12 May A Book At Age 3
For my 3rd birthday, my father gave me a book on Gregg shorthand. I remember the dedication, written in blue ink with a pen of sharp stylus. “To my beloved son,” it read. And below, the date, 5 August 1950, and my father’s signature, written with sharp, elegant strokes that evinced strength and temperance.
I guess my father wanted to make sure that I both developed a love for books and acquired a vocational skill to fall back on in case of need.
Apart from mastering a handwriting style of brief, fine calligraphy from imitating the signs in the book, I never learned shorthand, but I did develop a love for reading at an early age. My home was awash with books. I remember I would browse in awe the four volumes – three in blue and one in red – my father had of Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History or would fall asleep reading the poems of Rabindranath Tagore.
My favorite poem by Tagore was one about a paper boat, which I would read again and again, letting my imagination wander adrift into far-away places. I guess it was this longing for remoteness that would eventually lead me to truncate my medical studies and head for New York, where I enrolled at NYU to study English.
When I began school at age seven, I was already conversant with reading, writing, addition, and subtraction. My mother had made sure to teach me all that with great care and discipline. I perused alphabets with wonderful color pictures depicting something beginning with each letter. I particularly remember Ñ and X. The Ñ would be represented by a gnou, that even-toed antelope we now see crossing a crocodile-infested river on the National Geographic channel; and X, by a xylophone, that musical instrument I received from my parents more than once, whose fascinating colors, especially the red and yellow, filled me with awe, and which I now bought for my granddaughter Sira.
My mother would have me write new words in a notebook every day as she lulled me with a song in Portuguese she had learned during a stay of many years in Gran Sabana, near Brazil, with my father before I was born.
I seldom took notes in school. I loved the narrative of my teacher, whose dictation I followed with ease while my schoolmates interrupted to ask her to repeat something they had not been able to copy. It’s just that, if the dictation was about the Punic Wars or the Battle of Thermopylae, I had already read the books on Ancient, Medieval, and Modern History by Secco Ellauri and Baridon, as well as many biographies I found among my father’s books.
Fractions were a main obstacle for me, though. I could not understand what the fourth-grade teacher scribbled on the board as she rapidly force-fed notions without stopping to explain what one-fifth was or what resulted from adding two-fifths and one-eighth.
That’s why, as a father, I was intent on teaching my two children proportions and percentages in a different fashion, cutting circles, squares, and triangles of different colors, beginning with an explanation of the unit, that one constituent that sometimes was one thing and some other, something else but was always the constituent of a whole, and which I dismantled bit by bit and then reassembled until my children understood that the seven pieces that made it up could also be expressed as two halves or four equal parts.
My father spoke English. He always admonished me, in English, to exercise self-control; and I noticed he pronounced the numbers 13 and 30 differently from the way my high school teacher would. He had learned it in New York, where many times, many years later, from Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, I would look up to see the Dog Gramophone Logo of RCA, where he had worked.
Papá bought me my first English-Spanish dictionary when I was attending my second year in high school. I remember thinking “I will be able to translate!” I was elated to see the cover read “The University of Chicago.” It occurred to me that the Latino author, Carlos Castillo, and the American one, Otto F. Bond, must make a great team. It was my first notion of intellectual teamwork. A few days later, with the aid of the dictionary and to great pride of my father, I read a book of his that I had not been able to, Bolivar, by an Irish author, O’Rourke.
“You have an excellent command of the English language,” wrote one of my NYU teachers on the margins of an essay I had written on Man and Superman, a book by another Irishman, George Bernard Shaw. Another Irish man, George Bernard Shaw, elicited a praise from one of my teachers at NYU. “You have a great command of the English language,” he wrote on the margin of an assay I had written on Shaw’s Man and Superman. That encouraged me to keep writing short essays on different topics, which I would then hand to my friends on campus to hear their opinion.
Eight years later, in Caracas, I went to the Ministry of the Interior and Justice to enroll and register for the sworn translator exam. The director of the office got me off my high horse and told me that I had to pass a difficult test with a lot of legal and financial jargon. She recommended the Dictionary of Louis Robb, which I bought as soon as I had left the ministry. But it would be 30 years and 1000 books later before I returned to sit the test, when I was the only one in a group of 10 to pass the examination. But that is another story