What I Learned by Kathleen McCurdy
Languages, familiar and foreign
Some of my earliest memories are of Grandma showing me how to write my name, and of Grandpa singing funny rhymes, as he gave me “pony” rides on his foot:
I went to the animal fair,
The birds and the beasts were there,
And the old baboon
By the light of the moon
Was combing her auburn hair.
The monkey, he got drunk,
And sat on the elephant’s trunk;
The elephant sneezed
And fell on his knees,
And that was the end of the monkety monkety
monkety monkety monk…
Not long after my fourth birthday I became aware of my parents’ plans to become missionaries in South America. They began taking Spanish classes and practicing their new vocabulary. At the same time, it was necessary to undergo medical exams and be vaccinated before initiating our travels. Evidently there was some concern on their part about how I would take all of this, so I was promised a new pair of shoes if I got through the ordeal without crying. We even went window shopping so I could pick them out myself: a beautiful pair of black patent leather shoes with bows on the toes. How I longed for the day when I could take them home to wear!
Each week, as we made our way to the clinic, we passed the window with those lovely shoes. “Negros zapatos” my parent would say. But after their Spanish teacher corrected their syntax, they explained to me that in Spanish you have to say “shoes black”. Weird, but it gave me something to think about while the nurse prepared the needle. At last the shots were completed and I was awarded my new “zapatos negros”.
When all our household possessions had been packed into a big wooden shipping box (modern metal container shipping hadn’t been invented yet) and the house was cleaned and vacated, we loaded our suitcases into the car and headed east. There were no freeways in 1947, so it took us nearly two weeks to reach New York, stopping off to say a final farewell to relatives along the way. Dad had to clear our papers and get visas at the embassy, and then our car was loaded onto the ship that would transport it to Chile. We boarded a train to Miami, and then our first flight—26 hours in a propeller-driven DC-6 plane—to Santiago.
I couldn’t help hearing my parents’ worries about who would meet us at the airport, and I tried to imagine how it would be to live in Chile. But not even they were prepared for the shock, upon arrival, of hearing people talking and not being able to understand a single word! My dad was a ready man, and could fix, make do, or adapt to almost anything. I had never before seen him so helpless, as we bungled along with the crowd going through customs, port of entry procedures, and finally into the lobby. I can still recall the look of relief on his face as we spotted “our man” hurrying toward us waving, and greeting us in English! Out to his waiting car, across the busy center of town to our hotel, a promise to come for us in the morning, and he was gone.
The next morning, we were awakened by the chambermaid knocking on our door. We could not understand a word she said, and Dad’s little dictionary was no help at all because when people speak in sentences, there’s no way to tell where one word ends and another begins. She came back later, and it was obvious that she was offering to bring us some breakfast. But, while “café” was understandable, my parents didn’t drink coffee and of course neither did my infant sister nor I. We were used to oatmeal and fruit for breakfast, so again they shook their heads in the negative, and she left.
Now I was beginning to think that we were going to starve and, while Dad continued to fumble in his little dictionary, Mom tried to comfort us. My 18-month-old sister’s hungry cries soon brought the maid back, and she could see that we needed to eat, yet couldn’t understand why they kept shaking their heads “no”. Finally, she tried a single word, saying “leche”, and Dad said “sí”. Then he found “pan” in the book, but had to show the word to her because his pronunciation was wrong. So at last we had milk and bread to eat! I learned that you don’t know a language unless you can speak it and be understood. Not only syntax and vocabulary but pronunciation, word usage, and local customs all come into play. To learn a foreign language, you have to live it.
For a few weeks we lived with another American family while we adjusted and learned the bare essentials of the language. Then we moved into our little apartment in the boys’ dormitory of a boarding school where Dad was to be Dean of Men—talk about a crash course in Spanish, with 90 young tutors to keep him on his toes! As a 4-year-old, I picked up the language without even realizing it, and the next year when we took in a teenage orphan girl for Mom to train as her helper, I often translated for them both ways. That may have been the beginning of my interest in language and grammar. Within a couple of years, I was regularly critiquing my father’s sermons for errors in grammar and pronunciation.
Music, another form of language
My mother was a trained singer and often performed in church. At one point in her college studies, it was suggested that she try out for a scholarship to Julliard School of Music, but she chose instead to marry a young preacher-about-to-become-missionary. So she poured out her love of music into her children, and I responded at an early age. I was not yet five when she taught me to read the notes on the staff, and soon I was taking piano lessons from her teacher. But the two things that inspired me the most were: Hearing her practice Czerny sonatinas on the piano, and listening as she read me interesting biographies of Haydn and Bach.
