Making friends: FOURTH GRADE

What I Learned by Kathleen McCurdy

After the year in Miss Sharp’s school, my parents began making arrangements to start an Adventist church school. A young couple was called to be teachers and Mom helped design the school uniform. My sister and I were enrolled as the first students, along with six or seven other children. But when the new teacher discovered that a baby was on the way, another teacher, Miss Norma Barraza was called upon to start the school year.

Social studies and speaking out of turn

My father had several books in his library about Chilean history, including one about the original native inhabitants and their culture. Some of these tribes were nearing extinction, so he was pleased to discover that a family of these peoples were members of his church. When they invited us to visit their farm and ride their horses, he shared with us what he’d learned about the history of their tribe, as we drove out to see them. I had always been interested in “Indians” and was thrilled that we were going to see some real ones! Their children were soon enrolled in the new school and we became friends.

One day, the teacher was reviewing our history lesson, which dealt with interactions between the Spanish colonizers and the natives. My mind went back to our visit to the Maripani farm and I couldn’t wait to share the news. Waving my hand enthusiastically, I waited for the teacher to give me a chance, and then announced to everyone that we had a couple of “Indians” right there in our class!  There was an uneasy silence and then the teacher continued with the lesson. But later when Dad heard about it, he was ashamed of me and said we would have to drive out to the farm so that I could apologize for my gaff. He explained that Chileans are proud of their European ancestors and are very sensitive about being called “Indians”. How was I to know?

We were only a few weeks into the school year when Dad received news that we were to move again. He had been called to administer a regional conference, comprising the southern half of Chile, with headquarters in Temuco. There was a two-room church school and we were quickly enrolled in it, but there were only four grades, so I was among the “upper classmen”.

Choosing between right and wrong, physiology

One of my classmates at the new school had a special way of making friends. Her father owned a candy factory and she would often bring a pocketful to distribute among her favorite classmates. Now, my mother had raised us to avoid sweets. We received a few pieces only at Christmastime; and if people offered us candy, we were taught to say, “No, thank you.” But I was 11 and my body was growing rapidly. Suddenly, sweets were irresistible! After awhile I found that on days when she didn’t bring any candy, I would spend my bus money at the corner kiosk, and trusted that by walking the couple of miles home I would counteract any evil effects of the candy. Was I becoming addicted to sweets?

A couple of months later the teacher announced that my friend’s younger sister was gravely ill in the hospital. In just a few days she died of cerebral meningitis. I was strongly affected by this turn of events. I sensed that candy may have lowered her resistance to disease, and that now I myself, by succumbing to temptation, was endangering my health. I went cold turkey, and when my friend returned to school after the funeral of her sister, I mustered the courage to tell her I could no longer accept her gifts. I was learning to reason from cause to effect, and establishing my own sense of right and wrong.

Another day, some boys in the back of the room were giggling in a suspicious manner. During recess they had been passing around a little viewfinder and, as they filed into the classroom, I asked what it was all about. They wouldn’t show me because, they said, I might tell the teacher. So I promised I wouldn’t tell. Then they showed me their little toy and I looked through it. Of course it showed a naked woman and I was disgusted. I wondered what would be the right thing to do: Keep my word, since I had promised not to tell, or tell the teacher so that he could correct the situation. In the end, I figured that tattling on them would do no good, and that keeping my word was more important.  I never made that kind of promise again….

The only thing I actually remember learning about in school, was the circulation of the blood. One day the teacher drew a diagram on the blackboard with colored chalk. Red blood came out of the heart through the aorta, and circulated through the arteries. But when it reached the capillaries—the finer vessels throughout the body, there was an exchange of oxygen (the red part). The spent blood (now blue), by means of valves in the veins, was sent back to the heart where it was pumped into the lungs and re-oxygenated. I was fascinated, and stared at the chart for a long time, memorizing every detail, for it answered many questions I’d had.

Death, auto mechanics, self-reliance

One day, Dad received a telegram stating that his father had passed away suddenly. There ensued a discussion of whether he should travel to the USA to attend the funeral and comfort his mother. He had already overstayed by a few months his seven-year contract, and had a well-deserved furlough coming, so surely the church would not mind if he left. But Dad chose to stay at his new job, figuring that his older brother, who was also a minister, could handle things well enough. He no doubt thought it was the responsible thing to do, but people made comments and I wondered if his stoicism was such a good example. Three weeks later his mother also passed away. I was thankful for the memories I had of Grandma and Grandpa, for now I would never see them again. Strangely, I have no early memories of my other grandma, who I would eventually see again, even though Mom says she was the one who most often babysat me.

Dad’s car was a 1939 Studebaker. When he sold it in 1955, it had definitely seen better days. Any parts that failed had to be manufactured locally by hand. So, as much as possible, Dad was his own mechanic. Having no sons, I was pressed into the role of assistant, handing him the tools, listening to his monologues about what might be the problem, or holding a light if it was needed. When the starter gave out and he could find no way to recreate it, it was up to me to push the car in the morning to get it started (with his help, of course). On the road there were usually idlers standing around who could be pressed into service. I was not sorry when he sold it, but in the meantime, I had picked up a rudimentary knowledge of auto mechanics.

People, especially my parents, started commenting about my habit of blinking my eyes. Dad thought I was doing it for effect, but I tried to tell him that I needed to see an eye doctor. “Oh, you just saw some kid wearing glasses,” he would say. But my eyes really were bothering me and I thought there might be some drops that might help. At last, they took me in for an exam and the specialist said I would need glasses for the rest of my life. No doubt it was due to all the reading I had done at an early age. But once again, I felt my parents misunderstood me and didn’t always know what was best. I needed to be more self-reliant.

Music, priorities

Mother found a conservatory where I could study music. The teacher said that music theory and notation would be taught to all the students on Saturday. My parents were Sabbath keepers so that was not an option, but the teacher said I could take piano lessons and learn the theory on my own. Actually, I had already learned most of what they taught in that class just by figuring it out and consulting a dictionary now and then. At the end of the year, there was a recital and since there were quite a few students, they had the younger ones play in groups. That is, four of us played a piece written for eight hands on two pianos. Little did I know how useful ensemble playing would be to me later on.

When the church started having young people’s meetings, they asked me to be the pianist. At first I didn’t think I could play for a congregation. “Don’t you study piano?” Yes, but… It really is different playing hymns! Yet I felt that if I couldn’t use my talent for the Lord, of what use was it? Mother said she would help me learn how to play hymns the right way, so I accepted. At first I had to know what songs would be sung so that I could practice them. Now my ensemble playing came to my rescue. One cannot stop and correct mistakes when one is accompanying others; you just have to keep going. At first that was scary, but soon I got the hang of it—and have been playing in churches ever since.