David Bruce: Education Anecdotes


Salvador Dali with Babou, the ocelot and cane. (Public domain, via Wiki Commons)

Spanish artist Salvador Dalí attended Madrid’s San Fernando Institute of Fine Arts, where he was a good student. Often, he worked so long and so hard on his art that by the time he showed up at the student dining hall everyone else had eaten and the dining hall had closed. His teachers knew that he was exceptional. To be admitted to the school, he was supposed to turn in a drawing of a certain size to be evaluated. His drawing was the wrong size, but the evaluators knew that his work was exceptional and so they admitted him anyway. Salvador, though young, knew more than his teachers in many ways. He was interested in technique, but his teachers thought that the most important thing in art was emotion. Most of the students agreed with the teachers. One exception to bad teachers was José Carbonero, one of whose students had been Pablo Picasso, but the students did not respect Mr. Carbonero. This shocked Salvador. “The pupils laughed at him,” Salvador later wrote. They laughed “at his coat, the black pearl stickpin he wore in his tie, and his white gloves. His skill was unmatched, but no sooner did he turn his back than the little upstarts erased his corrections, which in fact reflected the gifts of a true master. I preferred to keep apart from that bunch of loafers and idiots, and go on with my Cubist experiments.” Salvador read art journals and studied contemporary artists whom the teachers knew nothing about. His teachers did not know anything about Cubism! When he had completed his course of study and was supposed to take a final oral exam to get his degree, Salvador showed his contempt for his teachers. The students were supposed to talk intelligently on a topic drawn at random. Salvador was supposed to speak about the Renaissance artist Raphael, whom he had studied in detail, but Salvador did not talk about him. Instead, he told the jury of professors, “Gentlemen, with all due respect it is impossible for me to talk about this in front of these three professors because I know much more about Raphael than all of you put together.” Perhaps needless to say, Salvador was not awarded a degree.

Jesse Jackson was greatly influenced by his sixth-grade teacher, Sara Shelton, who shocked him and her other students on the first day of class when she wrote a number of hard words on the chalkboard. Someone in the class told her, “Uh, Mizz Shelton? Those are eighth-grade words. We only in the sixth grade here.” She replied, “I know what grade you are. I work here. I know what grade I’m teaching. And you’ll learn every one of these words, and a lot more like ’em ’fore this year is over. I will not teach down to you. One of you brats just might be mayor or governor or president someday, and I’m gonna make sure you’re ready.” She then turned back to the chalkboard and wrote more hard words.

In 1960, Roy Lichtenstein started teaching at Douglass College (the women’s college of Rutgers University). There he became friends with Rutgers art history teacher Allan Kaprow. In a conversation, Roy explained that he was using the paintings of Paul Cézanne to teach his students color. Allan saw a Double Bubble cartoon, and he told Roy, “You can’t teach color from Cézanne; you can only teach it from something like this.” Allan remembers, “He looked at me with the funniest grin on his face.” Roy said, “Come with me.” He then showed Allan one of his newest works: an abstract painting in which Donald Duck appeared. Soon Roy began to paint big paintings of cartoons, and soon he began to become famous.

The young Warren Buffett was a master at psyching out his classmates in typing class during the days of typewriters when you had to manually move the carriage back to start a new line of writing. Whenever the class had a speed-typing test, young Warren would race through the first line so he could slam back the carriage. He says, “Everybody else would stop at that point, because they were still on the first word when they would hear my ‘ding!’ Then they’d panic, and they’d try to go faster, and they’d screw up. So I had a lot of fun in typing class.”

Flannery O’Connor used to take castor-oil sandwiches to the St. Vincent’s Grammar School for Girls she attended in Savannah, Georgia. Why? She didn’t want to share her lunch with the other students. Later, she attended the Peabody School in Milledgeville, where she was required to sew a set of clothing for her Home Economics class. On examination day, she brought her pet duckling and the set of clothing she had made to school. The set of clothing consisted of underwear and outerwear — all created to fit the duck.

When Francesca Gallio, age 11, interviewed TV celebrity Simon Cowel, she discovered that he actually considered himself “one of the worst-behaved people in school” when he was a kid. That is, when he got to school. One of his tricks to get out of school was to put a cup of hot tea on his head for 30 seconds or so, and then say, “I’m not feeling very well, Mum. Can you feel my head?” Of course, his head would feel hot, as if he had a fever, and he got to stay home from school.

For a while, when he was a child, Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges studied in Switzerland. He was popular, and he studied hard, but he failed a final examination in French, although he passed every other examination. The other students in the class appealed to the headmaster to consider young Jorge’s effort and progress while studying in a language that was not his own. The headmaster listened to the students and allowed Jorge to advance a grade.

Like many conductors, Leopold Stokowski conducted without a score. This led to a misunderstanding, as a woman once said, “Isn’t it a shame that the wonderful Mr. Stokowski can’t read a score? Imagine, how great he would have been if he only knew how!”


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