What I Learned by Kathleen McCurdy
Agronomy, teaching, surgery, grades, orchestra
One summer day, Dad returned from one of his many trips visiting isolated church members—with a goat! One of his grateful members had donated the milk goat and now we had to figure out what to do with her. We had a pretty big back yard and there was room in the wood shed for her to sleep. Mom was averse to having anything to do with it, but she offered me a tin can in which to collect the milk. So I set about to milk the goat. I had watched farm people milk cows, so I had some idea of the process. But only a few drops of liquid came out. I thought the family of boys who lived not far away might know more about it. So the next day I invited them over, and one by one they tried their hand, assuring me they knew how to milk goats, but they were only able to collect a couple of spoons full. However, I was about to head off to boarding school again, so Dad took the goat back to the farmer, saying no one was available to look after her properly. Sometime later, Dad saw the farmer again and he said that just a few days after she returned, the goat had been delivered of twins. No wonder she wasn’t ready to be milked!
My second year at boarding school began with another five-hour train ride. But now, as I walked the length of the train, I was able to recognize and greet many of the friends I had made the previous year. But one special friend was not on board. Later, I found out his parents did not approve of our friendship and had sent him to a local college, instead. This did not help my relationship with the girls’ dean, who now became more critical during room inspection, and in other situations. I was assigned a young room mate who turned out to be a kleptomaniac. My things kept disappearing! But when I complained to the dean, she just suggested that I steal them back. Thankfully, she was later reassigned and I again had the room to myself.
When I went to sign up for more piano lessons, my teacher said she had taught me everything she knew, so now she would like for me to take some of her students as she had too many. As it turned out, teaching also proved to be a good way to learn more. And it kept me out of the kitchen, where I had been assigned to peel potatoes—causing me to develop chilblains which made my fingers swell to double their width–not good for a pianist! Besides my regular students, I tried to encourage some of the girls in the dorm to play duets with me. There was a piano in the dorm, where I practiced scales for an hour every day. I had a book of 4-hand duets, and even if they couldn’t read music, I would show them what notes to play and little by little, some of the girls began to catch on. This way, several of the girls developed a taste for classical music, which was my aim, and it also gave me an opportunity to influence them in other ways.
One day, as I made my way to my room after lunch, I began to feel ill. I stayed in bed for a couple of days and finally the school nurses (there were two) came, one after the other, to check on me. Both decided that I probably had appendicitis, but there the matter ended. A week went by, and I started running a fever. I began feeling apprehensive and decided I needed to see a doctor. My mother was attending church meetings in the USA, my father was on the road as usual, and I had no one to help me. But I was learning to be self-reliant.
After a miserable weekend, when classes started again on Monday, I asked a girl to take my handwritten note to one of the teachers who had a car. As soon as his class was over, he took me to town to see a doctor. After the exam, the doctor sent me straight to the hospital and by 4 p.m. I was waking up from the surgery. But now the faculty were worried, so one of the school nurses came to spend the night with me in the hospital. I guess she thought laughter was the best medicine, because she kept telling me funny stories—a very painful experience, indeed! The next day I was released and she took me to her home to recover. I can still remember the painful ride back over the dirt road, full of potholes and bumps, to the college campus. A few days later my father showed up looking very concerned. I was secretly delighted, for he usually passed things off with “Oh, you’ll recover”.
It took me some time to recover completely from the surgery. Though I felt fine, my right foot could not operate the piano pedal so I had to pass up a major recital for which I had prepared the first movement of Beethoven’s Appassionata. And once back in the dorm, I kept missing my early morning class. My grades slipped a bit but I didn’t worry much. Then Dad showed up and reprimanded me. “I know you can do better,” he said. Well, grades were totally not a concern of mine. I was there to learn as much as possible, not just to get high marks. Getting better grades meant giving up learning and instead working on pleasing the teachers and trying to memorize stuff that didn’t concern me. However, when I discovered some piano books in the school library, I spent a lot of time learning the new music, though no one graded me on that.
