Memorial Day

I received an e-mail yesterday morning from Curt Wittenberg, the son of my fifth grade teacher Eliot Wittenberg. I dedicated my book THE DINOSAURS–A Fantastic New View of a Lost Era to Eliot Wittenberg. I was sorry to hear that Mr. Wittenberg had passed away. I thought the situation that led to my dedication and my response to his son’s e-mail would make an appropriate Journal entry on Memorial Day.

Eliot Wittenberg was one of my favorite teachers at Shirley Avenue Elementary School. He was extremely bright, had a great sense of humor, lots of charisma and in my mind he looked like Clark Gable (mostly because he had a Gable-style moustache — or “cookie duster” as he called it). Nevertheless, one day he caught me drawing in class when I should have been listening. Most other teachers would have punished me. Instead, Mr. Wittenberg looked down at the dinosaur I had drawn and asked if I had any more drawings like that at home. My best friend, Gary Best, laughed and said, “Oh yeah! He’s got a whole book of ’em.”

“It’s my Monster Scrapbook,” I added. “I love drawing monsters.”

“Would you bring it in so that I could see it?”

I agreed. By the end of that school day, though, I realized that Mr. Wittenberg and I had different definitions of “monsters.” I was thinking Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman. He assumed I meant dinosaurs.

As soon as I got home I filled the remaining pages of my Monster Scrapbook with drawings of dinosaurs, so as not to disappoint Mr. Wittenberg. I brought it in the following morning. My teacher carefully perused each drawing, then handed me back my book (which I still have, by the way; I included a few of the drawings from that book in my two Monsters Sketchbook volumes. Thanks, Mom, for saving that book!).

Mr. Wittenberg knew that I had an interest in medicine and wanted to be a doctor. He began to assign me extracurricular activities that involved drawing. He asked me to draw charts for the class depicting the human skeleton, the human musculature system and cross sections of the human eye and ear. I didn’t realize it at the time but those were my very first anatomy lessons.

I believe this careful attention and simple kindness on Mr. Wittenberg’s part were integral to my becoming an artist; hence, the dedication of my first book to him.

Here is the letter I wrote to his son:

Hi Curt,
I am sorry to hear your dad passed away. I had lost track of him (his passing explains why) but still hoped to reconnect with him and tell him again how important he was to me. There isn’t a month that goes by in which I don’t relate the tale of his positive influence on me and, ultimately, my career — usually to teachers I meet, hoping it will have a positive effect on them and the way they see their kids.

When I visited your father and presented him with my book, from the twinkle in his eyes I got the feeling that I was not the first to be so positively influenced by this great man. He had an amazing ability to look beyond the wild, mischievous qualities of youth and see the real person (or their potential) that dwelt inside each kid. He knew that each of us was faced with different paths and choices in life, particularly in our part of the socioeconomic strata back then (my family and the other families in our neighborhood were extremely poor). In his role as a teacher he saw and took advantage of the opportunities to gently guide each of us down the right paths.

Your dad knew I wanted to be a doctor. He had me draw charts for the class depicting the human skeleton, the human musculature system, cross sections of the eye and the inner workings of the human ear. I didn’t realize it at the time but these extracurricular activities were teaching me human anatomy, knowledge extremely valuable to both doctors and artists. I remained a science/math major throughout school with a career in medicine as my goal. I love math and still do algebra problems in my head when I run each day. I use my science background nearly every day to interpret information in scientific papers so that I can apply that knowledge to my reconstructions of prehistoric life.

Ironically, bad teachers can sometimes have an unintended positive effect. My first year was spent at Reseda High School, where I received an outstanding education. Then our family moved to Newbury Park where I went to Thousand Oaks High School. The teachers were pretty awful there. Unlike the L. A. Unified School District in which I had new teachers every semester, the Ventura County school system had us taught by the same teachers for the entire school year. If I got stuck with a bad teacher I had that same teacher for both semesters. Most of the teachers at T. O. High were tenured and could care less whether the kids in their charge were taught or not. A TA in my art class actually asked to borrow my portfolio to pass it off as his own for a college class (I refused)! I regularly received detention for studying in the library instead of attending the mandatory pep rallies for our school’s football team (a misguided attempt by T. O. High to enforce school spirit; it had the opposite affect on me). In my math class, as an experiment, I turned in the same homework everyday for a year. My math teacher never noticed. I realized just before my last semester that I had “lost” two valuable years of math and science education. I felt I would be two years behind my fellow college students if I continued to pursue this direction and changed my major to Art (I had never stopped drawing).

I received a full California State Scholarship to any university in the United States, a result of my near perfect (I got a perfect math score but missed one of the English questions) SAT scores and my family’s dire financial situation. To the horror and disbelief of my fellow students, instead of choosing Harvard or Yale, I decided to use my scholarship to attend the Chouinard Art Institute (California Institute of the Arts). I never looked back; it was one of the best decisions of my life (many of my friends are doctors and they all agree with the wisdom of that decision).

At the end of August I will become a grandfather. As one grandfather to another, I would like to send your grandson a copy of my latest dinosaur book, New Dinosaurs A to Z. It was written as a kids book (adapted by me from my adult version, Dinosaur Discoveries) and depicts and examines 31 dinosaurs discovered within the last twenty years.

Please send me his name so that I might inscribe the book to him (and provide a shipping address) and I’ll get a copy off to you ASAP.

You were lucky to have such a great dad. I wasn’t quite so lucky in that department but I was extremely lucky to have such a great teacher. His memory will live on as long as I have the breath to tell my little tale about the fifth grader whose life was changed forever by the clever kindness of his favorite teacher. What a nice note for me to receive on Memorial Day weekend…Thank you!

Most Sincerely,

Bill

One Response to “Memorial Day”

  1. Rick Tucker says:

    Bill,
    Thank you for sharing that letter and your experience with a truly great teacher. While we share similar experiences in the end my drive for knowledge was actively thwarted (luckily to no avail), not encouraged. However, I did have a few understanding teachers over the years and a few of them even encouraged my artistic and scientific passions. They were the odd ones in that they cared. They were usually young, new or substitutes. The couple of teachers who were exceptions as tenured instructors were short-lived influences, at least in any direct way.
    Thanks for bringing them to mind. I’ll never forget them. It’s funny how the good ones always stay with you despite the passage of time.
    This reminds me of all the rainy days on Terciera in the Azores. I know there were a LOT of them, but the sunny days were so striking and memorable that those rainy days are an afterthought.

    Rick

Leave a Reply