I was never an exceptional athlete and that wasn’t my father’s intention. He wanted me to be an intelligent human being. I am not vain enough to say he succeeded, but I do have enough of an ego to admit that he obtained some victories related to that end goal.
Each of the graduate students I have ever worked with have all referred to the “Mighty Red Pen of Phelan” in their dissertation acknowledgements. I come by that honestly. Growing up my father would take joy in making my school assignments bleed. If I asked him to look at a paper he would respond, “Where’s the red pen?” By the time I reached high school I had become conditioned to hand him my paper and red pen simultaneously.
When I was growing up there was no Internet. You couldn’t depend on spell check. And there was no way to Google the meaning of a word. Instead you had to use a dictionary. My dad, being a big proponent of the dictionary, would edit my work and circle incorrect words. It was then my responsibility to open the ever-present red dictionary to find the correct spelling or a replacement word. This torture allowed me to develop a considerable vocabulary and taught me how to use my words. This skill has proven invaluable here in Africa.
Last week I went to the mall to purchase new sneakers. It was quite a chore to find women’s sneakers, but when I finally did, I selected a pair of Nikes and asked for a size 8 ½.
Store Clerk: We don’t sell half sizes.
KVP: It’s an American brand, yes, you do.
Clerk: We have size 7 only.
KVP: Ok, let me see a size 7.
Store clerk brings me a bright orange box which states in large font: size 9 ½.
KVP: See, this is a 9 ½. I need an 8 ½. Can you find a box that says 8 ½ right here?
Clerk: No, we don’t have half sizes.
KVP: Ok, can you bring me a size 6?
The clerk returns with a box that says 8 ½. Here it is:
Can you see the 6? It took me a good 5 minutes of staring at the box to see in teeny tiny letters UK_6.
This lack of understanding is a constant part of daily life here. The other day I was having a conversation with someone in which she kept repeating the same question. I kept answering her, each time using different words and phrases. She continued using the same exact way of asking the question. Eventually I had to say to her, “You keep repeating yourself and I keep trying to give you different variations of what I think is the correct answer. Obviously you aren’t liking anything I’m saying, so we have a failure to communicate. At this point I need you to please tell me what you want me to say because we aren’t getting anywhere.” This was one example of my failure in the communication arena, but typically I am much more successful with this type of exchange. Nevertheless, I think my creativity in communicating has definitely been enhanced here.