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Mr. World : Geography Teacher Gives His Lessons a Global Appeal

February 07, 1991|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The tall bearded man strides through the halls of Westwood Elementary School, making sure the youngsters can see that his bright silk cape is really a map of the world.

"Are you a priest?" one little girl inquires tentatively.

"No, I'm a geography teacher," answers William Fritzmeier, or Mr. World, as the caped cartophile is called when he visits schools. On Tuesday morning, Mr. World was at Westwood Elementary in West Los Angeles, teaching a lively geography lesson to more than a 100 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders in the school auditorium, then visiting them briefly in their classrooms.

In his custom-made cape and map-of-the-world socks, purchased at a Washington shop that caters to geography buffs, Fritzmeier is a man with a mission. Sponsored by Citibank MasterCard and Visa, he is on a 10-week tour of the United States, trying to fight geographic illiteracy by turning children on to the study of the world and its people.

If recent polls are to be believed, Mr. World's work is cut out for him. Ignorance about geography is appalling, particularly in the United States. Fritzmeier cites a 1988 Gallup poll that showed that one in seven Americans couldn't locate the United States on an unmarked map. One in four couldn't find the Pacific Ocean.

A 49-year-old professional storyteller and former teacher, Fritzmeier urges the young audience to speak up when they answer his questions about where things are and how they relate to each other and to us.

"Pretend we're on the playground and you're shouting to your best friend Esmerelda," he urges a little girl who whispers when called on.

His props include a gigantic political map of the world, with the borders of the various countries in place but the names left off. The map wobbles when children come up to it to slap a picture of an oil well on Saudi Arabia or a picture of a kangaroo on the continent of Australia.

Mr. World uses the headlines to engage the children's interest. He talks about the drought in California, the destruction of the Brazilian rain forest, the fall of the Berlin Wall. An adult observer is amazed at what the children know--and what they don't. "What country is south of us?" Mr. World asks, and the children fumble for the right answer, proposing South America and Brazil before they hit on Mexico.

But when Mr. World asks what the impact of the cutoff of water to California farmers is likely to be, a youngster gives a sophisticated answer about the likely increase of the cost of farm products and the probable decline in the farmers' standard of living. "I think I should give him the cape," says an impressed Mr. World. "He's got all the answers."

Fourth-grader Eric Broucek is even more impressive. Mr. World is talking about Africa, a continent that had only three independent countries before World War II and now has 53. He asks the children what the longest river in the world is: They know it is the Nile. He talks about the threat humans pose to the other species of the world. The problem of extinction is part of the ecological apocalypse that today's children can cite chapter and verse, whatever other gaps may exist in their educations.

And then Mr. World pulls out his $64,000 question. Does anyone know the name of one of his favorite animals, an endangered species found only in Madagascar? And Eric Broucek answers: "The aye-aye."

Mr. World rushes into the audience to congratulate 9-year-old Broucek in person, because no one else, of the thousands of children Mr. World has asked that question of, ever came up with the name of the particular bug-eyed lemur he had in mind. Amazingly, Broucek reveals later, geography is not his favorite subject.

"It's one of my second favorites," he says, after math and reading. Indeed reading and rereading a book he has on endangered species is how Broucek was able to pull off his triumph.

After about a half-hour of nonstop geography, squirming sets in. Eyes stray from the giant globe, and the chatter level soars. But Mr. World is no amateur. He knows how to get these kids back. He starts talking about the war. It's as if he has hypnotized the group. The children are riveted on the lesson, waving their arms, falling over each to be the one who shows where Kuwait, Iran and Iraq are on the map.

"Two years ago, three out of four adults couldn't locate the Persian Gulf," he says. "Now, because it's in the news--very tragic news--we know our geography."

Fritzmeier drives his lesson home. "When we talk about geography," he says, "we don't need to know just where it is. We need to know what people are thinking."

Every child will receive a map of the world as a souvenir of his visit. Mr. World urges them to put the maps up on their walls and use them. Check the labels and see where your clothes are made and find those places on the map, he suggests.

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