an effective educator, he had a very limited formal public school education.

When the Disney family lived in Marceline, Missouri, Walt's dad, Elias, decided that Walt could not attend school until his younger sister, Ruth, was old enough to go as well, because it seemed to be the most practical thing to do. In that way, Walt could look after his little sister and they could share the same classes.

"My birthday came in the middle of the term and you had to be a certain age, so they just said, 'Well, we'll just wait and send him when Ruth can go.' And it was the most embarrassing thing that can happen to a fellow that I had to practically start in school with my little sister, Ruth, who was two years younger," said Walt in later years.

Walt's mother, Flora, was a former grammar school teacher who had taught in the Central Florida area. She homeschooled the children in the subjects of basic arithmetic, reading and writing. She was a good, patient teacher, and Walt loved being home schooled by her.

At age 7, Walt was enrolled in the two-story red brick Park School that held close to 200 children. It was a standard basic education from McGuffey Eclectic Reader. Walt was not an attentive student and was always finding other things that captured his interest, especially cartooning.

His teacher, Miss Brown, arranged the children's seats according to their achievement in class. Walt was placed in a chair near the back door, and the teacher labeled him the "second dumbest" in the class because he wouldn't pay attention.

Miss Brown complained repeatedly, "He was always drawing pictures and not paying enough attention to his studies."

When the Disney family moved to Kansas City, Walt was enrolled at Benton Grammar School. He had to repeat second grade since the teachers felt he hadn't been provided a sufficient education in Marceline. This, of course, meant Walt was almost two years older than most of the other children in his class.

Walt's subjects included grammar, arithmetic, geography, history, natural science, hygiene, writing, drawing, and music. Walt was known to be a voracious reader, especially enjoying the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Horatio Alger (who was famous for his many stories of young men who rose from rags to riches by hard work and honesty), Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain.

Supposedly, Walt read everything that Mark Twain wrote. Walt also enjoyed Shakespeare, but only the parts with battles and duels, and he also loved the adventures of Tom Swift.

However, for the most part, he was a mediocre student. His worst subject reportedly was algebra. In Walt's defense, he didn't have much time to study or sleep at home since he was also handling a newspaper route that required him to get up at 3 a.m. to deliver the morning newspapers, and to rush home after school to deliver the afternoon edition. So, he sometimes caught up on his sleep in class.

"I often think of the days I spent at Benton," Walt wrote in 1940 to one of his former teachers, Daisy Beck. " I don't know whether you remember or not but I participated in several [athletic] events and even won a medal one year on the championship relay team?.Do you remember the time I brought the live mouse into the classroom and you smacked me on the cheek? Boy! What a wallop you had! But I loved you all the more for it. And I can still plainly see the kids marching, single file, into the classrooms to the rhythm of the piano in the hall?I remember how [principal] Cottingham would break in on any classes if he had a new story and all work would cease until he had his fun. He had his faults, but I think of him as a swell fellow."

One time, during a geography lesson, principal Cottingham discovered Walt not paying attention to the class lesson but instead hiding behind a big geography book drawing cartoons. In front of the entire class, the principal reprimanded Walt with the stern prediction: "Young man, you'll never amount to anything."

Walt didn't take offense. He always sent Mr. Cottingham and his family Christmas cards and autographed animation cels once Walt finally amounted to something. He even arranged for the entire Benton school student body to ride buses to downtown Kansas City and see "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" when it came out in 1938.

In fourth grade, Walt's teacher, Artena Olson, assigned the class to draw a bowl of flowers. Being very imaginative and creative, Walt drew human faces on the flowers, and he gave the flora hands and arms instead of leaves. He was reprimanded by his teacher that flowers do not have faces and hands and the assignment was to draw a still life.

In fifth grade, on Abraham Lincoln's birthday, Walt dressed up as the former president, complete with homemade stovepipe hat, crepe hair whiskers and his father's frock coat, and came to school having memorized the Gettsyburg Address. The theatrically costumed Walt delivered a presentation to his class that was so entertaining that the principal took him to all the other classes to repeat the performance. He repeated that same performance the following year.

After graduation, Walt enrolled in Chicago's McKinley High School in the fall of 1917. He would attend high school for only a year before volunteering as a Red Cross ambulance driver in France. Instead of continuing high school upon his return, Walt started his first animation studio, Laugh-O-Grams and his formal public school education was at an end.

The first elementary school in the United States to be named after Walt Disney was in 1956 at Tullytown, Pennsylvania (now called Levittown). The second was in Anaheim in the spring of 1958 and Walt caused a ruckus at the dedication when he declared that school was out for the day and bussed all the children to Disneyland.

