My Native Language


I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and when I finally moved away to California, the people I met laughed at me.

“You sound like you’re from Pennsyltucky,” they chided.

If you have ever known someone from Pittsburgh you may have noticed that they have an odd accent and some strange sayings. When we grew up we were told to “scrub” our teeth and “red” up our rooms. “Red up” means to pick up all the things that are out of place and put them back where they belong. We “worsched” our clothes instead of washing them like people in other cities! When we picked up the telephone we were answering the “party line,” and we knew the operator by name, and she knew us and all the people on her switchboard.

Although we started in public school, when I was in third grade my sister, Gretchen and I went to Falk School, a private experimental school that encouraged one-on-one contact with the teacher so students could learn at their own pace.

We were driven to school in a taxicab that picked up all the kids from East Pittsburgh who attended the school. There were six of us. The cab driver’s name was George and he was nice but he had a thick Pittsburgh accent. He had trouble saying “Gretchen” and he called her “Garsher.” She didn’t like it, but no matter how hard we tried, no one could teach him to say her name correctly. Soon my sister became, “Garscher, warscher washing machine!” This provided gales of laughter every morning and she didn’t seem to care. She took it well.

One reason she probably didn’t mind was because she had found romance in second grade. There was a boy named Peter in her class who liked her and he invited her to his house a few times. His father was a doctor and a scientist, and when she was there he showed her his laboratory. When she got home she told us all about it at dinner. It turned out that Peter’s father was Jonas Salk, who discovered the cure for polio in 1952. My sister was hobnobbing in second grade!

My life was much less glamorous! One day I dropped my new yoyo in the toilet at school. I was so horrified. I couldn’t believe it was really in there, and stared at it for a long time. I knew I had to take it out, or call one of the teachers and have everyone find out about it. Finally I made myself stick my hand in and grab the yoyo. Oh Yuk! Then I had to throw it away, but the only place to throw it was in the open waste basket. If I threw it there, the girls would recognize it as the wonderful purple yoyo I had shown off so proudly that morning! In the end, I dried it off and wrapped it in paper towels and threw it in the waste basket. Oh, the throes of elementary school!

Do other people have such lurid memories of grade school? What’s your most embarrassing moment? Or were you hobnobbing with the rich and famous?

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