Asking questions: THIRD GRADE

What I Learned by Kathleen McCurdy

The school year starts in March in the southern hemisphere and my parents enrolled me in Miss Sharp’s School, a private school that had been highly recommended. Miss Sharp was Chilean by birth, a middle-aged spinster whose late father had been an American and whose elderly mother was British. Teaching was her vocation and she single-handedly ran her school with admirable success. It consisted of an afternoon kindergarten and first grade; and second through fifth grades in the morning, all in one room. The children were taught English in every grade and when finished, they were able to skip a grade and go right into junior high.

Grammar, spelling, and order

Because I hadn’t been to school the previous year, but also to help me get a good foundation in English grammar, Miss Sharp let me do second and third grade together.  Somehow she found time to answer my questions and I can truthfully say she was an excellent teacher. Most of my knowledge of English grammar was acquired in that third-grade class.

Her approach to spelling was simple. We were given a short dictation from the English reader, which we were supposed to have studied. Then every word missed was to be written in our notebooks ten times our grade. This was when it paid to be doing 2nd and 3rd together; I only had to write each word 20 times. Still, if I missed 6 words, that was 120 words to write before I could go home—and I already had problems with doing handwriting! The result was that I learned to spell, fast.

There were 90 children enrolled that year and she was the only teacher. Her home was attached to the school and she sometimes had to leave the room for a few minutes to look after her aged mother who was ill. Nevertheless, she was able to command near perfect discipline. If anyone misbehaved, the punishment was severe: Stand on your chair with your hands clasped behind your head for 10, 15, or 20 minutes depending on the severity of the infraction. I witnessed big fifth-grade boys reduced to tears before their time was up.

Responsibility, cooking, and the facts of life

One day the teacher was especially flustered; her mother was not doing well and she had to leave the classroom several times, including when the doctor came. It was springtime and the students were generally restless and noisier than usual. She would run in and give assignments and then leave again, pleading with us to keep order. At one point, I leaned over to ask the girl next to me what page we were supposed to do next, and then it happened! When our teacher returned to finally focus on the class, she commanded everyone who had said a word while she was out, to stand. That, of course, included me along with almost everyone else. Five minutes per grade, was the penalty. Once again I was glad to claim 2nd grade, for 10 minutes proved to be a very long time to stand with my hands behind my head.

As Mom’s pregnancy progressed, it became necessary for me to cook my own breakfast before school. We usually had oatmeal, which I learned to prepare for the whole family, along with toast, milk, and a bit of canned fruit–the only kind of fruit available in this remote region. Sometimes I was asked to help with other chores, as well.

Mom called me into her bedroom one day for “the talk”. She wanted to explain about the baby that was coming and, since I was experiencing a growth spurt being almost ten, she felt she needed to prepare me for what was soon to happen to my body. She was obviously very uncomfortable talking about sexuality. However, after the chicken incident, I had begun to explore the subject in depth on my own. I found a medical book in Dad’s study with anatomical drawings, including one of the baby in the womb. I read a book called “Happiness for Husbands and Wives”. Though it dealt mainly with emotional and spiritual aspects of marriage, it also had a couple of chapters on physical relations and starting a family. Just the same, the language was always veiled and there was one question that I still needed answered.

One morning, while I was cooking breakfast and everyone else was in bed, Dad walked into the kitchen for a minute. Without any forewarning I blurted out: “I understand everything about having a baby except one thing. Where does the father deposit the seed; in the mouth, the belly button or the other place? Dad blanched and quickly left the room after muttering, “The other place”.  And that was all I really needed to know. The rest was covered in religious instruction about being pure, doing right, not associating with those who were immoral, and a strong sense of God’s all-seeing eye.

Someone had made and sent us several sets of doll clothes for our dolls, and Mom put them away saying that she would save them for us to play with on the day she went into the hospital to have the baby. Very early one Sunday morning I heard my folks getting dressed, and guessed that the day had finally come. Would it be a girl or a boy? As soon as they were gone, I fixed breakfast for my sister and then we got out the doll clothes. After dressing and undressing the dolls, we decided to wash and iron the clothes. I had been allowed to iron Dad’s handkerchiefs many times, but these were dresses, and shouldn’t they be starched?

I had seen Mom using what I thought was flour to starch dad’s shirts, so I mixed flour and water, dipped the clothes in it and began to iron. But things didn’t go well. The flour and water became dough, and ironing just served to bake the little lumps of dough into the dresses! My sister, who was six, was getting pretty disgusted with my “skills” and I wondered how I would keep her entertained for the rest of the day. Finally, we went over to see the lady next door and asked how to make the starch. She tried to explain that it had to be cooked first, but finally was able to convince us to wait until Mother returned. Sadly, the dough never washed out of those dresses. When Dad returned that night to announce the birth of our little sister, I’m afraid we were more worried about the ruined doll clothes. However, Dad soon had me washing out her diapers so he could take them back to the hospital in the morning. Disposables were virtually non-existent in those days.

Art, religion, and paleontology

Miss Sharp had a rather interesting approach to art. Yes, besides all the other subjects she also included art. She had a stack of sheets that others had done, that she handed out for us to copy, except that we could use different colors or create our own designs. These were graph paper sheets—normally used for math to keep the columns in order. One day I chose a challenging sheet to copy. It looked like a map of the United States, to me. When my copy was finished, I proudly showed it to the teacher. After regarding it for a minute, she looked at me thoughtfully and said, “This a map of Australia, Kathleen, and it is upside down.” So I looked at maps of the two countries and noticed that indeed, the Australian map resembles a map of the USA but upside down. Years later, I copied her idea by using cross-stitch embroidery patterns on graph paper, for my children.

Near the end of the year, Dad held an evangelistic effort for the church. I listened attentively because I had already asked to be baptized. At some point I had felt convicted that I must stop teasing my sister and learn more about the Christian Way. Only one other lady was prepared to be baptized after the effort, so Dad included me, and thus I became a member of the church. But for me it meant that my name was now written in God’s book and I must not disappoint Him.

One day, we all got in the car and headed north to visit Milodón Cave, a huge cavern about 600 feet deep, approximately 250 feet wide and an impressive 100 feet high. The milodón was a prehistoric giant sloth, close to six feet tall, whose bones, patches of armored skin, and other remains were found in this cave and in a few other places. When we arrived at the site, I followed my dad over to a place where a man was excavating in the soft terrain. He told us he was a French paleontologist and was looking for more remains to study. Dad plied him with questions and I listened. After a while, he looked at his watch and said, “It’s five o’clock and I must leave.” Dad asked, “Is it OK if I dig a little?” He answered, “Feel free, and may you have better luck than I had today.”

As soon as he was gone, Dad climbed into the hole, probably 4 feet deep and 5 feet long, and began to dig. After only a few minutes, he brought up a bone. “It looks like a vertebra,” he said. “Probably of a cow or horse, but it sure looks like a fossil.” The following week, Dad saw the man in town and told him what he’d found. He was told that without a doubt, it was from the milodón! Later, we went to the local museum and looked at all the milodón fossils they had in their collection, including pieces of the skin which were like a coat of armor, full of tiny bones.

Not long after school let out for the summer, it was time to move again. This time we would fly, and I was excited! The last time I’d been in an airplane, I was only four years old. Now I was ten and quite a bit taller. Instead of the big DC-6, we would be flying in the smaller DC-3 like the one that brought the mail every day. And yes, we were heading to Temuco, where Dad would be director of the South Chile Conference. But now we had to leave all our toys behind to make room for Dad’s extensive library. All I could bring was what I could fit in my pocket, and so began my lifelong collection of miniatures–tiny things.