When people talk about Walt Disney most understand that he was a creative genius, a brilliant observer of life and culture, and a very intelligent and passionate leader. Walt had a Master of Arts degree from both Yale and Harvard, which were awarded in 1938. Which he promptly said he would display next to his high school diploma.
Degrees aside, you don’t often hear too many people discuss Walt Disney the student. If you take the time to read some of the biographical history of his life you will find out that he attended only one year of high school. The Marceline School Board eventually gave him an honorary high school diploma. The Yale and Harvard degrees? They were honorary.
So, what kind of student was Walt Disney?
That is a good question. Well, Walt was known to be a hungry reader, he enjoying the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Horatio Alger (who wrote many stories of people who rose from rags to riches by hard work and honesty), and Charles Dickens. Some have said that Walt over his lifetime read everything that Mark Twain wrote. The stories of Twain impacted him so that he created places in Disneyland inspired by the tales.
It is safe to say Walt was a strong reader, throughout his life he would be an advocate of reading as he became a legendary storyteller. However, if you were to summarize Walt as a student you would have to conclude he was mediocre.
He really struggled in algebra. (as many do) To be fair, he didn’t have much time to study 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. It should be no surprise that he would often fall asleep in class.
In remembering his school days he wrote, “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 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.”
Those memories of principal Cottingham are especially interesting because once, during a geography lesson, Cottingham found Walt not paying attention to the class lesson but instead hiding behind a big geography book drawing cartoons.
You can almost see the action, it is the stuff of a cartoon. A kid is goofing off, hiding behind the big book placed in front of him on the desk, drawing something completely unrelated to the lecture being given. Needless to say, Walt was caught and called to pay attention, but then in a very embarrassing moment, in front of the entire class, the principal reprimanded Walt with the stern prediction: “Young man, you’ll never amount to anything.”
You will never amount to anything!
How often is it that critics are ready to tell us what we can’t be, what we can’t become and what we can’t do? (Now, Walt should have been paying attention, so this is not a defense of goofing off by any stretch of the imagination) But sometimes in our lives we let the voice of our critics ring louder than the voice of our encouragers. Sometimes we believe the word “can’t” or “won’t” has more power than the word, “can” or “try.”
I have no idea what you are good at, I have no idea what you are called to do or become. But I believe that you are uniquely gifted with a special blend of gifts and talents, that if you develop d use them, can make the world a better place. As you share who you are with others, you become a gift to the world and at the same time find a purpose for life that you never knew before.
Now, you have to be realistic. If you are 4 feet tall and weigh a walloping 75 pounds, you are probably not going to be a middle linebacker for your favorite professional football team…but you do have something to offer the world, and it is never too late to be who you were created to be.
You can, you need to try, and you will amount to something!
No doubt about it!
Walt Disney, although embarrassed at that very moment, did not take it too personally. His good nature took over and he remembered the moment. He allowed it to drive him forward. And Walt Disney did not quit!
Walt sent Mr. Cottingham and his family Christmas cards and autographed animation cels as gifts…of course, these came from the very boy who had now 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. No grudge, no hard feelings, no showing off…just a genuine appreciation for those who tried to make him better, study harder, and had poured their life into him.
Walt knew that every moment of life was a gift to learn something. Whether the circumstances were good or bad, you could either gripe or grow. Walt chose to make it a growing moment. He definitely amounted to something.
And so can you…so turn down the volume of the critics in your life. No matter what they might say, allow them to inspire, challenge, and even stretch you to become more than you already are…and don’t quit.
You can and will amount to something.
*Background notes for this article come from a variety of sources including the incredible Jim Korkis, who writes for Mouseplanet. Neal Gabler’s biography of Walt Disney, Bob Thomas’ work, Walt Disney-An American Original, and Louise Krasniewicz, Walt Disney-a biography.