History was taught by a teacher who should have been a biologist. And the text was all about the dynasties of Europe and its infamous battles. He did the best he could, but it was not at all interesting to me. Then for an important exam, he passed out pieces of paper with one question upon which would depend our grade for the semester. I looked at my paper—and had no idea. The girl sitting next to me expressed the same sentiment, so we switched papers but it was no use. We did not know the answer to either question, although I tried to write something. Later, when the teacher gave me a 2, which on a scale of 1 to 7, was a failing grade, I confessed that I didn’t deserve even that, since I had cheated by switching papers. So I was given a grade of one. Another lesson learned, though not the one intended.
I found math very boring, and it wasn’t the teacher’s fault. Geometry was fine, but forget algebra! That subject just didn’t belong in my brain. So I spent the time memorizing the Morse code, and teaching it to the two other girls in my class. Then, using a pencil (vertical for dots, and horizontal for dashes), we would “talk” to each other during the more boring classes. The teachers never caught on, though sometimes they seemed a bit suspicious. The boys knew we were up to something, but we never told them either. After a while I started collecting other codes and foreign alphabets, including the Arabic letters as well as Pig Latin and jerigonza.
The year before, one of the faculty members had decided to organize a small orchestra with whatever musicians were available. Then he started taking us in to town once a week to practice with the town symphony orchestra, who were glad to get a few more players. They didn’t need a pianist, but I went along anyway, to learn what I could about the instruments and the music. But this year they needed a pianist, so I was able to participate in the rehearsals and also in the final performance. It was a wonderful experience—especially being that I was the only woman player in the orchestra!
Leading, influence, graduation
During the winter quarter Pastor John Youngberg came to officiate for the week of prayer. As always, I asked for an appointment for counseling. I didn’t have any serious problems or questions; I just wanted to hear a “Word from the Lord”, so to speak. So he began by asking me what plans I had for my life. I said that I hoped to become a concert pianist, so he suggested that I should consider studying in the USA. It truly had never crossed my mind, but I asked for more advice. He said many local students would give anything for such a privilege, yet all I had to do was ask my parents to send me. After much prayer, I decided it was the right thing to do. I called Dad and said I wanted to go to the States to study. I’m sure he was relieved to hear it, though maybe not ready to let me go. But my parents knew that the alternative—marrying and staying in Chile the rest of my life was not what they wanted for me. I was ready to go as soon as the decision was made, but Dad said I’d better finish the school year—even though it meant I would miss the first semester of school the next year (since it starts in September in the USA).
The church has a program called Pathfinders, patterned after the Scouts, which I had been involved in since I was 9 years old. Now I was about to finish the Master Guide level. I had completed all of the requirements save one: I was only 15 and to graduate, one had to be 16. As the investiture approached, I asked if the age requirement could be waived in my case. There was a lot of memory work involved, and I had learned it all in Spanish. Now I was planning to transfer to the States, and I didn’t really want to memorize everything all oved again in English! It was approved, and I received my pin and badge. Years later, my mother revealed that it was her father, a long time member of the Boy Scouts, who helped organize the first Pathfinders club in 1925, and had actually chosen the name for it—now, a worldwide organization.
As the year drew to a close, many of the college-level students who would be graduating and were hoping to enter the ministry, began to realize that they were expected to marry before being hired. Suddenly there was a rush to choose acceptable mates! Some of the young men, who had struggled to keep their minds focused on their studies, now found themselves at a loss to know what girl to choose. Surprisingly, several came to me for advice. I did the best I could, often suggesting girls whom I thought were perhaps less beautiful but seemed better suited for the role that awaited them. Then it was time for our little school orchestra to practice for the graduation ceremony. Fortunately, I had found and learned some of the traditional graduation marches, as well as the wedding march, and was ready.
Other classes that I sat through that year were general science, religion, and home economics, and of course grammar, which was one of my better subjects even though it was Spanish grammar. At least the rules were consistent, compared to English grammar. Somehow I obtained a grade in art, but I can’t even remember who taught the class. Home economics was again mostly embroidery, but some of the girls were tatting and I asked them to teach me. Though I didn’t do much with it at the time, I did learn enough so that years later I was able to teach tatting classes to adults in the USA. One other thing I learned that year, with such a busy schedule, was to crawl out of bed in the morning without messing it up, so all I had to do was fluff the pillow and it looked like I ‘d made the bed. This enabled me to earn a passing grade in neatness and order…
According to the laws of Chile at that time (1958), having finished the ninth grade qualified me to teach in any public grade school, which in those days ended with the sixth grade. But I had no intentions of becoming a teacher….