Recently a friend interviewed me for a class at UBC about oral language development. Here’s some of my reflections:
My childhood was an exquisite mix of love, words, movement, relationships and learning. Our home had lots of guests, and at a young age I was engaged in talking with people who were also relating to diplomats at the UN and who were in material or relational crisis because my parents related professionally and personally to a broad spectrum of society. Living in New York offered a certain pace, diversity, bluntness, and my parents’ Southern heritages afforded me great storytelling. As the oldest child and grandchild on both sides of the family, a certain caretaking/leadership ensued. (Even as adults, I am the one who speaks at funerals, keeps everyone connected.)
I do not remember the first word I said because I started signing at six months. I have been told Mama and milk were my most common early words. With both sign language and English I was an early and active communicator. I do remember the first word that I “read” in sign language. My parents were discussing whether or not we would get pizza. In sign language I could read words, but if my parents finger-spelled, I could not spell as a preschooler until the time I caught the 2 z’s which are actually the sign as well. I started celebrating and screaming to my brothers, “We’re getting pizza!” My parents secret spelling days were done.
When I was very young, my father had a home office, so our phone line was his work number too. I was not allowed to answer the phone, and it was actually quite high and attached to the wall, so the practicalities enforced the expectation. That being said, I remember rehearsing phone manners and conversations. “May I please speak with .. . ” “I am sorry she is not able to come to the phone. May I take a message.” These conversation scripts still prove useful today.
I remember lots of adult attention – eye contact, patient listening by the college music professor at church, the older woman on welfare who taught my Sunday school class, the motorcycle rebel who occasionally came to church with his mother. Ok two conversations: I do remember my babysitter, Karen’s family all laughing and talking with me. I remember the weeping willow at their house, the fish tank, eating popcorn and their laughing while I told stories. And I remember Anjan and Jaya coming to our home regularly. Anjan was a psychiatrist at the state mental hospital where my father was a chaplain. Anjan was talking to my father about flexibility – maybe yoga, and I got to stretch with them. Jaya would make my favourite gulab jamin, and I remember Jaya asking me what I wanted from India. I wanted a beautiful sari like she wore. To this day I have the doll she brought me because they didn’t make saris for such little girls.
What did I learn before I read? Wow, a lot. I did not attend preschool, but my mother sang to us, read to us, took us into the city. Vast amounts of history, geography, sociology, science were woven together in our play. Mother Goose, Bible stories, Aesop’s fables, proverbs, songs too numerous to tell, poems a plenty, “This LIttle Piggy. . . ” , a Swedish dance song around Eskaline, hymns, Poor Richard’s Almanac sayings like, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” all were a part of my childhood. I remember regularly checking out the book Ping from the library, and I recall science photo books with cool sea creatures and another with insects and a picture book of US history. I remember being told people’s life stories – not in a gossipy fashion but as a means to understand them better. For example the older brother of my kindergarten classmate and shared apartment dweller stole my brother’s toy lawn mower, and my protests did not stop him. The boys father was a police officer, and the injustice of a police officer’s son stealing while we said no was beyond my comprehension. My mom did not excuse it, but she gently explained his mother had left the family and when people are sad or angry they may act in ways that are not kind or usual. Pretty abstract stuff for a five year old, but I got it. (Later my daddy talked to his father to broker the return of the toy.) This same classmate and I would part saying, “See you later alligator; after while, crocodile.” Very little TV was permitted, but our pediatrician was on Sesame Street sometimes, and we were allowed to watch Dr. Paskowski, so I have a vague connection to the Sesame Street songs. At times we went into the city to Radio City Music Hall, and I remember watching Mary Poppins there and seeing the Rockettes as Santa. I can still sing almost every word to the Mary Poppins’ songs.
The richness of music, conversation, books, stories, people in my early childhood flow together creating an internal stream of stories, wisdom, and connections. In reality our family’s finances were quite tight until I was well past the preschool years, but the quality of my childhood experiences set my brothers and me on paths of curiosity about the world and delight with people. Our parents live rich lives, and that enriched us beyond measure.