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Reclaiming those long lost memories of youth

Betty Firth
Posted 2/8/17

Recently the writing group I attend, Writers Read, chose a writing assignment using the prompt, “I don’t remember.” That may sound kind of strange: how can you write about what you don’t …

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Reclaiming those long lost memories of youth

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Recently the writing group I attend, Writers Read, chose a writing assignment using the prompt, “I don’t remember.” That may sound kind of strange: how can you write about what you don’t remember? However, it is an intriguing path into the cosmos of memory and the black holes as well. I recommend you give it a try.

There’s a lot I don’t remember from my childhood and I’ve always wondered why. My ex-husband was a nut about cars and swore he remembered the color of the family car when he was an infant. In contrast, I have to work to dredge up a few paltry memories; some years are just blank, like second grade. I have wondered if this means my childhood was full of traumatic events and therefore suppressed or perhaps just too boring to have made much of an impression. Since I was a very sensitive, shy child, I can believe that rather normal occurrences that might not bother less sensitive children could have felt traumatic or unsettling to me, and best forgotten.

I don’t remember having long talks about important things with my Dad, but he did like doing things that were fun with my brother and me. He would swim with us and play board games. He taught us how to cook, making high-carb breakfasts together every weekend. I have a very early memory of Dad pushing me on a swing, singing Little Liza Jane. Come my love and live with me, Little Liza Jane. We will raise a family, Little Liza Jane. O-o-o-o-o-o-o-oh, (prolonged while he pushed me as high as the swing would go or as high as I could stand) Little Liza, Little Liza Ja-ane. Oh, Little Liza, Little Liza Jane.

I often don’t remember the words or tunes of words I’ve written myself, but I remember those words, that tune, after all these years. I don’t remember if he sang that song to my brother who was three years older than I was while he pushed him on the swing. Maybe he had a different song for my brother. I don’t remember us swinging at the same time. Maybe there was only one swing.

I don’t remember much from junior high, but who wouldn’t want to forget junior high? When I let my mind wander backwards, I do start to remember incidents, like when our seventh grade English teacher in her first year of teaching collided with our collectively very smart class, and she proved no match for us. She was about five feet tall, stocky with red hair, not conventionally attractive. She told us inappropriate stories about her 6’-4” boyfriend, Roland, recounting one incident with college buddies when they put someone’s mattress on the roof of the dorm. She read us Bells by Edgar Allen Poe, attempting a dramatic reading she didn’t carry off very well to impress our adolescent, reptilian brains with the power of this poem that goes on for two pages, with the flowing, dancing, pounding rhythm of the bells, bells, bells, the pounding and the rhythm of the bells. As the poem moved from tinkling bells in the icy night and wedding bells foretelling delight into the darkness Poe does so well, he transported us from the rapture of wedded bliss to the shrieking of alarm bells, their terror telling of despair.

Now, of course I don’t remember all these details from that poem – I just Googled it and refreshed my memory. What’s funny is that I have recounted this story about our rebellious class before, and I distinctly remembered Miss Walker swearing in the context of the poem and how we explosively laughed at hearing a teacher swear. But, I just reread it and there’s no swearing, none of the “hells” and “damn bells” that I remembered. Memory is pretty damned funny, isn’t it?

I did just discover that those brazen bells of the third stanza were outpouring their horror on the bosom of the palpitating air by the fourth stanza. Well, there you have it. To hear “bosom” come out of a teacher’s mouth, especially a female teacher, particularly one who was doing her best to give a dramatic rendition to this poem, pounding us with repetition, sinking into the unnamed horrors of being human, as the ear distinctly tells, in the jangling and the wrangling, how the danger sinks and swells, By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells, of the bells, of the bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, In the clangor of the bells...well, she never had a chance. We were laughing uncontrollably, she got red-faced and sputtering, a caricature of fury, and that amused us even more. She lost it, throwing chalk at us, yelling at our ignorance and lack of appreciation. She tried to duct tape Steve’s mouth shut, and he resisted. So she issued what she thought was the ultimate, degrading punishment: she sent Steve and the next closest student, Phyllis, down the hall to sit in shame with the first graders. Well, of course they thought it was a hoot, getting out of her class and showing off for the little kids. They returned later, proudly brandishing their pale green practice papers with “My name is...” printed over and over between widely spaced lines with a fat pencil.

We reported her to our parents. At first, they didn’t believe us or thought it important to back up the authority of the teacher. However, over time more incidents happened, the parents talked to each other and found we were all telling the same stories. Miss Walker continued to be an inadequate, insecure teacher who never could reclaim respect from us, and she was fired before the end of the year. I don’t remember who filled in for her, but I do remember we were feeling our power. Oh, yeah. We gained valuable experience in resisting authority and the power of the collective. We might have felt some shreds of remorse, for we were decent kids, not devoid of compassion, and did realize that losing her job was a serious blow. But we also knew she was a terrible teacher who had shortchanged us even as she entertained us. She was unprepared to educate young people, so maybe we did her a favor in helping her discover that early on. We were quite certain we had bestowed a gift on future English classes who would never have to experience her.

In later years, when I taught in that same school district, I heard from older teachers that our class of ’63 had a reputation as we moved through the system like a rodent in a snake’s belly, our arrival anticipated with some trepidation. Although the fact of our notoriety surprised me, it confirmed my memory about feeling our power.

Research has revealed that our memories have a built-in function to recreate the past, crafting our memories to suit our purposes. In the aftermath of the election, much attention is being focused on how and why we may hold on to beliefs that neither bear much scrutiny nor serve our best interests, and I’m curious about the interweaving of these in our lives and our decisions.

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