In 8th grade, my parents signed me up to take a cartooning class at Hofstra. Although I drew non-stop as a child, this was my first (and only) art class. I was pretty shy, and definitely not the best artist, but I kept myself amused by doodling Al, the white-bearded former Disney animator teaching the class. I studied his spry movements around the room, flitting between students. I tried to capture his voice, gruff from decades of Donald Duck impersonations, equal parts exasperation and enthusiasm. Entire sketchbooks were filled with comics of Al getting irate at an increasingly terrible artist (who kind of looked like me). I still have those sketchbooks. Always will.
Three years later, my mom received a phone call. “Someone named Al wants to speak to you,” she shrugged.
“Alison! Howaya? How’s the family? I’m looking for a new assistant for my cartooning class…”
To this day, I have no idea why he picked me. At that phase in my life, I was not dynamic, nor extremely talented. Like any teenager sick of working retail, I jumped at the chance to earn real money (“No way! $7.50? An hour??”) and to work with a former Disney animator. Because as everyone knows, Disney is the Holy Grail of cartooning. But clearly he saw something in me that I had yet to discover.
Sometimes I had to pinch myself over how lucky I was. The job was wildly entertaining and we worked well together. Al taught me how to interact with students, how to constructively critique artwork without kids noticing, and how hold a room of children captivated during a demonstration.
I patiently explained to him what manga was. When a student drew a cartoon of a boy wearing a pot on his head, I repeatedly steered Al away from naming him “Pothead Boy.” (“Why not? He’s a boy; he’s got a pot on his head!” “Nope, not going to work, Al.” “Meh…what about ‘Pot Boy?”). When he was asked to start a summer cartooning program at Usdan Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, I came with him.
The cartooning program became a runaway hit; a second class was created, and Al pushed to have me become the teacher. Standing in that cabin in the woods with my wacky cartooning students was the moment when I realized: cartooning was a passion; teaching cartooning was my future.
When Al moved to Florida, he brought to Usdan a young man he’d met at an art store. This man had also taught cartooning at Hofstra and Al immediately trusted him to continue the legacy of his cartooning program. Two weeks after meeting this man, we began dating. He is now my husband and father of my two children; yet another gift Al bestowed upon me. When I called him to say that we were getting married, Al was bowled over with joy…but not surprise. Perhaps this man was selected by Al for more than just the role of “cartooning teacher.”
And through it all, Al continued to be a champion of my art. A marker sketch of a basketball player that I’d drawn for my brother’s bar mitzvah sign-in board hung in Al’s classroom for almost twenty years. When I was in high school, I showed Al a book I’d made for my Spanish class, an illustrated story of a mouse’s first doctor’s visit. He loved it so much he asked to borrow it to show some of his Spanish-speaking students. Sixteen years later, my parents received a package in the mail with that book and a note:
“Thanks for the loan!
The last time I spoke to him on the phone, I told him about the birth of my second child. I paused, then thanked him. For everything.
His voice, as it usually did, sounded as if he was was both pissed off at me and also extremely proud (possibly he was pissed off at being proud?). “Whatcha thanking me for? You did everything. You deserve it, kid.”
Like receding lines in a perspective drawing, all strands of my world lead back to one point: Al Baruch. He helped my life take shape; even after his passing, he will always remain a part of my picture.
Ali, What a beautiful tribute! I’m sorry I never knew him. But I’m so glad you did! Love to Derek and the beauties! Rochelle
Sent from my iPad
Thank you, Rochelle.
Very moving story…so happy to read….and ahem who is Usdan???
Hey Ali – we basically have the same story! Usdan, teaching with Al at Hofstra on Saturdays, his gruff voice and his ridiculous enthusiasm. Please tell me he’s not gone and the last sentence of your post was hypothetical 😦
I’m so sorry, Ryan. It’s been wonderful to hear from his other former students/ protégées and see how many other lives he’s touched.