The best part of learning another language is the fun a person can have. I didn’t start learning English until I was eight years old.
Having grown up on a Northern trap line, I didn’t even know other people existed. When I left it everything was absolutely new to me. But I wanted to learn. I wanted to laugh with the other children when we were playing, I wanted to read what they were reading, and I especially wanted to understand the music that was coming out of the radio. I enjoyed the sound and the beats, but I just couldn’t understand what they were singing about.
In Cree, kookum means grandmother. I remember the first time I heard Eric Clapton’s Cocaine. I swear I thought he was singing about his grandmother.
“If you gotta get down, get down ... kookum” or “she’s alright, she’s alright ... kookum.” I thought what a nice guy he must be to be singing about his kookum. To this day I can’t listen to that song without replacing the word cocaine with kookum. I bet you’ll do the same the next time you hear the song.
Being a “bush Indian” I tried to learn everything about the new world around me. I would stay in class during lunch and recess. I went to what they called a day school. This was when the Indian residential schools were being phased out. The day school was where the white kids that lived on the reserve went to school.
The teachers were mostly Roman Catholic nuns that had taught at the residential schools. There was a nun, Sister Marie, who took a special interest in me. She would spend extra time with me, probably because she saw a boy who was trying hard. She has likely gone to the heaven she strongly believed in, but I can still picture her face. The kindness was palpable. Her patience must have been incredible because there were a times when I thought I would never grasp the English language.
I also learned by watching other people. For example, I started to learn how to brush my teeth by watching. Prior to that my mom would clean my teeth with baking soda. Back in the day, men wore Brylcreem to have that Elvis hair style. Someone had to go and leave a tube of “a little dab’ll do ya” by the bathroom sink. Of course you probably know what happened next. And did you ever notice a bottle of Johnson’s baby shampoo looks like a bottle of Vaseline lotion? Well let me tell you my hair never shone so much.
I also noticed the other children had earmuffs, which I didn’t. But I found something in the bathroom I thought would do. I don’t even know if they make these anymore, but what I found was a box of those old-style sanitary napkins women used. I realized if I tied two together and placed the padded parts over my ears, they made good earmuffs. To this day people still talk about the time I walked on to the ice with my earmuffs. Hey, it may have looked silly, but it worked.
Tody I am fluent in four languages and working on the fifth. I graduated high school, went on to post-secondary school and graduated in broadcast journalism, specializing in television and radio. Not bad for a guy who had the coolest earmuffs and is still singing about his kookum.