In Robert Pirsig’s fictionalized autobiography, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a cross-country journey equates to spiritual transformation and offers a vehicle for exploring philosophical archetypes. While not quite as heady as Pirsig’s 1974 novel, Dominic “Dick” Cvitanich uses a similar premise in his first book, Stardust and the Bitter Moon (Keokee Books).
When Cvitanich’s main character, Anton, learns he has months to live, he travels from western Washington to California in a vintage Volkswagen van, to reconcile personal matters. Although Stardust is a work of fiction, Cvitanich and his protagonist share key components: both are of the 60s generation with a penchant for music and VW vans, and both were career educators.
“I was a big believer that the world [and] nation could be changed for the better by our generation,” said Cvitanich, who recently turned 71. He was 18 during the so-called Summer of Love.
“After all of these years, I came to the conclusion that we did change some things for the better, but we also charted the course for some negative in our society. Anton, the protagonist, represents that.”
Music is integral to Stardust and Cvitanich. The book’s title, of course, references the lyrics in Joni Mitchell’s song, “Woodstock,” made famous by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Each of the 44 chapters is a song title, and Anton’s/Cvitanich’s didactic musings on music interweave into the narrative.
Like Anton, Cvitanich spent his life in public education. In fact, Cvitanich began writing Stardust while still superintendent of Lake Pend Oreille School District in Sandpoint, Idaho, where he currently lives. He put the project aside, however, when he relocated to western Washington in 2012 to helm the 10,000-student Olympia School District.
He resumed writing a few years ago as retirement loomed, and, in 2017, Cvitanich left public education after 42 years of service, leaving him time to finish the book, which was published in 2021.
Cvitanich’s first teaching job was as head K-8 teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in Shaw Island District, WA, followed by stints in sixth grade and middle school. Although his background was in history, Cvitanich also taught English and science, the latter being one of his favorite content areas.
“The students were so excited to learn more about their natural world, and the experiments were always thrilling,” Cvitanich said.
In 1982, Cvitanich became a principal, first for middle school, then high school in the Vashon Island School District, WA, prompted in part by the realization he wanted more time for himself—versus spending weekends grading papers. In that way, Cvitanich was an empathetic leader who knew all too well how hard teachers worked.
He became superintendent at Puyallup School District, WA in 2004 as assistant superintendent, a process he calls a natural progression. The role suited him, and his peers and others recognized that.
He was nominated for Idaho State Superintendent of the Year and won Washington State’s public relations professionals’ Public School Communicator of the Year award. He also won the Washington State Governor’s Leadership for Youth Award.
“My grandparents tell me I am swell,” Cvitanich quips.
A Low Point
A low point in his career became the catalyst for his book. Cvitanich was with the Highline School District, WA administration when Mary Kay Letourneau was convicted of second-degree child rape of one of her sixth grade male students.
He explores elements of this narrative in Stardust, casting Anton in the role of having had a sexual relationship with a student, and it’s probably the least-resolved aspect of the book.
Another theme is marijuana usage, which is likely to raise eyebrows of former students and peers. Or maybe make them smile.
“I wanted to point out the irony of how important weed was to those growing up at that time period, and now you can buy it like a loaf of bread in grocery store,” explained Cvitanich, noting there’s no connection between drug usage and any overarching movement, as there was in the 60s.
Writing Stardust was a learning experience, said Cvitanich, describing it as “unbelievably relaxing, informative to self, and a grand discipline.”
The biggest challenges include editing and marketing (Cvitanich self-published), but an unintended benefit has been hearing from people from his past, including from his high school years in Tacoma.
Cvitanich offered some advice to others who have stories to tell.
“Share your story with your family, children, and grandchildren,” Cvitanich said. “It need not be fiction. If nothing else, tell your family story, so it can be shared generations from now.” ISI