I started making up little tunes of my own, and my teacher wrote one out for me and had me play it at a recital. She was very patient with me and even taught me to curtsey at the end of the performance. But then we moved to Santiago and I was sent to the national conservatory. Music was no longer fun, and I didn’t learn much in those formal classes. No one cared about my little tunes, and all they talked about was practice, practice, practice. Get the notes right, use the correct fingering, memorize the signs and symbols of music notation. Why? I could read music, and already knew what the symbols meant. Why must I learn the correct names and answer all those questions?
Physics and biology
One day I was riding around on my tricycle when one of the faculty teenagers rode by on his bike. My mother had asked me to take care of my little sister, so I was trying to pull her in the wagon as I rode my tricycle. The boy thought it would be fun to tie all three of us in a row to make a train. He found some rope and soon we were off down the sidewalk, faster and faster. I could see the curve ahead, and sensed we would never be able to make it. I called for him to slow down, but it was too late. Little sister cried loudly, but was unhurt. My knee was bleeding and my thigh was scraped, but I was mostly angry that such a big boy didn’t have the sense to know about centrifugal force. I doubt if I had heard the name for it, and maybe he had never experienced it since few people had cars in those days. But I had a clear vision of what would happen when we hit that curve too fast. After all, I’d doubtless fallen off the tricycle before.
Then it was summertime and most of the students had gone home. I was out by the irrigation ditch observing the little lizards that darted about. I even caught one and felt the coolness of its body in my hand. A couple of older boys passed by and offered to show me a trick. “Hold the lizard by its tail” they said. I put the lizard on the curb and held its tail against the ground. Suddenly, the lizard was gone and its tail remained wiggling on the pavement. I was horrified! The boys laughed and said the animal would soon grow a new tail. Later, Dad explained that it was a life-saving technique that allowed the lizard to escape from predators, but that I shouldn’t do it again because it left the animal weak and vulnerable.
Shame, cruelty, telling the truth, and responsibility
My mother had a strange taboo about speaking through open windows. I never learned why, but it was strictly forbidden. I suppose she was concerned about what might happen to little girls living in a men’s dormitory, but those were different times and my sister and I were regarded by the fellows more as mascots than members of the female world.
It happened one warm spring day that a couple of young men were helping to pave a sidewalk just outside my bedroom window. It was naptime, but I was six years old and not the least bit sleepy. So I kneeled on my bed and looked out the window at the activity below. Soon the boys noticed and began talking to me. I tried to tell them I wasn’t allowed to talk, but then they wanted an explanation; and just then someone walked into the room and I was discovered!
Maybe if Dad had been busy across campus, maybe if Mom had gone to visit a neighbor …, but everyone was at hand and soon I was judged guilty as charged, sentenced and, I guess to make sure that the boys always kept their distance in the future, they were called in to witness the execution. I begged for mercy, or at least for privacy, but to no avail. Dad’s belt was removed and I was dragged into the parlor where the two boys, blushing deeply, witnessed my ignominy.
One thing is for sure: I never learned whatever “lessons” these means of discipline were intended to convey. Instead, I developed a sense of being misunderstood and became indifferent to what others thought of me. And yet, when Mom talked to me about telling the truth, I listened. She explained that if I lied, I would never be trusted, and to me that seemed far worse than the red pepper she promised to use as a punishment.
There was a curtain separating the dining room from the hallway, and I loved to hide in it and lay in wait of my sister. When I jumped out and said “Boo!”, she invariably cried loudly and would run to Mother for comfort. I, of course, would receive a scolding. But one day, Mother asked me, “Did you scare your sister on purpose?” and I said “No”. Then I thought about what Mother had said—that if I lied, no one would ever believe what I said. So I went back and told her the truth. I was learning to listen to my conscience.
There was another missionary family at the college, and their daughters were nearly the same age as my sister and me. Naturally, we played together as much as possible. That is, Sharon and I played together, and tried to avoid including our little sisters in whatever we were doing. One sunny day, after playing at their house a while, we conspired to escape from the two-year-olds, making a mad dash across the lawn and empty ground on the other side, and headed down the road. Sometime later when we returned, we were confronted with a horrendous story.
It seems that little Donna Jean had tried to follow us—and had disappeared! After a bit, her mother discovered she was missing and began to search frantically, all the while wondering how she could have disappeared so quickly. Soon others joined the search—in the house, out in the yard, and eventually beyond. Just when her mother was about to pass out in fear of what might have happened to her tiny daughter, she caught sight of a little head sticking out of the ground, with her arms outstretched across a hole that someone had left uncovered. Afraid that if she called her, the baby might lose her grip and plunge deeper, the mother whispered a prayer and crept up to the little one and carried her to safety.
Needless to say, when Sharon and I heard the story, we were ashamed that we had failed in our responsibility to protect our sisters. There were many such lessons to be lived and learned before our “formal” education commenced.