A couple of days ago, my friend Howard Blumenthal sent along this essay that his 86-year-old father wrote in response to a post here about online learning from a few weeks ago. I thought it might make for some uplifting Sunday reading, so I’m sharing it here. Enjoy!
By Norm Blumenthal
As the fourteen year old son of a widowed mother in 1939, I had to contribute to the lowly household income. As a teenager, any dreams I had for my own future had to be secondary. Supporting my mother was most important. After school and on weekends, I worked at the local hardware store, but I spent most of my spare time drawing pictures. Sure, I played lots of street games, but had more fun drawing pictures of my favorite baseball players. To me, drawing was like a hobby, or a game I seemed to enjoy.
To another person in my young life, it seemed to be more than a mere hobby. Mr. Solomon Schwartz, my elementary school art teacher, was a talented artist in his own right, but far more adept at guiding young hopefuls like me. With his encouragement, and his unrelenting perseverance, he made it possible for me to apply to New York City’s prestigious High School of Music and Art. Thanks to Mr. Schwartz, I passed the entrance exam and was on my way to join the Old Masters.
Surrounded by other talented Young Masters, I quickly realized I was in the wrong place. The High School of Music and Art prepared students for further education at the finest of art institutions. That was not something I could do, not with my responsibilities at home. I simply didn’t have time for that kind of education. I needed to support my mother. I needed to finish high school as soon as possible, and get a paying job. What’s more, I was failing French. In addition to that, keeping up with my classmates, while feeling guilty about being in this luxurious place, made me wonder about my own artistic abilities. Was I good enough? Was Mr. Schwartz wrong about me? With apologies to him, I decided to call it quits and change the type of school I should attend. With my family responsibilities, perhaps I should attend a high school that teaches students how to use things like typewriters and other vital instruments of the business world.
Abandoning the creative life of music and art was not as simple as I imagined. Radical changes to an educational agenda, by a fourteen year old, are rarely considered. Even a note from my mother was insufficient. It took the influence of my uncle, a member of the school board, to switch me over to a seemingly more practical existence.
Without much concern from anyone, especially a teacher, with the foresight I lacked, I transferred to Eastern District High School. This is where teenagers from my part of Williamsburg, Brooklyn went to get a diploma, if not a complete education. Fortunately, I didn’t have to take a test to get in, but I did have to face another fear-inducing French class. After a two terrifying weeks, my French teacher, Mrs. Cozzens, asked me to meet with her after class. I was doing very badly, and assumed she would either help me or suggest some dire alternative. I even thought I was going to be expelled. I was partially right. She definitely wanted me to leave that school, but not for my difficulty with the French language. Somehow, Mrs, Cozzens had seen my artwork, and decided to change my life. She told me it was “a crime to waste my talent at a school like this.” Like Mr. Schwartz, she was a very persistent guardian angel. She would not rest until this wrong was corrected, even though the school year had already begun. I explained why I had left Music and Art, but she would not give up. Within days she found the school she knew was right for me. The School of Industrial Art’s slogan was, “To Train Artists and Designers for Industry.” Even to a fourteen year old me, that made good sense – upon graduation I could become a commercial artist, and get a job to support my mother. I never really thought of myself as a potential Old Master, so Industrial Art seemed like a very good idea.
I’m sure that both Mr. Schwartz and Mrs, Cozzens are long gone, but I wanted to thank them anyway. Their confidence in me, and the determination they exhibited on my behalf, not only helped me, but countless others as well. First and foremost, I was able to support my mother at a time when she really needed me. Second, my life at the School of Industrial Art included a lot of working in live shows – which I produced, directed, wrote and performed in. As a Navy signalman, aboard a cruiser in the Pacific, during WWII, sharpened those skills, putting on shows for my 1,500 shipmates. Those war-weary sailors can thank those, and other teachers, who taught me how to make them laugh when it was so difficult. Third, I worked for several years as a commercial artist, working my way up to Art Director at Esquire magazine, and then I made the transition to television, as the producer of NBC‘s Concentration. Fourth, those teachers reached through several generations, as two of my (now grown) children have found careers in the media/entertainment business, and two of my grandchildren are heading in a similar direction (one, as a graphic designer, the modern-day equivalent of a commercial artist.).
Why did I write this? Because I’m hearing more and more about online courses that may take the place of teachers. And I can‘t help but wonder what would have happened in my life if my French class had been an online course..