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World Tour

An Encounter With the Caped Crusader of Cartography


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It's early on a sunny December afternoon, and sunlight streams through the windows of the Edward Hartigan School gymnasium on South State Street. Along one wall two young boys are watching a television monitor and toying with the camera that is aimed at a large map. Mr. World has been setting up the apparatus for the last few minutes.

"You guys know where Chicago is?" Mr. World asks the boys. "Come on up and show me where Chicago is."

Mr. World is 50 but he possesses an intensity that makes him seem ageless. He is tall and spare and his bushy beard matches his gray hair. He's wearing a black turtleneck, black pants, black shoes, and a blue cummerbund with a red logo over the abdomen that reads "National Geography Awareness Week--Citibank." On request he will pull up his trouser cuffs to show off his multicolored world-map socks.

Mr. World is also wearing a multicolored silk cape with a physical map of the world embroidered on it: the oceans are deep blue, the deserts orange and yellow, the forests and grasslands green, the mountains white. The cape glimmers in the sunlight pouring through the window, and it will look fine in the pictures a USA Today photographer is preparing to take. She has already set up her lights along the gym wall, but it looks like she won't need them.

The boys stroll to the map and the older of the two, about ten, looks vaguely at the vicinity of North Africa.

"Where's North America?" asks Mr. World, undaunted. "Show me where North America is." He points out the continents, narrows down the options. "And what big body of water is Chicago on? Which one of those lakes is Lake Michigan?"

Once the older boy has pointed to the southern end of the royal blue lake, which he can hardly reach, the boys go back to their camera and monitor.

"You see?" Mr. World says. "You find such a wide span of geographic awareness in kids. There are a lot of factors that go into it. And kids in one city aren't more geographically aware than in another. Kids in San Francisco know about continental drift and plate tectonics. Kids here are not going to know as much about earthquakes, but they'll know more about the Great Lakes."

And Mr. World should know, because he has been traveling the country these last three years preaching the gospel of geography, telling kids that geography is one of the best ways to know themselves. In Chicago he is doing 11 shows in three days, and sometimes things get a little hectic. Today Mr. World has already done shows at a school on the west side and at the Shedd Aquarium, and he has explained his view of geography in a van speeding through downtown lunchtime traffic.

Mr. World goes by the name William Fritzmeier when he's not on the road. He was a professional storyteller and ex-schoolteacher in Rhode Island two years ago when he heard of a program run by the National Geographic Society and funded by Citibank that was aimed at enhancing geography education. Mr. World says the society was sending teaching kits to schools, but it was looking for something "more electrifying." With his height, beard, and background in education, Fritzmeier was a shoo-in to become the character he refers to as "the caped crusader of cartography."

Now Mr. World visits up to ten cities a year, a week at a time, doing shows at schools, museums, and Citibank branches. His mission: to "try to stimulate interest in geography, not as trivia, but as an attitude--as appreciating not just diversity but commonness too. Say a kid takes his shirt off at night and sees it's from Malaysia. How did it get there?

"Kids' geography is defined by their own experience. In Illinois, they think the Mississippi is the world's longest river, because they're familiar with it. But none of them think the highest mountain is in Illinois. Did you know the top of the Sears Tower is the highest point in Illinois?"

At 1 PM the students start into the gym from a door at the back, several hundred fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders shepherded by their teachers. "I remember him," one girl says, pointing at Mr. World, recalling last year's visit. The kids file into the rows of seats according to their classes. They are noisy but they're kept in check by teachers sitting on the ends of the rows.

Mr. World stands in front of his map. The cape's shimmering colors contrast quite nicely with the map's matte tones--the photographer should be pleased. Mr. World begins talking in a deep voice and cuts right to the quick.

"Last year we talked about the world, and about geography, and about the theme 'Geography, Window on a Changing World,'" he says. "And how the world has changed in a year! Why, just in a weekend you get new countries coming into existence! You get new associations of people! The world is changing at such an enormous pace that it's hard to keep up! In fact, if you look at the map, it's the same map I had last year. Can anyone tell me a mistake that shows up on this map? Can anyone tell me something that's different now than a year ago?"

