Murray Kurland was raised in New York City in the 1930s by his Puerto Rican grandmother, who spoke only Spanish. His friends also spoke Spanish. So being sent when he was 5 to a public school where the teachers spoke only English was quite a culture shock.
There was no bilingual education, so Kurland had to learn English in a hurry.
“When you have no other choice, you have to learn it,” he said of his transition. He doesn’t remember how long it took him to pick up the language but doesn’t think it was very long. “At that age, it’s easier than when you’re older.”
Kurland, 70, never forgot his Spanish. He used it during his career as he traveled and he’s using it now to tutor Hispanic pupils in Community Consolidated School District 15.
Each Monday afternoon during the 1998-99 school year, Kurland helped 1st graders at Pleasant Hill School, 434 Illinois Ave., Palatine, learn to read.
He was assigned six children, who came one at a time to the library. Working with each for about 20 minutes, he spoke to them mostly in Spanish, with a little English mixed in. He worked on identifying letters with the slower pupils and read short books in Spanish with the more advanced ones.
“This is fun for me,” he said. “I’ve never done anything like this before, teaching children. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I’m enjoying it.
“It makes me feel helpful, like I’m contributing something.”
Kurland used an alphabet bingo game to help the children identify letters. He picked a card, said the name of the letter in Spanish, and the children tried to find the letter on their bingo card.
When one little boy didn’t know which letter was “G,” Kurland reminded him that it was the first letter in his name. Then, he was able to find it on the card. “That’s the one thing they all know, how to spell their names,” Kurland said.
He added, “When they have trouble, I try to give them little hints like that so they can figure it out.”
The next pupil knew his letters and sounds. After going through a drill where the boy looked at syllables–such as “le,” “me” and “te”–and pronounced them, Kurland pulled a small book out of his briefcase. The title was “Sentimientos,” meaning “feelings.”
On each page was a picture of a child’s face with a different expression. The phrase, “At times I feel . . .” was written in Spanish underneath each picture. The repetition made it easier for the boy to read.
Kurland had been shown the book by one of the boy’s teachers, and he decided to make a number of copies to give to his pupils to take home.
“I thought it would be a help to me, and I could use it as I saw fit,” he said. “I use them as kind of an incentive. They can take them home and color them.”
Kurland has just finished his second year of volunteering at the school through the district’s Senior Exchange Program.
Two years ago, he was assigned to Luz Cardenas’ combined 5th- and 6th-grade classroom. He pulled two or three Hispanic pupils out of class at a time to work on reading comprehension. The pupils would read a story in English aloud and then answer questions about the story.
“If there was something they didn’t understand, I’d try to explain it to them in Spanish,” he said.
When Cardenas transferred to the bilingual 1st-grade class last year, she took Kurland with her.
Kurland has enjoyed working with both age groups, but he has found working with the 1st graders more rewarding. It’s easier to see improvement, he said.
“From week to week, you can sometimes see progress, and that gives you incentive to work a little harder,” he said.
Cardenas said Kurland has been more than a teacher, particularly to the older pupils.
“The bilingual kids seem to see themselves as foreign, as different,” she said. “He has been a role model to them, talking to them about his career. Since he’s Hispanic, he has made them feel they can achieve things like he has.”
With the 1st graders, he has been more of a grandfather figure. “This group this year is very needy,” she said. “The parents either don’t know how to read or don’t have time to read to them because they work so many hours. Mr. Kurland is filling that gap.”
Kurland attended the Bronx High School of Science, which he described as unusual; it was an experimental school that produced many doctors and scientists. He graduated in 1945, then attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison. His college education was interrupted by a two-year stint in the Navy. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in engineering in 1951.
He married in 1954; he and his wife, Alice, have six children and seven grandchildren.
After holding three engineering and engineering sales jobs in Milwaukee, Kurland moved to Palatine in 1962. He was hired by S&C Electric in Chicago as an assistant export manager; he was an international vice president when he retired in 1991.
He spent much of his career traveling around the world, selling products made by S&C to power companies. “I hadn’t used my Spanish hardly at all in high school or college,” he said. “But when I started traveling, it came back.”
Kurland read about the Senior Exchange Program in a local paper. Volunteers tutor pupils one-on-one in reading and math, work in libraries and computer labs, and help teachers in classrooms.
When he called to volunteer, he found out he’d be making a little money for his efforts: Participants earn minimum wage, up to the amount of their local school tax bill.
When they’ve reached this total they can quit, but almost no one does, program coordinator Dorothy Roxworthy said. Most continue volunteering until the end of the school year, and about 90 percent return the next school year.
“I had no idea I’d get paid,” said Kurland, who likes to spend his free time playing as much golf as possible. “I just wanted to volunteer. I thought it would be interesting to work with children.”
The Senior Exchange Program will begin its eighth year this fall. About 90 volunteers participated during the 1998-99 school year, working in the district’s 19 schools.
“I get exposure to kids through my grandchildren now,” Kurland said, “but this (volunteering) is different. It’s motivating to try and instill some knowledge into these kids who are struggling.
“When I was a kid, you had to pull yourself up by the bootstraps. They didn’t have these kinds of programs. Nowadays, they try to give them all this assistance.”