Learning to read and write: FIRST GRADE

What I Learned by Kathleen McCurdy

Mom was afraid that I would forget my native tongue so, instead of sending me to school, she herself taught me to read. I remember looking at the pictures in the “Dick and Jane” books she had brought from the States, along with Dad’s extensive library. Now, she helped me repeat the words: “See Dick run. Run, run, run. Sally sees Spot run.” Soon I had it all memorized, with help from the illustrations, and she was satisfied that I could “read”. Then she sent me to school.

I was almost 8 when school started and they enrolled me in the first grade, so I was lucky to find myself in the same room with the second grade class. Learning to read was a piece of cake, not only because of Mother’s efforts but because Spanish is a phonetic language and therefore much easier to sound out than is English. Within a couple of months, I had become an avid reader in either language. My only difficulty was in understanding English words that didn’t sound the way they looked. For instance, while traveling in the USA a few years later, I kept watching in vain for road signs to Yosemite National Park where we were headed. When Dad said, “We just passed a sign”, I countered that I had only seen “Youseemight”.  The problem was that I had managed to internalize the pattern of the long vowels and the silent ‘e’, but hadn’t learned about the exceptions—of which “Yoh-sem-it-ee” was a rather difficult example. Trial and error proved to be far better teachers than any of the “rules” learned in school.

The trials of learning to write

Thrilled that I had mastered reading, I spent the rest of the year listening to the second grade class. I learned their math lessons, I memorized the poem that the whole class forgot to learn, and of course participated in the combined activities. But my teacher was not happy with me, for she felt I was neglecting my first grade work: the practice of calligraphy, as it was called. In those days, students were expected to develop a clear, readable cursive handwriting, so I was assigned pages of letters of the alphabet to “write” (or draw). I hated it! Here is where I experienced my second lesson in cruelty to children.

I would much rather have practiced the piano, which I had been studying for several years, or even do my embroidery. Actually, embroidery was another chore, like drawing letters, but the class was something else. All the girls from grades 1 to 9 would gather once a week for the embroidery class. It was in a different room with a different teacher, and talking was allowed! We first and second graders were fascinated with the big girls’ talk. They were working on their trousseaus: embroidering sheets and pillowcases, tea towels and doilies to put away for when they formed a home of their own. It took me all year to hem and embroider my one little cloth, but I learned a lot about socialization.

One day, teacher said I must finish my handwriting lesson or stay in after class. But this was embroidery day, and I did not want to miss it. So I went up to her desk and politely explained that during the last period I would be under the jurisdiction of the other teacher, and so she could not keep me in. Needless to say, that argument did not go over well at all. When she insisted, I decided that I would rather go home. “Very well,” she said, “but you must take this note to your father and have him sign it.”

Now my father had taught me about liberty. I had even heard him preach about religious liberty, and mother read me stories about the Pilgrims and their search for the Land of the Free. So I concluded that Dad would understand that I was standing up for my right to be free of the onerous chore of practicing handwriting. Alas, it didn’t work out that way, and I wore long stockings to school the next day to hide the effects of his “lesson” in humility and unfailing obedience to the teacher. However, the lesson I learned was another: School is not a very good place to learn. The next year I did not have to go to school. To my great relief, we traveled.

The physiology of being sick

Going to school, I found, meant going to the doctor—a lot. One day in class, I began to feel sick to my stomach. My parents were called and we went to see the doctor. Infectious hepatitis meant that I had to stay in bed, and could only eat gelatin (Jello), vegetables and potatoes seasoned with soy sauce (no butter). Hard candy was allowed, something my mother usually permitted only on holidays. When finally declared to be well (much later than when I felt well), I returned to the classroom in time for the usual colds and flu season, topped off at the end of the year with a bout of scarlet fever. More trips to the laboratory, more lessons in how the body works and why it sometimes doesn’t. In addition, I came down with a scary case of head lice, which was blamed on the folks who lived in a shack on the vacant lot next door. I had tried to befriend the little girl and invited her to church one day. I felt sorry for her because several times a year I could hear her from my open window, screaming as if she was being tortured.

Well, my folks really panicked over the lice. First, my scalp was scrubbed with soap and water until it was raw. Then they doused my head with kerosene, which burned as if set on fire. Now I too went through the screaming phase –and understood what the neighbors had been dealing with. Finally, they washed it out with more suds and I was pronounced clean. My sister was spared of this ordeal, so it was with great glee that I discovered a parasitic worm in the toilet, after she forgot to flush. Now it was her turn to be The Infected One.

I don’t recall what it was all about, but the church had declared a day of Fasting and Prayer. Mother, being the Pastor’s Wife, had many responsibilities—including that of setting a good example. She asked me if I would like to take part and I, always ready for a new experience, said yes. So we went to church that day armed only with a few bottles of grape juice, and prepared to stay until the sun went down. Since breakfast was skipped, we arrived early. After the morning service, Mom took us out to the car and served up the juice; then we went back in for more prayers. Several of the parishioners expressed surprise than children so young (I was 8) were going without any food. But I learned that after mealtime passed, so did the hunger. And I felt shamefully proud of my new sense of “righteousness”.

A sense of the spiritual

I always listened to my dad’s sermons because he seemed to appreciate my feedback, which usually consisted in correcting his Spanish pronunciation and word usage. It was probably easier to take from a kid than from his friends, one of which told me later that they all laughed when Dad, in a sermon, called the Milky Way, “El camino lechero” (the milkman road), instead of the correct form of “La vía láctea”. But Dad also sprinkled his sermons with interesting stories and even “scientific” illustrations that captivated his listeners.

One of these that I recall was supposed to prove the effectiveness of the Holy Spirit in the church. He put some flour in the palm of his hand. “This represents the brethren in the church,” he said, “and this lighted match is like the Holy Spirit.” Nothing happened when he put the match to the flour. “Now this shows what happens when we all go out and share the gospel with others,” and holding his hand on high, he let the flour sprinkle down on the match, it instantly caught fire and made a big flash and a loud boom! His audience was enthralled.

Later, I asked him where he’d learned that trick and he told me he had read a newspaper article about a flour mill that had exploded when someone unthinkingly struck a match. The fine particles, surrounded by the oxygen in the air, burn quickly and create an explosion. That might have been what inspired me to join the team of young people who went out on Saturday afternoons to distribute literature to people on the streets.