What I Learned by Kathleen McCurdy
Faith, freedom & responsibility
The winter I turned 13, I began to feel like a caged animal in a very small cage. My parents didn’t seem to understand that I was not a child anymore. Far removed from other relatives who might have been able to advise them or to whom I might have gone for help, with Dad away from home much of the time and mother incapable of understanding a teenager, my life was becoming unbearable and even considered ending it. Then I began to think about going away to boarding school. The college where Dad had first worked was actually a high school with a post-secondary section offering courses for those who wished to become ministers, teachers and Bible workers. It also offered classes in agronomy.
In 1957, high school began with seventh grade, which I had finished, so going for eighth grade was not too early, I reasoned. But Mom and Dad said No; they felt I was too young to leave home. I decided to pray about it, and fast one day a week all summer to show God that I was really serious. Mom said it was silly to expect God to go against my parents; Dad wouldn’t even discuss it. But I began to pack my suitcase and tell my friends at church that I was hoping to go to Chillán to school. Fall arrived, and with it the last weekend before school started. I was packed and ready to go except for one thing. In those days the school provided army-type bunks, but we had to bring a mattress as well as bedding, and I didn’t know how to make the bedroll. Unbeknownst to me, Dad was at the school that week attending board meetings.
Friday morning, Dad called and asked if I was ready to go. I said yes, except for the bedroll. He said he was travelling south on the train, but would get off in Temuco long enough to make my bedroll. “You mean I can go?” I cried. “Yes,” he said, and hung up. My prayers had not been in vain! On Sunday I was on the train—one very happy girl! Many months later, one of the teachers told me she was responsible for my being there. She said she had invited Dad to their house for dinner one day, and she had asked if I would be coming to school (I guess the word had spread through the church grapevine that I wanted to). Dad answered that “since you asked, I guess so.” She said that he told her he had promised God that if anyone asked that question, he would send me. After all, he was chairman of the school board so perhaps he needed to show support. But whatever means God used to convince him was fine with me. I was free at last.
I had no trouble fitting in to boarding-school life. We were expected to work off part of our tuition, so I was assigned to the laundry at first. The girls were expected to wash their own clothes, but the boys got regular laundry service. There was a very old barrel-like affair which we filled with hot water, soap and clothes, and it rolled back and forth to agitate them. But first we were expected to scrub the clothes individually in big cement washing tubs, and that was not very fun. To avoid the scrubbing, I learned how to iron shirts. The irons were electric, but barely; that is, you had to keep plugging and unplugging them to keep from scorching the shirts. Plus, the irons were always burning out and had to be sent to the boys’ dorm for repairs. So I asked one of the men to show me how to fix the irons. I soon became an expert at it, and never had to scrub clothes again.
French, 1st boyfriend, piano, epidemic
Since English was my “native tongue”, I was told I would have to study French. I didn’t think this was fair, since I would have to stand for the State exams at the end of the year, which included English. But the English teacher was adamant; I would not be allowed in her class (probably because she didn’t speak it too well). I discovered, in helping fellow students with their English assignment, that all they really taught was reading, vocabulary, and a few rules. Nobody was learning how to speak it. The French class was going about the same, although we did have to read aloud at times. But the French teacher said I was speaking French in English! Needing help, my girlfriend two years ahead of me offered to meet me during the 10-minute recess every day. We decided that we would only speak French during those ten minutes. If I couldn’t remember a word, I would have to use body language or signs. After just a few weeks, my grade shot up and the French teacher quit complaining. I decided then that the only way to learn a language was to speak it.
I was assigned to room with an upper classmate, and at first she was helpful in teaching me the ropes of campus life. But later she asked for a change and I was left alone in the room, which was probably a good thing. I was now fourteen and the boy I had played with so much, when we first went to Punta Arenas was also attending school that year. He was several grades ahead of me and had become a handsome young man. Eventually, he got up the courage to ask if we could be special friends. He even asked my father for permission to court me! Campus rules were strict, only upper classmen could enter into courtships, but… Dad said yes. The only times we could be together were the monthly Saturday night “dances”. Real dancing was forbidden, but the tables were shoved aside in the dining room, and classical marching music was played, while a caller directed the couples around the floor. Otherwise, we had to rely on notes and messages carried by friends. Since his sister was the girls’ dean, things went well for a while.
I had signed up for piano lessons upon arriving, and my teacher soon realized that I was serious about it. I had already learned quite a bit of music, so she introduced me to Hanon. He was a French composer of the 19th century who wrote “The Virtuoso Pianist”. This consisted of some 240 exercises to strengthen fingers and improve technique. By year’s end I had learned the first 60 exercises and practiced them for an hour every day. It made a remarkable difference in my playing and was probably the most helpful thing I learned that year.
There were classes in science, math, religion, history, art, sewing, grammar, … The idea seemed to be that we were taught a little each year in each of the subjects. But I don’t remember much at all, except for what I was learning “on the side”. Ah yes, there was one assignment—can’t recall what teacher or class—we were asked to draw a map of Europe. It was probably the only assignment I completed, or that I remember anyway. I found a map in an atlas and laboriously copied it as best I could onto a large sheet of paper, using colored pencils and a lot of detail. I colored in the different countries and probably added the location of capitals and major cities. I was rather proud of how it turned out, but though I gained a general idea of the layout of Europe, I surely didn’t memorize everything nor can I say that I learned much. Does anybody remember the location of Belgium or Luxembourg? After the map was handed in, I never saw it again. So what was the point?
In the winter of 1957, the Asian flu epidemic struck our campus and everyone was sick. At first it was the students, with only a handful of us left to cook in the kitchen, or carry the food and comforting hot water bottles to hundreds of patients. A week later the faculty were struck, so the school was shut down and most of the recovering students were sent home. I had planned to go home also, but the night before I was to leave, the girl across the hall asked me to come and stay with her. She thought she was dying and wanted me to write out her last “will and testament”. She didn’t look that sick to me, but I felt sorry for her and stayed up all night keeping her company. The next day, when I went to get permission from the president of the college, he took one look at me and said, “You can’t go home on the train if you’re sick.” I tried to convince him I was fine, but even as I stood there, waves of fever began to surge through my body and I finally headed back to my room and to bed. I bounced back pretty fast and only missed a couple of days when classes resumed the following week. But I learned that lack of sleep can really lower your resistance to disease.