"Russia!" a boy eventually yells.

"Russia! What about Russia? Russia's changing so fast it's hard to keep up! There are countries over here that were a part of the Soviet Union, and now they're independent countries! They should show up in different colors!"

Mr. World emphasizes some words as if to underline his own astonishment at the pace of events. His talk will run 40 minutes or so and in that time he will touch upon some 30,000 years of human wandering, from the settling of North America by Asians who walked across the Bering Strait to Marco Polo, Columbus, Magellan, Lewis and Clark, and more.

Mr. World punctuates the talk with gestures. "Now, all of this took soooo much time," he says, and pulls his hands apart to convey a great span of time, "and if only we had written records to help us understand more of that early development, we would see pictures of history unfolding that were filled with excitement and discovery. The discovery of bronze, a mixture of tin and copper [he makes two fists and puts them together, as if pulling the idea of civilization out of thin air] that gave people a metal that ushered in a whole new age, the Bronze Age, after the Stone Age. And we're talking about people thousands of years ago!"

Mr. World works his audience like an evangelist. His spiel reaches a crescendo when he recounts one of his favorite voyages.

"Hanno of Carthage set out around 400 BC with 30,000 people, boys and girls, 30,000 people and 67 ships, traveling down through here to explore the west coast of Africa. Hanno of Carthage kept close records--not himself, but one of his sailors--close records of what they found. And one of those records is fascinating to read because it describes as they sailed into what we now know as the Cameroon, the sky filled with fire, and flames shooting from the earth! And sending SPARKS FLYING out across the sky! Down onto the land and onto the water! And even onto the ships of the Phoenician traders. What do you think they were looking at for the first time they'd ever seen anything like this? WHAT DO YOU THINK? It wasn't a fireworks display by the people who lived there! Anybody have any idea what they saw?"

"A volcano?" asks a thin voice from the rear of the audience.

"That's right! They were looking at Mount Cameroon, an erupting volcano! And they saw something that terrified them! They thought the gods were angry! They didn't understand the full implications of geophysical phenomena!" He waves his hands back and forth, as if describing a full-figured woman. "And so they ceased their explorations!"

And if there is any sin Mr. World opposes in his preaching, it is ceasing exploration; the whole point of his talk is to tell the kids you are an explorer, I am an explorer, everyone is an explorer, because to live means to explore, even as Mr. World's visit to Chicago to spread this gospel is an exploration for him. But there is a schedule to keep to, and by the time Mr. World is winding up this presentation half an hour later, one of his assistants, a woman from the PR agency that has organized the tour, is standing in the rear of the gym looking at him and drawing an index finger across her throat. Mr. World is posing with four students, and everyone has to wait until the flash on the school administrator's camera has been recharged and the picture can be taken.

On the way out of the gym one class shows Mr. World the pictures they have drawn of familiar places--a learning activity he suggested during his visit last year. The drawings show the Robert Taylor Homes, downtown office buildings, and many versions of the Sears Tower. "That's nice," says Mr. World. "Did you guys know the Sears Tower is the highest point in Illinois?"

He's not done yet. There are still the "Geo Time Capsules" put together by two classes, which consist of photographs, letters, a toothbrush, a belt buckle, and other traces of life in 1991, which are not to be opened until 2001; they need to be buried in the schoolyard with Mr. World's assistance. And then he must visit class 205, up on the second floor, and trace some of the children's family roots for them on the world map and conclude by having the entire class chant with him "I am an explorer!"

"Geography is the study of you," Mr. World says. "Well, I'm going to have to go now because there's so many other schools to see, so many other places to go. Where are we going this afternoon?"

"A bank," says one of his assistants.

"A bank! Going to do a show at a bank! All right!" He heads for the door, stops to shake hands with a couple of kids, and is out the door in a swirl of color, heading for the van and for the distant office buildings up State Street glinting in the sun.

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