The third was built in Marceline in 1960 to replace the Park Elementary School that Walt attended as a child. That year, Bob Moore designed and coordinated the installation of a series of Disney character murals for the school. Walt also gave the school a Mickey Mouse flag; a flag that flew at Disneyland Park; a 55-foot cast aluminum flagpole from the most recent Winter Olympics where Disney provided the entertainment; and school material like playground equipment and a filmstrip projection system. The fourth Walt Disney Elementary School was in Tulsa, Oklahoma (where I was born), in 1969.

It is ironic that a boy who struggled in school and as he said "getting through the seventh grade was one of the toughest trials of my whole limited span of schooling" ended up being universally acclaimed as a major educator and influenced and encouraged so many young minds.

So, as always, here is a special "forgotten" treat for MousePlanet readers to finish off this column.

The Instructor is a magazine devoted kindergarteners to eighth graders (the only grade levels Walt ever attended in a public school) and is filled with tips for experienced teachers, as well as those who are new to the profession or substitutes. The magazine is filled with articles, lessons, plays, etc. that could be used or adapted by teachers.

The January 1955 issue of The Instructor had an article by Walt Disney titled "Children Love Fantasy," and I am reprinting it here since it themes in with Walt and education. Also, it is yet another bylined article by Walt in my personal archives that I think most Disney fans have never seen.

However, while I am convinced that the content comes from Walt, as well as some of the phrases, I think the actual writing may have been done by other hands since it is much more formal and flowery (especially the Wordsworth allusion) than Walt's usual style.

This is probably not unusual since, at the time, Walt was overwhelmed with handling his brand new television show, trying to meet deadlines to get Disneyland opened on time, as well as juggling the responsibilities of his film studio with "Lady and the Tramp" coming out in a few months. While Walt was chastised for his daydreaming in elementary school, I think Walt wanted to take a moment to remind teachers of the value of daydreaming at an early age. Daydreaming in school certainly paid off very well for young Walt.

Children Love Fantasy

by Walt Disney

Nothing is more important in the life of a child than the play of imagination during the formative years. The exercising of his explorative fancy in daydreaming is as necessary to healthy development as bread and milk, joyous physical activity, and parental affection.

Not only do children love the world of fantasy. They live largely in it and are entitled to it as an inalienable right and privilege. They come by it from sources deep and ancient in the make-up of the human race?something so inexplicable as to be truly mystical.

Wordsworth touches it in his "ode on Intimations of Immortality" when he says, "Heaven lies about us in our infancy!" Although the poet's immediate reference was of a religious nature, he also gave it the broader meaning of the guileless young spirit in its first innocent wonder at the world before disillusionment can cloud its paradise.

These are the heroic years of life. The child himself is the hero. Out of his limited experience and observation he shapes his own universe. In it he soars at will beyond his gravity-weighted body, beyond his own shadow. To him it is not a never-never land, but a wonderland?a Possible land?in which magic is the commonplace. Invitation to it is often phrased, "Let's play?let's make believe." But it is always a serious adventure, stirringly real.

In it boy and girl are invincible. Handicaps are wiped out in one mighty leap of fancy. No one can lick the boy, make brighter or funnier remarks, or more readily win the shy attentions of that little charmer in the next block. No adventure is either improbable or impossible. This is the world as it should be?and as it just possibly may be behind the mask of what we so assuredly call reality.

The stuff out of which he?or she?coins this wondrous world comes mysteriously out of the recesses of his own innocent, groping young soul or from books, parents, teachers, and other sources of information considered reliable. Fable and fairy tale which other fantasies have dreamed into some of the world's finest literature and art also contribute to these dream flights.

Let us beware how we curb and check too soon this reassembly of life's facts and aspects into the child's own patterns of how things should be. Let us not in our superior adult way disparage our children's facility in fantasy. There is a profound reason for this creative outlet. It will pass or diminish in due time, regrettably, as youthful ideals have to square with less shining human performance and frailties. But, let us not cut down the young knight in gleaming armor to our own sober adult size before he has had his glorious fling of the spirit.

Artists, storytellers, poets, the classicists of fairy tale and fable, merely have the courage to put their daydreams into word shapes and picture-shapes that have common and universal and timeless appeal.

Children come upon these treasures fresh and eager, happy that respected and famous grownups also are familiar with the people and the affairs, the manners and the places of wonderland. They are thus confirmed in their own love of fantasy.

To these sources of childhood delights, the theater must of course he prominently added. Nowhere else can the drama of fantasy be so excitingly projected as on the movie screen. Nowhere else can the legitimate love of fantasy be more appealingly entered into.

The word "escapism" is often applied to theatrical flights away from earth-bound reality. But, sometimes I feel that we can beat escape back to basic realities through the very portals of fantasy?to that freehold of the unfettered spirit where "heaven lies about us", as in childhood, before "shades of the prison house begin to close upon the growing boy", as Wordsworth has reminded us.