Walt Wednesdays: (Not So) High School Musical

Confession time: I’ve never seen High School Musical. I never had the urge to watch a bunch of happy teenagers dance and sing down the hallways of their high school. Call me a cynic or a hater, but I’ve made it this far without swooning over Zac Efron’s dance moves so I think I’ll be okay. In all actuality, freshman year of high school was a little painful for me. (You try getting through an all-girls Catholic high school! We didn’t dance — we prayed) It’s tough for me to watch these highly fictionalized accounts of how great high school can be. (Unless the movies happen to be directed/written by a guy named John Hughes)

Walt’s first year at William McKinley High School wasn’t very easy either. He tried to make the best of it though by joining the school magazine, The McKinley Voice, as their cartoonist.  Sometimes he was lucky enough to be excused from class so he could draw (impressive clout for a freshman). Drawing was once again, a huge part of Walt’s identity at school. The McKinley Voice described him in a one word epithet — “Artist”.

Like all high school students, he sometimes ditched class (oh don’t lie, you know you did it once or twice) to visit the Art Institute or the newspaper offices — mainly the Chicago Tribune. He idolized the Tribune’s cartoonist, Carey Orr, and after some encouragement from some of the editors on his high school magazine, started taking classes taught by Orr at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts three times a week. He tried perfecting his craft, but through a cartoon class led by LeRoy Gossett from the Chicago Herald, Walt realized that his real talent was in caricature.


Still, it wasn’t enough. Anyone with a passion knows that you could literally sleep, breathe and live in your talent and sometimes, everyday life just continues to get in the way. The summer after his freshman year, Walt was forced to take a job at the O-Zell Jelly factory that his father had heavily invested in. The work was dull (would YOU like to spend your summer constructing boxes and crushing apples?) and he later quit that job to be a substitute mail carrier for the post office. It was hard to figure out what he was doing with his life, (oh, hi, welcome to practically everybody’s problem) but he definitely knew that he would not be returning to high school come the fall.

What Walt also couldn’t ignore was the tumultuous current events unfolding in the Great War. His brothers had already enlisted and Walt felt like he needed to do his part too. Of course, he was rejected because he was only 16 at the time. Then a friend got the idea to enlist in the Red Cross Ambulance Corps to which the age of enlistment was only 17. His parents were completely against the idea of him leaving. His father, Elias, felt that signing the papers certifying Walt’s age would be like signing his death warrant, but finally his mother relented.

At age 16, Walt Disney enlisted in the Ambulance Corps. That is — not until he converted the last digit of the year of his birth on the notarized certificate magically making him 17 years old. Some may call it forgery, but I call it a smart move. Wishing can only get you so far. By hook or by crook, sometimes you have to take what you want because it’s the only way. To me, this was one of the earliest examples of how Walt wasn’t just a dreamer — he was a doer as well.

And this dream would take him all the way to France.


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